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Faith in the GOP: how fishing for religious votes in Iowa could lose them the general election

HOUSTON — Wearing a fine silk tie and a Boy Scouts of America lapel pin on his suite, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, delivered an open invitation to join him in a day of prayer and fasting at Houston's Reliant Stadium on the 6th of August.

"With the economy in trouble, communities in crisis and people adrift in a sea of moral relativism we need God's help," Perry said in a video promoting the prayer event. "That's why I'm calling on Americans to pray and fast like Jesus did and as God called the Israelite to do in the Book of Joel."

Gov. Perry's religious fervor seems to be helping him with potential voters. Despite the fact that he has not yet officially announced, a CNN/ORC International poll and a Fox News poll released last week suggest he's already only several points behind frontrunner Mitt Romney, who has taken a dramatically different approach to his faith, insisting that there should be no religious test for office.

Of course, Perry is not the only potential GOP nominee evoking religious rhetoric to gain support in Iowa and elsewhere. Minnesota House Rep. Michele Bachmann and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty have both been vocal about their Christian faith. Bachmann has stated that she felt a divine "calling" to jump in the race, and Pawlenty has launched an ad-campaign about his evangelical beliefs. While all this talk of God seems like a great way to pick up votes from the religious right, it could backfire in the general election.

"I think there is an emphasis on evangelical Christians right now because they are a large part of the Republican coalition in Iowa, and not only that, a lot of these evangelicals have been very active in politics," said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron and a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "Regardless of one's religious perspective, if one is trying to win the Iowa caucuses they need to take evangelicals into account."

The jockeying for this religious vote in Iowa has already pushed "candidates to say religious things that they may not normally say otherwise," according to Shaun Casey, a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, and an expert on the role of religion in presidential politics. "It turns religion and faith into a sort of beauty contest where if you can't show a little sexiness in terms of your personal piety to the religious right then you're really at a disadvantage here."

Casey further warned that this public piety that momentarily boosts poll numbers in Iowa could prove to have other potential down sides in the general election, especially for Gov. Perry.

"Perry is a cheaper imitation of George Bush ... and I think Perry has really studied Bush," said Casey. "But Bush's brilliance with the religious right was that he did everything behind closed doors. There were no photo-ops, there were no press releases saying I met reverend so and so today. Bush did everything through intermediaries, and so there was no public trail of him reaching out to the religious right. The irony is that here comes along Perry, the dollar-general-store version of Bush, and here he is meeting with these people in public and you start looking at the line up of the people he's cozying up to in public and all he is doing is setting himself up for trouble later on if by some miracle he actually wins the nomination ... Some of these guys are really beyond the fringe — folks who George Bush would have never been caught dead with within a hundred miles of."

Indeed, the participants in Perry's prayer meeting have already come under considerable scrutiny by media outlets. Additionally, Perry's event has already garnered attention from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, demanding a disclosure of how much taxpayer money will be used to promote and sponsor the event.

Aside from Perry's event, some members of the broader religious community are concerned more generally with the overt religiosity of the GOP race thus far.

"A candidate's religious identification ... should be of little or no concern regarding the candidates' qualification to serve as president," said Rev. Welton Gaddy, President of Interfaith Alliance, a group that champions individual rights and religious freedom. "No candidate should be judged, either the worthiest or un-worthiest for the presidency, on the basis of that candidate's religion or religious affiliations."

Yet, right or wrong, Green says religion still plays a major role in the way many voters decide to cast their ballots.

"What's happening in a primary or in an election is not a legal religious test, it's simply the preferences of voters," Green said. "We have a secret ballot so people can go into the privacy of the ballot, and they go in and vote on the basis of all kinds of things ... and it is certainly the case that for many people the religion of the candidate and their own religious views are factors in the way they vote."

Casey seemed to agree.

"Whether one goes to the right or the wrong church should not be a factor for voters, but unfortunately in today's republican party that's just not the case. In fact, Mitt Romney may be the strongest opponent against President Obama but may not win the Republican Primary because of his Mormon faith."