US presidential candidates locked in often bitter struggles for their party nominations have been urged not to make religious capital out of politics and political capital out of religion as the campaign trail hots up.
Recently, Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama attacked each other over the legacy of Martin Luther King Junior, though they have since withdrawn media-stoked accusations.
Meanwhile, Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor who upholds a fundamentalist version of Christianity and is a creationist (denying evolutionary biology on the basis of a reading of Genesis contested by biblical scholars), has been courted by the religious right.
But on 15 January 2008 over two dozen Evangelical, mainstream Protestant and Catholic church leaders signed a common statement entitled “Keeping Faith: Principles to Protect Religion on the Campaign Trail”, which affirmed three principles to protect the integrity of religion during the presidential race.
The principles tell presidential hopefuls to avoid using religious or doctrinal differences to marginalise or disparage each other, to acknowledge that no single belief system has an exclusive claim to moral values, and to recognise that policy positions should reflect the best interests of all citizens regardless of belief.
“In this year’s presidential campaign, we are troubled to see candidates pressed to pronounce the nature of their religious beliefs,” wrote leaders in the statement, “asked if they believe every word of the Bible, forced to fend off warnings by a few religious authorities about reception of sacraments, compelled to confront derogatory and false allegations of radical Muslim childhood education, and faced with prejudicial analyses of their denominational doctrines.”
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon, has been criticised for not explaining his faith and the influence it will have on his presidency.
Barack Obama's local church, part of the United Churches of Christ denomination, has also complained about what it calls a "malicious smear campaign" against it on the internet. Because it describes itself as a Black church it has been accused of racism.
Mr Obama recently threw a star-studded gospel concert in South Carolina. But with all the religious talk, there has also been judgment of candidates’ faith in both parties.
The Christian leaders denounced “exclusionary religious rhetoric” by candidates as well as “constant scrutiny” of the contenders’ faiths for undermining religion’s role in public life.
The participation of prominent Evangelicals in an ecumenical letter is also notable.
Signatories of the statement include Brian McLaren, author and founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church; the Rev Dr Paul de Vries, president of New York Divinity School and board member of the National Association of Evangelicals; and Dr Glen Stassen, who is Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Progressive Christian networks like Sojourners/Call to Renewal are urging candidates across the board to cherish the principles of peace, human dignity, the struggle against poverty and the need for social justice in a non-sectarian way.
Figures on the religious right have pushed for votes for Huckabee in particular, and have railed against Senator Clinton, a moderate Baptist.