Do Politicians Find Religion to Get Elected?

If Newton Leroy Gingrich becomes the Republican candidate for president of the United States, then the 2012 election will be a contest between two men who found new religions fairly late in life. Gingrich is on his third religion: He was raised a Lutheran, later became a Southern Baptist, and in 2009 was received into the Roman Catholic church. President Obama, having been raised in an irreligious home, famously found faith as an adult in Chicago, where he was baptized in 1988 by Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. (of great controversy).

Gingrich and Obama are hardly unique in the annals of contemporary politics. Major American politicians seem unusually promiscuous in their religious affinities, not just switching houses of worship but totally altering the substance of their worship. Beyond Obama and Gingrich, there is George W. Bush, raised by old-line, old-money Episcopalians but born again as an evangelical Protestant in 1985, after an apparently profound talk with Rev. Billy Graham; he and his wife attend a Methodist church. Like many sons of the wild west, Harry Reid, Nevadan and Senate majority leader, is of Protestant stock but was raised largely without religion; as a young newlywed he converted to Mormonism along with his wife, who was Jewish. The list goes on. Bill Clinton was not from a churchgoing family, but growing up “he would walk, Bible in hand, down the street to the Park Place Baptist Church,” writes David Shribman in a Pulitzer-winning article from 1994 about the religiosity of presidents. Ronald Reagan was raised in the Disciples of Christ, a mainstream denomination, but later developed a penchant for referencing apocalyptic prophesies straight out of the Left Behind novels, thus taking a detour into the world that many mainline religion folk would refer to—using the technical term—as far-wackadoo fundamentalism.

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