In-depth coverage of the candidates and the issues, all leading up to the Aug. 5 primary and the Nov. 4 general election.
To be eligible to be the president of the United States, a person must be at least 35 years old, a natural-born citizen and have lived in the United States for the past 14 years.
Check, check and check.
But is it an unofficial qualification that the president be a Christian?
That seems to be the case in current American politics, say political science experts at Kansas University.
Not a Christian, but want to run for president?
"Good luck," says Thomas Heilke, professor of political science at KU. "And so the question is always, well, 'Could a person who is an avowed atheist become president?' And that seems highly unlikely."
Don Haider-Markel, professor and acting chair of KU's political science department, says that in looking at polls, a non-Christian president isn't likely for at least another 40 years, even though the United States stands nearly alone among industrialized nations when it comes to religion as campaign fodder.
"In most industrialized countries, religion plays almost no role at all," Haider-Markel says. "Even in a country like France, where most citizens identify as Catholics, religion and religious values play almost no role in executive elections. In developing democracies, such as in Latin America or Eastern Europe, religion does play a role, but still nothing like in the United States."
Heilke says that though freedom of religion has always played a huge role in Americana, there are two distinct reasons why Americans tend to want their leaders to acknowledge a Christian faith.
"There's a widespread adherence to one form or another of Christianity. It's clearly still by far, in broad terms, the single largest religious group in the United States, and it's being augmented by ongoing immigration," Heilke says. "The second thing is that America has kind of a civil religion, and that civil religion has its roots in Christianity."
That civil religion leads to allowances such as a presidential prayer on Thanksgiving or general statements about America and God, even though those sorts of gestures tend to be in discordance to the country's stand on freedom of religion. Heilke says that while a sector of Americans would vote for a non-Christian candidate, the country's civil religion is likely to provide a major roadblock for any non-Christian, atheist or agnostic candidate. Heilke points to the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who is Jewish.
"He's certainly recognized or didn't make any bones about his Jewish faith, and it's actually quite a conservative Jewish faith. And he, during his campaign, celebrated the Sabbath and so the whole campaign just stopped on Friday evening at sundown and didn't start again until Saturday at sundown," Heilke says. "And he did, at first, did reasonably well. That's the only case of I can immediately think of ... where somebody of a different religious persuasion has gone and done very well in the primaries."
But, strangely enough, that same roadblock can sometimes help candidates who aren't exactly in the pews every Sunday.
"The interesting cases are folks like Ronald Reagan, who was a sort of a hero almost of the evangelical right, and yet he himself was certainly not a regular churchgoer," Heilke says. "(Nancy Reagan) practiced astrology and even changed meetings and rearranged his schedule on the basis of what the astrologers were reading. But there was still kind of a minimal acknowledgment and acceptance of this basic civil religion and some notion that there is a God and even more or less sort of conforms to what Christians say he is."
Also, politics can create relationships where those in the religious minority might align with a group one wouldn't expect.
"Or one might, out of one's own religious background, whatever it may be, be it Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto and so on, have certain kinds of moral orientations and say, 'That aligns better with what I'm about,'" Heilke says. "And so you will find very interesting, 'strange bedfellow' kinds of alliances sometimes that are partly out of religious identification."
An example he gives is of conservative Muslims aligning with conservative Christians.
"It's much more likely on a whole host of issues (that) conservative Muslims, as much as there seems to be this antagonism of evangelicals, will actually align with those kinds of policies. I'm sure they're more likely to be against abortion, they're more likely to be in favor of certain social conservative agenda, and so there you might see an odd alliance and an odd identification," Heilke says. "And so you have these fraternal relationships, as it were, and they also can drive alliances, even though at some level in that brotherhood there is a strong opposition to one another."
Religion in 2008
Both Heilke and Haider-Markel say that this year's presidential election has seen religion take a back seat to more pressing issues such as the economy and health care.
"Clearly it matters less, substantively, this year than it did in 2004," Haider-Markel says. "But in part that is because the Democrat has a clear symbolic tie to religious values, while the Republican candidate has very weak links."
But religion hasn't made a complete exit. During the course of the campaign, it has showed up in waves of headlines, most notably in the media frenzy surrounding Barack Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the nomination of John McCain's conservative Christian running mate, Sarah Palin, and the persistent, incorrect belief that Obama is a Muslim.
"Clearly, religion is still a part of the campaign, but in certain ways I think it has been de-emphasized. It's clearly part of the rallies if you look at the McCain-Palin rallies, but it's much less part of the national advertising, the national campaign," Heilke says. "(And) you hardly even hear any Democratic response to 'He's a Muslim' or 'He's an Arab' ... this kind of really nutty stuff.
"I'm not even hearing much of a response because it's all on which one of these two dudes is going to do a better job of taking care of this immediate problem."