When Tennessee voters step into the voting booths next year, religious faith will be a factor in whose name they mark on the ballot, about half of the 2010 gubernatorial candidates said.
"I'm going to be open to Tennesseans about the faith I've been raised with," said state Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, a candidate for governor and a former Methodist minister. "I think Tennesseans want to know our values, in particular, our deepest values."
One of Sen. Herron's Democratic primary opponents, Nashville businessman Ward Cammack, said political hopefuls shouldn't bring religion into their stump speeches, saying it's "repugnant" when they do so.
"I think faith is a personal matter," he said.
Sen. Herron is among several candidates touting their religious values in the campaign to be the Volunteer State's next chief executive.
Five Democrats and four Republicans have announced their intent to run in the 2010 gubernatorial race. Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen is finishing his second term in office and cannot seek a third term.
Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said talking about religion is a good way for candidates to differentiate themselves from their opponents. It tells voters "I'm like you" while implying that a candidate's opponents are not, he said.
"When you have four major candidates, you're looking for anything that'll swing 10, 5, 2 percent of the electorate," he said.
A McClatchy-MSNBC poll from the last Tennessee governor's race in 2006 shows that many Tennesseeans -- about 45 percent -- call themselves conservative but another large portion, about 38 percent, consider themselves moderate. In that race, moral issues and family values were the top concerns for 17 percent of voters, according to a poll by Mason-Dixon Research Inc.
FAITH OUT IN FRONT
* July 16-July 31: Early voting in state primary
* Aug. 5: State primary election
* Oct. 13-Oct. 28: Early voting for state general election
* Nov. 2: State general election
In a speech last month to the Tennessee Eagle Forum, one of the state's oldest socially conservative organizations, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said he believes state policies should "stand on the holy truth and the word of God."
Rep. Wamp said he respects and appreciates "the pluralistic nature of our country," but said he cannot deny his religious foundation.
"I don't wear my religion on my sleeve, but I also don't run from it," he said. "People are looking for genuine faith."
In a Sept. 29 speech to Marion County Democrats, Sen. Herron told the audience that Republicans had attempted to paint themselves as the only party of faith.
"Any time you start reshaping God in your own image, it's heresy. It's idolatry. And it's not true," he said.
Mark Cate, campaign manager for Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, said Mr. Haslam is "a person of very deep faith" but it's unlikely he'll talk about it extensively on the campagin trail.
"Faith is not so much about what you say than how you live," he said. "What's going to drive people to the polls are issues like jobs and economic development."
Likewise, state Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said he thinks faith is important to Tennessee voters, but candidates should avoid using it as a political strategy. He said a candidate's faith should come through his position on issues.
Democrat Mike McWherter expressed a similar sentiment.
"I was raised not to flaunt my faith but rather to reflect my beliefs through my daily actions," he said.
Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, said he's talked about his religious background "to some degree," specifically about a Presbyterian minister who influenced him early on. He said his faith is "my moral compass."
"I think it is a factor a lot of voters will look at," he said.
Former state Rep. Kim McMillan, D-Clarksville, similarly said that faith is important because it lets people know if candidates share their values.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, could not be reached for comment.