After a "Jesus for President" campaign was launched by a Mesa pastor as a sermon series complete with yard signs, a wag quickly pointed out that Jesus Christ was not eligible for the White House because he wasn't born in the U.S.
With savvy, Pastor Mark Connelly of Superstition Springs Community Church said his candidate has been "advocating for change since 33 A.D." With "change" as the defining word of the 2008 national presidential campaign, political forces in Arizona and nationally have been working to ensure faith and religious issues aren't overlooked in the debates readying voters for the Nov. 4 election.
In Arizona, a major focus has been a citizens' initiative, Proposition 102, to amend the state constitution to specify that marriage is limited to a man and a woman, even though this is already established by statute. Evangelical Christians, joined by Mormons and Roman Catholics, are pushing hard for "Yes on 102" to add greater protection to that law and keep courts from ever overturning it.
"Marriage is a very big issue for many people of faith - and our faith," said Ron Johnson, executive direct of the Arizona Catholic Conference. "That is our major focus in terms of what's on the ballot to support."
But opponents say they can point to faith groups that believe the government doesn't need the added restraints regarding marriage.
"We have a really large faith community that opposes this proposition for many reasons," said Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, chairwoman of Arizona Together Opposed to Proposition 102. "One of the foremost reasons is they don't appreciate one or two religions trying to impose their religion on the public through the government."
Arizona joins California and Florida with November ballot measures that would define marriage in their constitutions. Two years ago, Arizona was the single state among 11 to defeat a constitutional amendment related to marriage or domestic partners. Narrowly defeated was an amendment to bar government agencies from providing benefits to domestic partners.
Sinema calls the amendment unnecessary because the 1996 Arizona legislation to specify marriage is between one man and one woman withstood a challenge in Arizona courts in 2004. Those favoring Proposition 102 fear the state law could still be reversed if another legal case carried weight, so a constitutional amendment would shut that door.
Even with that alliance of traditional conservatives, some observers say this election cycle shows signs the political muscle of the religious conservative movement is showing cracks.
"The religious right has been a very key of the neo-conservative agenda," said John Carlson, associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Arizona State University. Now, he said, "it is starting to show its wear, and if it is not being replaced by something else, at least, it is going through some serious modifications."
The long national presidential campaign has been marked by repeated outbreaks of religious controversies. Much of them have focused on candidates' associations with controversial pastors. Most notable were Sen. Barack Obama's one-time pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and John McCain's relationship with the Rev. John Hagee, a Texas TV evangelist known for his diatribes against the Roman Catholic Church.
Discussion has surrounded Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska because of TV footage showing her one-time Kenyan-born Pentecostal pastor praying over her to protect the governor from "every form of witchcraft."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's bid for the presidency was dogged by persistent doubts raised by Christian evangelicals over how far his Mormon faith diverges from Christian orthodoxy for acceptability for the White House. Romney sought to neutralize doubts last December with a speech likened to Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech saying he would not be taking orders from the Vatican.
During the primaries, news networks held 90-minute conversations with major candidates, including Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, focusing only on how their religious faith had shaped them and would influence in their public policy work.
And even before McCain and Obama met for their series of three presidential debates in September and October, they sat down Aug. 16 to talk about their faith, for an hour each, with Pastor Rick Warren, best known for his blockbuster book "A Purpose-Driven Life" and the pastorship of the 22,000-member Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif.
"I felt I got to know the candidates better in their presentations there than I have in the other debates," said Pastor Roger Storms of Chandler Christian Church. He said McCain and Obama were more "illuminating" in Warren's sessions than in the debates, where their "personalities got in the way of the facts."
McCain's performance at that forum was significant, said religion historian Charles Barfoot, who teaches in the Arizona State University religious studies department. "When he went to Rick Warren, that was really red meat - you could tell that he was in his element - about abortion, conception, life's beginnings. I think he realized right then and there he needed to start playing to that."
Barfoot, a pastor whose parents were Pentecostal ministers, said he had visited, and had become familiar with, Wright's 8,000-member Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, which Obama had attended for 20 years. He credits evangelicals like Jim Wallis, Sojourners magazine founder and author of "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It," for helping quell the controversy after Wright's videos included his fiery quote "... damn America." Wallis said the black pastor's passions emanate from "a deep well of both frustration and anger in the African-American community ... borne of the concrete experience of real oppression, discrimination, and blocked opportunities that most of America's white citizens take for granted."
ASU's Carlson, who studies the interplay of politicians and religious movements, said he anticipates less single-issue voting this year because of the multiplicity of serious issues.
"Most religious people have many kinds of concerns and don't see things singularly through a narrow kind of sectarian lens," said Carlson, who is also associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. "So issues like the economy and the war in Iraq can also be very important to religious people."
Carlson pointed how the "liberalism of the 1960s was very much fueled by or grounded in religious ideas about equality and about the equality of races and sexes."
Then came the "Moral Majority" of the 1980s and the rise of the Religious Right as it took a stand in the cultural wars with politically conservative alliances, Carlson said.
"One of the things that is interesting is what comes next," he said. It could be a "progressive populism re-emergence."
Storms said some people seem "a bit hesitant" to vote because they have misgivings about both presidential candidates. Yet "some of those individuals in the faith community who are kind of ambivalent for either presidential candidate will go to the polls because they want to make a stand on the issue of marriage."
Adding some Christian defiance to the fall campaign, the Scottsdale-based Alliance Defense Fund last month called on pastors across America to defy a federal law, adopted in 1954, barring clergy from endorsing political candidates, or face IRS challenges to their tax-exempt status. Sept. 28 was declared "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" by ADF, and clergy were encouraged to tell their congregations what they thought about candidates' suitability. The ADF campaign aims to gain full First Amendment rights for pastors, who are muzzled out of fear of being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, according to the group's Web site. Leaders of the Christian attorneys group called on pastors to mail them copies of sermons delivered that Sunday to help prepare a court challenge to the law.