CAIRO - Preparing themselves for Illinois race, Republican White House hopefuls are leading religious rhetoric to lure socially conservative voters who accuse President Barack Obama of threatening the nation's founding principle of religious liberty.
The language that we hear about the Obama administration waging war against religion is both energizing and polarizing, Ralph Keen, chair of Catholic studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune on Saturday, March 17.
The person who declares that there is an Obama-led war against religion is going to be recognized as the leader of a cause that mobilizes.
It's going to mobilize the religious population.
Over the past few months, Catholic Charities and the Evangelical Child and Family Agency were forced to pull out of the foster care business when they refused to license couples in civil unions.
The state's six Roman Catholic bishops have also protested a federal mandate requiring Catholic hospitals and universities to cover contraceptives for their employees.
Preparing for Illinois voting, religious freedom was raised by all four Republican candidates.
Yet, Rick Santorum finds an interested audience as the contest reaches Illinois.
Failing to win a plurality of the Catholic vote in any primary so far, the former Pennsylvania senator has relied on evangelical support.
"Rick Santorum's faith should play well in Illinois," said Tobin Grant, a professor of political science at SIU who worked on the poll.
"It's unlikely that people will choose him because he's Catholic per se, but as a committed Catholic, Santorum shares the same values, beliefs and viewpoints as many Republican Catholics in Illinois. In central and southern Illinois, Santorum will also draw support from evangelicals and other conservative Protestants who will value his family and faith."
According to a Tribune/WGN-TV poll conducted March 7-9, 42 percent of Illinois voters described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians.
Of that group, 42 percent backed Santorum, compared with 26 percent for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is Mormon.
Of the 54 percent of voters who do not consider themselves born-again or evangelical Christians, Romney led Santorum, 43 percent to 22 percent.
The poll did not give voters the option to identify as Catholic.
As many analysts believe the White House's war on religious liberty is nothing but political fiction, others think religion is only a minor factor in this year's primary.
"In this election, the religious or social issues seem to have been replaced by financial or economic issues," Pat Brady, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, told Chicago Tribune, adding that troubled economy simply transcends religious lines.
Christians who participated in the recent Tribune/WGN-TV poll chose various candidates for various reasons.
Carole McClain, 70, a Lincoln Park resident, thinks Santorum's rhetoric is over exaggerated.
I don't think government has a right to dictate to people what their moral values should be, McClain said.
Mostly I'm against Rick Santorum because he kind of preaches. He's making the religious issues the centerpiece of his campaign, and I think that's wrong.
That's not where we should be today. We need to talk about the economy and jobs.
However, other voters said they will decide on their candidate based on religious rhetoric.
"He's pro-life, which is a big issue for me. But I also think it has to do with the character issue," said Brian Ferry, 51 of Bolingbrook, who plans to choose Santorum when he goes to the polls Tuesday.
"Their beliefs are the foundation to what they are politically."
Lyn Warner, 61, of Evanston, said she will support former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"I believe that there is a power greater than us that can guide us and lead us," she said.
"I think denial of that power is shortchanging yourself and could possibly shortchange the country."