WASHINGTON –– The rising role of religion in electoral politics comes at the hands of a few vocal activists advancing a narrow range of issues that push candidates to find the lowest common denominator in the search for votes, political observers concluded in a program at the Newseum.

The end result is skewed messages characterized by innuendo and “extreme” rants, leaving intelligent discussions of the country’s challenges on the sideline, the observers said during the Oct. 14 event.

The program, which featured four men from Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Mormon backgrounds, began as a discussion about the importance of understanding religion’s role in the life of an individual candidate, but gradually became a critique of media coverage of politics with religion as a backdrop.

“Religions are not just religions in America,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington. “They represent cultural communities and social communities and people like voting for people that they identify with and can connect with.”

At the same time, Saperstein explained, a distinction must be made between a candidate and a person in public office.

“Once they’re elected the Constitution of the United States prevents them from doing anything to impose any kind of religiosity. The government is banned in an election from imposing a (religion) test legally,” he said.

“But in terms of anybody running for office, they can say and do whatever they want,” he said.

Acknowledging that candidates and elected officials often say they are influenced by their faith, it’s just as important for people to understand how their faith influences them, said Michael K. Young, president of the University of Utah and a Mormon.

“Knowing how they stand and what informs their judgment is probably largely fair game,” he said.

Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, pointed to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign as a prime example of how a political leader can address questions about faith. In the midst of his drive to the White House, Kennedy made it clear that he would never be beholden to Catholic Church officials.

“It’s absolutely un-American to say I’m going to vote for that person because they’re a member of my religious clan or I’m going to vote against that person because he’s a member of another clan,” said Casey, the author of “The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960.”

While Kennedy’s effort to refute anti-Catholic bigotry worked, Casey warned that “we live in as perilous a time in politics and religious bigotry today as we ever have since 1960.”

“I think it’s a very poisonous, potentially perilous environment that we have,” he said.

Young acknowledged that religion has played a role in politics since the United States was founded, but it was not until the 1980 campaign of Ronald Reagan when a particular religious group – evangelicals – influenced an election’s outcome.

The danger from such deep influence, however, comes when religious leaders claim to speak for the vast majority of Americans and pressure candidates and elected officials to conform to their views, said human rights attorney and media commentator Arsalan Iftikhar, a Muslim.

Iftikhar and Young also blamed round-the-clock media coverage for causing political debate to “de-evolve” from measured statements to anger-laced discourse.

“If it bleeds it leads,” Iftikhar said. “If it’s sexy, if it’s controversial, if it’s something that’s going to give us ratings, going to give us ad dollars, we’re going to run that story, consequences be damned. We need to be a little more concerned with the consequences.”

Each of the panelists criticized the Democratic and Republican parties for failing to reach out to the media to explain their stances on issues and disavow the “insanity” espoused by some religious leaders and political pundits.

As the program ended, Casey praised the U.S. Catholic bishops for their quadrennial “Faithful Citizenship” statements prior to presidential elections. The statements traditionally explain church social teaching as it relates to major issues as well as the primacy of conscience among Catholic voters in choosing candidates on the ballot.

Rabbi Saperstein said such statements should be welcomed during campaign periods.

“Religious groups have not only the right but the responsibility to speak out on the great moral issues in election campaigns,” he said. “What shouldn’t happen is that religious groups should never use religious threats, coercions, disciplining to tell people how to vote. Democracy depends on people being able to vote their conscience free of penalty.”

The program was the most recent in a series organized by the Newseum’s Religious Freedom and Education Project.