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Columnist
Could Abe honestly win in today's religion-packed vote?
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 3/1/2008 12:35 AM

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We are a religion-conscious nation where a photo of Christian Barack Obama in Somali garb, or the use of his middle name of Hussein, can fuel a theological firestorm, or at least provide fodder for talk radio folks.

According to some polls, American voters would never elect a Muslim. Or a Mormon such as Mitt Romney.

Some say John McCain isn't Christian enough. Others say Mike Huckabee is too Christian. Hillary Clinton is Methodist, but when has a candidate ever ridden the Methodist vote to victory?

Since religious affiliation can play an important role in American politics, wouldn't it be great if our next president practices the same religion as great presidents such as Abraham Lincoln or Founding Father Thomas Jefferson?

Uh, what were those guys' religions again?

With the first name of Abraham, Lincoln could have been Jewish. Or Muslim. Or Christian. The White House biography of Honest Abe notes that Lincoln's speeches often mentioned God, but it doesn't list a religion for him. Some scholarly sources list Lincoln's religious preference as "no specific." A few argue that Lincoln was Christian, while others say we can't declare Lincoln a believer in Jesus Christ.

Lincoln sometimes went to a Presbyterian church with his wife, but he wasn't a member. With a vague religious background like that, how did Abe ever get elected?

Jefferson is officially listed as a deist and, as such, discounted all of the miracles in the Bible. He often was accused of being an atheist, and at one point wrote, "I am of a sect by myself."

Wow. Does that sound like a candidate who could beat McCain, Obama or Clinton?

"I think Jefferson would be totally unacceptable to Christians today," says Ron Miller, chair of the Religion Department at Lake Forest College. An author and lecturer, Miller in 1975 helped found Common Ground, a group that seeks interfaith dialogue as well as a better understanding of the world's cultural, religious and spiritual traditions.

Common Ground (online at www.cg.org) has branches in Wheaton, Crystal Lake and Warrenville.

Miller will address the role of religion in the 2008 presidential election in a free lecture at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Northbrook Public Library, 1201 Cedar Lane in Northbrook. (The talk is sponsored by the 10th Congressional District Democrats, and registration is available at www.tenthdemsu.org.)

The religious labels we attach to candidates are "more of a code," Miller says. Denominations don't mean as much as the hidden meanings voters attach to them.

Jimmy Carter, our first born-again Christian president, isn't a political clone of George W. Bush, our current born-again president. Richard Nixon may not have seemed all that Quaker-like. And John McCain's official biography lists him as an Episcopalian, but he calls himself a Baptist.

"I would be less concerned about whether someone is a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim, and more concerned with what kind of a Jew, Christian or Muslim they are," says Miller, a former Jesuit who now describes himself as a "maverick" Christian. "Denominations are tending to mean a lot less."

Catholicism was an obstacle for the doomed candidacy of Al Smith in 1928. John Kennedy remains the only Catholic to win the White House. Yet, Catholics are the most represented religious denomination on the Supreme Court, in Congress and in the general population.

Today's Congress boasts a Muslim, two Buddhists, more Jews than Episcopalians, and the highest-ranking Mormon in history, the Religion News Service reports.

Meanwhile, while 16 percent of American adults describe themselves religiously as "unaffiliated" (probably would be Lincoln voters), only six members of Congress fit that description.

No matter what we say about religion and politics, Miller sees America becoming a place where people of all faiths or no faith can be elected to public office. It's more about the candidate than about the religious label.