Race and Religion Heat Up Two Southern Primary Battles

I’ve got to hand it to Barack Obama. His team managed to take mangled words from Bill and Hillary Clinton and create an explosive racial divide just in time for some major southern primaries. I’ll get back to that in a bit.

I first need to tip my old political-strategist hat to the directors of a new movie, “Article VI.” It’s magically timed for release just days before the Mitt Romney campaign confronts the so-called “Bible Belt.” That’s where conventional political wisdom has it that his Mormon faith might bring him a “heap of trouble,” as they say in those parts.

The fact is that Romney’s religion hasn’t been the talk of the campaign trail, even in the Deep South. Even so, an expertly timed film release — as much so as “Fahrenheit 9/11” — has turned out to be an exceptional documentary about the role of religion and politics. A tip of the hat goes to directors Bryan Hall and Jack Donaldson.

The movie’s production quality was as good as any of its genre. To be truthful, I didn’t know the Republican side of the creative community could equal the skill we’ve come to expect from liberal filmmakers. You know the kind: producers and directors whose political message has been advanced for years by their skillful use of documentaries.

But make no mistake: This movie comes across to those who have been in the political business for a long time as a try at subtly coaxing viewers into the conviction that Romney’s faith shouldn’t be a part of fair and serious political discussion.

The film’s two producers are both Romney supporters, although in interviews they say that their support of Romney has nothing to do with their interest in looking at the role of religion in politics.

True to their word, the movie is a turning point for the GOP and its approach to politics. None other than Ralph Reed, the onetime head of the Christian Coalition, appears in the credits as an adviser on the movie. In fact, it was Ralph who invited me to an early premiere of the film.

Of course, he’s the man who helped lead Christians in an organized dismemberment of John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary on behalf of George W. Bush. Now Reed is connected to a film that several times evokes John F. Kennedy’s famed speech to Texas clergymen, in which Kennedy faces head-on the issue of his Catholicism in the 1960 presidential election.

While I have no evidence to support any suggestion that Reed is supporting Romney for president, it’s clear that the movie essentially does, even if tacitly.

The film follows a Mr. Hall, a Mormon, as he encounters various manifestations of prejudice and harassment, as well as bouts of tolerance and understanding. The theme is clear — keep church and state separate.

That puts Reed in a new position, and one that may benefit him down the road.

Separation of church and politics is a different matter. Just ask Bill and Hillary Clinton. Not only are the two of them fighting off an assortment of spins of their comments about Obama; remember Bill’s remark about Obama’s candidacy being a “fantasy?”

It gets even thornier for the former first couple, though. Now Hillary has caught grief for remarking on Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. It took President Lyndon Johnson to put King’s dreams into practice, she said. That didn’t sit well with some.

A new InsiderAdvantage poll taken this week shows that Sen. Clinton trails Sen. Obama by nearly 10 percent in South Carolina. So straightening out her relationship with black voters has become critical.

But Obama’s supporters have outmaneuvered the Clintons with a touch of religious controversy themselves. With the all-important symbolism of the Martin Luther King Day celebration coming up Jan. 21 in King’s hometown of Atlanta, it looks like Obama has been awarded the pulpit from which to speak on the eve of the holiday at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King once was pastor.

The King family has no say in the church event. But the Obama camp will likely use the prized appearance to seal the deal with black voters in southern states.

There may be separation of church and state. But never of church and politics.