Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney and President Obama, who both… (AFP/Getty Images )
For both President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, religion has presented a tricky political challenge. Obama faces widespread skepticism about his Christian faith, and Romney has been wary of the political ramifications of being too closely identified as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons.
Both men opened up a little for an interview about faith with Cathedral Age magazine, the publication of the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington.
Neither candidate dropped any bombshells in the interviews, which were released Tuesday, but their answers reflected very different approaches to faith in national life--and their own political sensitivities.
Asked about those who question the sincerity of his faith, Obama --who is frequently mischaracterized as a Muslim, and faced a firestorm in 2008 over his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright--offered a shoulder shrug of an answer.
"You know, there’s not much I can do about it," he said. "I have a job to do as president, and that does not involve convincing folks that my faith in Jesus is legitimate and real. I do my best to live out my faith, and to stay in the Word, and to make my life look more like His.”
He added: “I’m not perfect. What I can do is just keep on following Him, and serve others—trying to make folks’ lives a little better using this humbling position that I hold."
Romney, for his part, stuck to his campaign custom of never mentioning the word "Mormon" or "Latter-day Saints," but seemed clearly to be referring to prejudice against his faith at one point. "I am often asked about my faith and my beliefs about Jesus Christ,” he said. “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. Every religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These should not be bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree."
The two men's differences came out most starkly when they were asked about the role of religion in public life. This has been a thorny issue for Obama, who has been sharply criticized by the Catholic Church and conservative evangelicals for several policies of his administration, most significantly a rule by the Department of Health and Human Services that requires some religious institutions to provide free contraceptive services to their employees.
Asked about religion's role in the public square, Obama talked about the work of his Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, and focused on the history of faith-based social activism.
"From slavery to the suffrage movement to civil rights, faith—and the moral obligations that derive from our faith— have always helped us to navigate some of our greatest moral challenges with a recognition that there’s something bigger than ourselves," he said. "For me, and I think for many other Americans, faith tells us that there is something about this world that ties our interest to the welfare of a child who can’t get the health care they need, or a parent who can’t find work after the plant shut down, or a family going hungry."
Romney, for his part, followed conservative tradition and focused more on the explicit government embrace of faith. "We should acknowledge the Creator, as did the Founders—in ceremony and word," he said. "He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests."
Both men were asked their favorite Bible texts. Romney cited Matthew 25:35-36: “For I was hungry, and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you clothed me.”
Obama cited two texts: Isaiah 40:31 -- "those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles." -- and Psalm 46: "Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire."
[For the record, 5:55 p.m., Aug. 21: An earlier version of this post said the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., is Roman Catholic. It is Episcopal.]
Follow Politics Now on Twitter