Obama, Clinton, go to the mat in the heart of the Bible Belt

ADL says the attention being focused on candidates' religions is "a blurring of the line."

Hillary Clinton 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Hillary Clinton 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
In a race with what some call unprecedented attention to candidates' religion, the South Carolina primaries have raised the stakes as candidates compete in the heart of the Bible Belt. Struggling Republican Mike Huckabee couldn't pull off a victory here last weekend despite handily winning among evangelicals. But Democratic candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards square off this Saturday, and they don't want to lose votes among the faithful. Amidst that climate, as well as wrongful accusations that Obama has hidden a radical Muslim past, the Illinois senator's campaign has circulated a flyer touting his Christian credentials - angering some Jewish groups in the process. The mailing, which features pictures of a church sanctuary and Obama speaking before a large crucifix, charts the candidate's religious awakening and tells voters, "Guided by his Christian faith, Barack Obama is the leader we can trust to challenge the ways of Washington." Obama is in a tight race with Clinton, a New York senator, for the Democratic party nomination. Edwards, a former North Carolina senator who is trailing significantly nationally, is considered popular with evangelicals in his home state of South Carolina. It is the first southern contest and the last one for Democratic delegates before 22 states vote on February 5. The Anti-Defamation League has been critical of the extent to which religion has entered the campaign and was troubled by the latest Obama mailing. On Wednesday, ADL National Director Abe Foxman wrote a letter to the senator expressing his concern over the message the brochure sends. "There seems to be a blurring or a crossing of the line," he said. "It's not just sharing your background and your values; it's saying vote for me because I am a Christian." The ADL has sent letters to all the candidates urging them to avoid an undue emphasis on religion, and specifically addressed Huckabee and fellow Republican Mitt Romney over concerns about their focus on religion at earlier points in the campaign. In the case of Obama, national Jewish organizations have also been actively defending his background from spurious allegations that he is hiding a radical Muslim upbringing, circulating a letter to that effect last week. The Obama campaign said it distributed the flyer to "set the record straight" after false accusations about his Muslim ties were circulated in South Carolina and not in a bid to have voters chose the candidate on the basis of his faith. Campaign advisers pointed to recent comments by Obama stressing the importance of separation of church and state. That view, he said, "is based not just on my concern about the state or the apparatus of the state being captured by a particular religious faith, but it's also because I want the church protected from the state. And I don't think that we promote the incredible richness of our religious life and our religious institutions when the government starts getting too deeply entangled in their business." "I understand where they're coming from," Foxman, one of nine Jewish leaders to sign the letter, said of the Obama camp's decision to send out literature about his Christian faith. "I'm just not sure that this is the best way to do it." However, an analyst at the Arab American Institute, which has also been concerned by the debate surrounding Obama's religion, said she appreciates how the candidate has handled the situation. "The way the Obama campaign has approached this has been very classy. He has said people of the Muslim faith deserve respect and that he has nothing against Muslims, but he's Christian," said Leigh O'Neill, an AAI government relations and policy analyst, who hadn't seen the new flyers. "Obama has to maybe over-compensate because these attacks continue to come at him," she said, charging that they seek to play on and exacerbate "Islamaphobia," which she called a distressing part of certain candidates' campaigns. In terms of South Carolina, O'Neill said the campaign's desire to emphasize Obama's religion could be understood in terms of the importance voters there put on faith. "It speaks more to the culture of who's voting than to the actual campaigns," she said.