Not since the early 1960s when John F. Kennedy's Roman Catholic background was considered newsworthy as he ran for the U.S. presidency have religious faiths figured so prominently in political coverage as the Republican Party conducts primaries and caucuses to elect a challenger to U.S. President Barack Obama in November.
In the run-up to the caucuses in Iowa Jan. 3, widespread mention was made of the Mormon and Roman Catholic candidates. While the pool of candidates continues to shrink before the final primary in Utah June 26, Mormon Mitt Romney is maintaining a broad support base.
Among the former governor of Massachusetts' key challengers is former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a Roman Catholic with a record of socially conservative votes opposing same-sex marriage and abortion.
Another candidate is former House Speaker and college history Professor Newt Gingrich, a Baptist who converted to Roman Catholicism.
None of the candidates has directly linked his faith to their leadership aspirations but international media has repeatedly noted their affiliations.
Why the resurgence of interest in religion's role in politics?
Much of it has to do with the Islamic fundamentalist "awakening" that's been simmering for decades, brought to an ugly head by the Sept. 11, 2001, airliner terror attacks in the United States.
Associate political science Professor Matthew Wilson of Southern Methodist University told UPI in a telephone interview one of the worst-case scenarios of religion affecting politics in modern history was the Taliban fundamentalist Muslim regime in Afghanistan that began in the 1990s after the Soviet invasion was defeated.
Thousands of NATO troops are in Afghanistan attempting to shore up a democratically elected government and train Afghans on how to secure their own country from insurgents.
Early in January 2011, political unrest also began stirring in North African and Middle Eastern countries. Tunisia was the first country to defy government police and soldiers and take to the streets demanding political reform.
The wave of violent dissent swept through Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Mauritania, Sudan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Kuwait, Morocco and Syria. As in Iraq, sectarianism pitted Sunni Muslims against Shiites and other factions.
Wilson also cited the former Soviet Union, North Korea and China as governments that have and do actively suppress religion.
As for German dictator Adolf Hitler, Wilson said he was more tolerant of religion during his regime, but only to a point.
"He was interested in religion to the extent that it could serve his political objective," the professor said. "If [religion] got in the way of his objectives, he was more than willing to suppress it."
Hitler had one infamous exception to tolerance -- his hatred for Jews. The Nazis' "Final Solution" was bent on the extermination of Jews and anything associated with them in Germany and other fallen countries. Hitler's political policies were responsible for the deaths of at least 6 million Jews.
In modern Germany, citizens of some states can opt to declare their belief and pay as much as 9 percent of their wages to support mainstream religions, or none at all. However, churches have the right to refuse their services to anyone who hasn't paid supportive income taxes.
With regard to Israel's government rooted in Judaism, Wilson said there is also sectarian wrangling among Jews.
"In Israel, there is a great divide between the secularized and Orthodox factions and there's tension in Israeli society over what it means to be Jewish," he said.
Japan's Imperial House has the record for being the longest continuous hereditary monarchy, dating to 660 B.C. The emperor is the symbolic head of state and also the head of the Shinto religion.
France also has a rich history of religious governance. King Louis XIV, who ruled for 72 years until 1715, believed he was absolute leader by divine right and considered himself God's representative.
After the revolution of 1792, the new government confiscated all Roman Catholic Church properties and made priests state employees.
Another centuries-old tradition intertwines religion and governance in Britain. The monarch is the head of state for all commonwealth countries, but is also the titular head of the Church of England, or Anglicism.
That was most recently tested in Canadian courts by a former Toronto city councilor, Tony O'Donohue, in 2002. The Irish-born civil engineer, then 69, supported republicanism for Canada and challenged the Act of Settlement law that bans a Roman Catholic from becoming king or queen. The case was dismissed in 2003 and an appeal was denied.
Joanne McGarry is executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, a Canadian lay organization "devoted to combating anti-Catholic defamation." She told UPI in a telephone interview that traditionally in Canadian politics, lawmakers' personal beliefs have mostly been tolerated.
"I think believers can't be expected to chuck it [faith] at the door and stop being believers once they're in Parliament," she said.
McGarry said she's noticed a trend developing in the past 20 years of groups calling for a more secular government.
"There's a concern, I think, that things tend to get pushed out" of politics and the judiciary when religious groups such as hers intervene or challenge laws on conservative issues such as prostitution or abortion.
Political science Professor Elisabeth Gidengil of McGill University in Montreal has been studying Canadian voters' behavior in the last four federal elections. She found Catholic support for the center-left Liberal Party has dropped from 54 percent in the 2000 election to 30 percent in 2008, with the rightist Conservative Party benefiting.
There are nearly 15 million Roman Catholics in Canada, representing 44 percent of the population.
Meanwhile, U.S. Republicans will be duking it out around the country until the final primary takes place June 26 in the hotbed Mormon state of Utah, where Romney has a substantial conservative following.
Wilson said that bodes well for Romney and the evangelical and anti-abortion rights voters in New Hampshire who first endorsed him Jan 10.
"Mormonism is the one major native-born religion -- Mormonism is America's major contribution to world religion," the professor said. "Other major Christian churches all have their origins in Europe."
In 1794, British-born author and political activist in the United States and France Thomas Paine predicted change in "The Age of Reason," but little of it has come to pass 218 years later.
"I have thought it exceedingly probable that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion," Paine wrote.
"The connection between church and state has so effectively prohibited every discussion on the principles of religion, that until the system of government is changed, religious principles cannot be discussed openly before the world. But whenever change is done, then a revolution in the system of religion will follow."
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