I ran into a couple of posts on Ross Douthat's blog at The Atlantic last night, dealing with the question of whether Sen. Obama is being unfairly held accountable for the black power/liberation theology beliefs of his minister, Jeremiah Wright. Douthat argues, and I think persuasively, that on the Republican side of the aisle no one could get off the ground as a presidential candidate who actually belonged to the congregation of one of the gonzo preachers (Hagee, Falwell, etc.) or the "religious right". Republican candidates certainly accept the support of these preachers and their congregations, but I think it's pretty fair to say that they would not elect a member of one of those congregations as their presidential nominee. Look how much low-level flack Huckabee absorbed because of his evangelical preacher background -- and he has a pretty tame theology by comparison to these more extreme characters. (A friend predicted to me: "Huckabee could never be elected president, because he believes the world is only 6000 years old." I suspect that's the case. Despite the rather large number of Americans who have some degree of creationist sympathies, it's just not something people would want to see their potential president holding fast to something so far out of the intellectual mainstream.)
What struck me as most interesting about these two Douthat posts, however, was the reaction which he was receiving from Atlantic readers. Many of readers essentially argued that the beliefs of Obama's pastor (that crack cocaine and AIDS were developed by the CIA to kill black people, that 9/11 was a punishment from God for America's sins against people of color, etc.) were not that weird compared to other things said by religious leaders. They would then either point to the outrageous statements of characters like Jerry Falwell, or argue that it was no more weird to believe that AIDS was developed by the government than to believe that God exists in the first place.
Both of these underlined to me that part of what we're seeing here is a difference between those who consider attendance at religious services to be a normal and important part of their lives, and those who don't. The latter argument, indeed, reminded me of a question which I believe Razib brought up on Gene Expression some months ago -- and I meant to blog about but never got around to -- which if memory serves was basically: Is it possible to say that one religious belief is more probably than another? At the time, Romney was catching some flack over Mormon beliefs, and Razib's question was: Is it actually any less probably that we all become gods of our own planets after we die than that Jesus rose from the dead, or is it simply that the former is a belief fairly alien to mainstream US culture, while the latter is familiar even to those who don't accept it.
It strikes me as an interesting point. I think I would say that it's not possible to assign probabilities to religious beliefs. One can consider whether they are internally consistent, whether they are consistent with any scriptures on which they may be based, and whether they seem to fit with what we know of the world, but it strikes me as impossible to assign probability to a question like: Was Jesus God?
Now what this means is that to many non religious or non church-going people, especially if their ideas of what goes on in churches on Sunday is mostly informed by odd-ball televangelists which they stumble across while channel surfing, it probably doesn't seem very improbably that most people hear weird conspiracy rants and shouting on a regular basis from the ministers, priests or rabbis. Judging strictly my media portrayal, it wouldn't be hard to get the idea that most sermons have to do with gays, abortion, the end of the world, or damnation.
However, the majority of Americans do enter some kind of religious service pretty regularly, and to those folks, the YouTube videos of the sermons by Obama's pastor do actually look pretty alien. To most church-goers, Reverend Wright shouting "God damn America" to thunderous applause or miming Clinton "riding dirty" on Monica Lewinsky bear no resemblance at all to anything they've seen in a church.
Similarly, the antics and thundering of TV preachers bear little resemblance to anything that most churchgoers see on a regular basis. However much these people may symbolize the "religious right" in the perceptions of many secular Americans, their rhetoric is actually starkly different from what most churchgoers actually hear on Sundays. Which is why it really would be very hard for a politician who attended one of these more fringy right-wing congregations to win a Republican nomination for a high profile office.
In Obama's case, his deepest base of support is not necessarily among churchgoers, so the initial reaction may be, "You have to belong to a church to stand a change for running for high office in this country, and his is probably no more crazy than most."
That may play with a fairly secular audience, but I don't think it will wash in the general election.