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Republicans race to prove Christian cred

By Michael Wolraich, Special to CNN
Texas Gov. Rick Perry leads a prayer event  August 6 in Houston. Thousands prayed for God to save "a nation in crisis."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry leads a prayer event August 6 in Houston. Thousands prayed for God to save "a nation in crisis."
  • Michael Wolraich: GOP candidates stressing Christian beliefs in appearances
  • Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich wooing evangelicals, he says
  • Wolraich: In 2008, 60% of GOP caucus participants were evangelical
  • He says candidates' efforts to prove their piety other seem calculating, opportunistic

Editor's note: Michael Wolraich is a founder of the political blog and the author of "Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies about the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual."

(CNN) -- When Gov. Rick Perry of Texas called for a day of prayer and fasting in Houston, world-famous televangelist John Hagee answered enthusiastically.

"We pray for our governor, Rick Perry," he gruffly proclaimed, "who has had the courage today to call this time of fasting and prayer just as Abraham Lincoln did in the darkest days of the Civil War."

When Perry officially launches his presidential campaign this weekend, he will not be the only Republican candidate to carry the banner of Christian piety. The presidential pre-primary season has not featured so many brave Christian Abraham Lincolns since the days of Abraham Lincoln himself.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty discovered his inner Honest Abe at the Faith and Freedom Conference in June. Heedless of the risks to his campaign, Honest Tim read from the Bible and thundered to the mostly evangelical audience, "We need to be a nation that turns toward God, not away from God!" (Note: My use of the word "thunder" in this context is artistic license. A more accurate but less dramatic rendering would have been, "stated woodenly without apparent emotion.")

Another presidential candidate, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, refers to God so frequently in the context of her political ambitions that you would think He was her running mate. At the Faith and Freedom Conference, she treated the audience to a prayer of her own design:

"Lord, we know there are things we have done in our nation that have not been pleasing in your sight," she sorrowfully intoned, "Lord, we ask your forgiveness for that."

It requires great chutzpah to beg divine forgiveness for the policies of your political opponents.

Not to be outdone by his fellow Minnesotan, Pawlenty countered in July with a six-minute campaign video to prove that he was the most Christian after all. Interjecting tender stories about his wife's peerless piety with cranky condemnations of same-sex marriage, Pawlenty then blinked into the camera and assured voters, "My faith is very important to me, and it influences all that I do, and it informs people about what my values are."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich may not be able to boast about Christian values in his personal life, but he has vowed to defend his grandchildren from the imminent threat of "a secular atheist country" or, somewhat inconsistently, political domination by radical Islamists. Gingrich has also promised to resist the fearsome "homosexual agenda" on the grounds that he supports "pro-classical Christianity," a hitherto-undiscovered Christian sect that may be imaginary.

Donald Trump, whose campaign ended before it began, still found time to gallantly sputter, "I believe in God. I am Christian. I think the Bible is certainly, it is THE book." In case people missed the point, he added, "I'm a Protestant. I'm a Presbyterian. And you know I've had a good relationship with the church over the years. I think religion is a wonderful thing. I think my religion is a wonderful religion." (Trump has recently said he might return to the race after all. The country awaits its captain of real estate and reality television with bated breath.)

Even libertarian Ron Paul, who long resisted injecting faith into politics, has waxed Lincolnesque this season. "We have had the Constitution stolen right before our eyes," he drawled urgently, "This is now about whether or not we have the right to worship freely." He later explained, "Congress should never prohibit the expression of your Christian faith in a public place."

The only prominent candidates who apparently lack the courage to promote their faith are the Mormon representatives, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman.

"I believe in God," acknowledged Huntsman when pressed. "I'm a true Christian. I am very proud of my Mormon heritage. I am Mormon." He helpfully added, "Today, there are 13 million Mormons. It's a very diverse and cross-section of heterogeneous people."

Fortunately for the budding Lincolns in our midst, very few of those heterogeneous Mormon people live in Iowa.

On Saturday, August 13, Republican insiders in Iowa will vote in the Ames Straw Poll. Although the poll is non-binding, it hints at the candidates most likely to do well in the Iowa caucus.

Though Iowa's electoral vote is small, its early caucus has often transformed the race by undercutting front-runners and elevating underdogs.

Iowa is a swing state in presidential elections, but its Republicans tend to be very conservative and very Christian. In 2008, 60% of Republican caucus participants were evangelical. They selected religious right favorite Mike Huckabee, instantly transforming him from a dark-horse candidate to a formidable challenger.

That 60% turnout is surely a tempting fruit for Republican candidates anxious to follow Huckabee's example. A win in Iowa could launch them on the path to nomination, as happened to Barack Obama, or at least secure a spot at the Republican convention.

Indeed, the political compensation for public displays of faith is so precious that it makes me wonder whether the candidates' zealous efforts to to prove their piety as they race for the Republican nomination might be called calculating or opportunistic. Some might even suggest unchristian.

Consider Matthew 6:5-6:

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others ... but when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen."

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Michael Wolraich.