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Candidates face a religious balancing act

Republicans talk too much about religion, and Democrats don't talk about it enough. That's one way to read two new polls examining the connection between religion and politics in this year's election.

Americans want leaders who are inspired by religion but not consumed by it. They don't want a secularist in the White House, but they don't want a crusader, either. The president should practice his faith, but with humility, not rigidity. And both parties are having trouble reconciling those impulses.

Start with the Republicans. Their primaries have revealed a sharp disconnect between the party faithful and the rest of America. According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll earlier this month, 42 percent of all adults care that "a candidate shares your religious beliefs." But that figure jumps to 64 percent for all GOP primary voters.

In a Pew Research Center survey, 38 percent of Americans said there has been "too much expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders," the highest rate since Pew started asking that question more than a decade ago. There is a wide divide along partisan lines, however. Forty-six percent of Democrats and 42 percent of independents agree there is too much God talk, but only 24 percent of Republicans share that view.

This rising uneasiness with religious references is fueled by the excessive rhetoric of the more conservative Republican candidates. Rick Santorum, who warned four years ago that "Satan has his sights on the U.S.," now claims that President Obama follows "some phony theology" that is "not based on the Bible." Newt Gingrich recently accused the president of "persistently apologizing to Islam while attacking the Catholic Church."

This is nutty stuff that gives religion a bad name, but the fear of ecclesiastical influence goes deeper than mere name-calling. Many Americans worry that religious conservatives are driven by a messianic mission to impose their beliefs on others. One example is abortion.

In the ABC/Washington Post survey, 43 percent of all voters say abortion should be illegal "in all or most cases," but the figure rises to 62 percent among Republican primary voters. And any Republican candidate chosen by those voters, goes this argument, would have to pay attention to their views.

Even though Mitt Romney's advisers insist that he can push a "reset" button after he gets the nomination and downplay the God talk that's pervaded the primary season, that won't be easy. Religious conservatives will be keenly watching for any sign of heresy, while Democrats will energetically try to link their Republican rival to the more extreme views in his own party.

But Democrats have to be careful as well. They are in danger of being branded the godless party in a country that remains one of the most religious in the world. In the Pew survey, only 35 percent described the Democrats as "friendly to religion," while 54 percent attached that label to the Republicans. In 2008, Obama won 53 percent of the vote, but that dropped to 43 percent among weekly churchgoers and 24 percent among evangelical Protestants.

Obama further undermined his reputation among devout voters when he decided that religious institutions such as schools and hospitals had to provide free contraceptive services to their employees — even when those services violated church teaching. Choosing feminist orthodoxy over religious sensibilities was a mistake. Even though the president then dialed back and sought a compromise, the damage had been done. Pew found that the number of white Catholics who view the Obama administration as "unfriendly" toward religion has jumped from 17 percent to 31 percent in just three years.

Liberals have made a huge error in allowing conservatives to seize the mantle of religious faith. Where are the reminders that the leadership of the civil rights movement came from the progressive religious community? Or that the same Catholic prelates who might oppose abortion or same-sex marriage also welcome immigrants and feed the hungry? Obama traces his own value system to the "social gospel," a movement among mainline Protestants a hundred years ago (and inspired by St. Luke) that stressed society's obligation to the unfortunate. But he seldom seems comfortable discussing his faith and its impact on his politics.

Americans want leaders who live by religious values but do not demand allegiance to those values in a self-righteous way. Finding the right balance between faith and freedom will test both candidates in the fall.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.