In recent days, three religious leaders holding extreme views have been linked to mainstream presidential candidates. The Rev. Rod Parsley of the World Harvest Church of Columbus, Ohio -- whom Sen. John McCain considers a "spiritual guide" -- was quoted as urging a Christian war against Islam. Another prominent McCain supporter, Texas televangelist John Hagee, called Catholicism "a false cult" and said Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for the sins of New Orleans residents. (No word on whether the people of Southern Mississippi were also deserving of His wrath.)
Then the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Barack Obama's pastor, was quoted as saying the United States brought the terrorist attacks of 9/11 onto itself because of its own aggressive behavior in the world. On Friday, Obama said he "vehemently condemned" the minister's "infllammatory and appalling" remarks.
One could easily conclude from all this that the famous red state-blue state divide extends to our houses of worship. (Red cross/blue cross, perhaps?) But the public doesn't see it that way, according to an extensive survey conducted by Baylor University sociologists in 2006.
The study, "American Piety in the 21st Century," found that only 4 percent of Americans think God favors a particular political party. Eighty-nine percent disagreed with that concept, with 8 percent undecided.
Asked if God favors the United States, only 18.6 percent said yes, while 68.5 percent strongly disagreed. Among religious denominations, Evangelical Protestants were most likely to agree with that statement with 26 percent expressing such a belief compared to 20 percent of Catholics and 17 percent of mainline Protestants.
That is not to say, however, that faith doesn't play a role in how people look at public policy issues. The survey contains some fascinating findings about the link between religious belief and opinions regarding the Iraq war.
Of the 1,721 Americans surveyed during the winter of 2005, 45 percent expressed the opinion that the war in Iraq was justified, with a depressing 40 percent clinging to the discredited belief -- shot down once again on Thursday, this time by the Pentagon itself -- that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Support for the war rose dramatically with church attendance. Nearly 55 percent of those who attend weekly services believed the war was justified, while only 30 percent who never attend church expressed that opinion. Evangelical Protestants were far more likely than other believers to express support for the war.
Most intriguingly, respondents were classified as to the type of God they believe in: Authoritarian, benevolent, critical or distant. Believers in an angry, authoritarian God (one who is highly involved in individual lives and punishes sinners) were far more likely than any of the others to support the war, giving it an approval rating of over 63 percent.
So there does seem to be a link between a believer's sociopolitical views and his or her perception of God. Still, even among authoritarians, only 7 percent believe God favors a particular political party. So while He may be watching you closely, He isn't following you into the polling booth.