What role will religion play in 2010 election?

As America approaches a crucial election, it seems increasingly likely that religion will be a sleeper issue for many voters. Whether that will be good or bad for religion is far from clear.

The evidence that religion will be on many people’s minds Nov. 2 is both plentiful and disturbing — disturbing even to some people of faith. It’s reflected in disputes over matters that range from Quran-burning, to plans to build a mosque near the New York site of the Sept. 11 attacks, to President Barack Obama’s religious affiliation.

Spiritually meaningful

But the most compelling reason to think religion will play a significant role lies in a notably peaceful event — the massive Aug. 28 “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington, D.C. — that was quickly overshadowed in the media by incidents featuring conflict and controversy.

Coverage of the rally focused mainly on its organizer, Fox News talk-show host Glenn Beck, and featured speaker Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska and the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate who has become a star of the political right. While Beck is a Mormon and Palin an evangelical Christian, both have Catholic backgrounds.

In fact, though, the most important presence at the event may not have been them but the crowd. Stretching down the Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument and, lacking an official figure, said to have numbered in the hundreds of thousands, this was one of the largest turnouts ever for a Washington demonstration, easily equaling the crowd for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 and possibly approaching the Vietnam Moratorium march of 1969 and the Million Man March of 1995.

Not only was the crowd huge, it was orderly and appeared deeply religious. These ordinary Americans hadn’t given up the recreational options available in the fine weather of a late-summer weekend for another Tea Party event but for what they expected, and apparently found, to be a spiritually meaningful experience.

But spiritually meaningful in what way? In a letter to the editor of The Washington Post several days later, a Virginia man offered an answer many found convincing:

“The people who attended were there because they see the country going down the wrong path. Mr. Beck’s message was overwhelmingly religious in tone, but also emphasized the need for each individual to be responsible for his or her own decisions and destiny.”

Alienated voters

Up to a point, many religious Americans share these views. Yet some also fear it’s a short step, politically speaking, from here to the angry, alienated far right.

Be that as it may, it offers little consolation for most conventional politicians, and virtually none for Obama and the Democrats.

For the Democrats, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Two years ago the party made serious efforts to shed its image as indifferent, even hostile, to religion and to reach out to religious voters. The effort met with modest success. Among religiously observant white Catholics, for example, 41 percent voted for Obama, up 2 percent from the support for Sen. John Kerry in 2004. Among less religiously observant white Catholics, 52 percent backed Obama, 5 percent better than Kerry had done with them.

But Democratic gains like these have largely dissipated since 2008. Polls say Americans now generally think the Republicans are more friendly to religion. Few doubt that Obama, without intending it, has contributed to this development.

Indeed, as far back as the campaign, he angered many middle-Americans by offhandedly telling a West Coast audience that people in the Rust Belt sought relief from their frustrations in Bibles and guns. The remark lent credibility to the view that Obama at heart was an Ivy League elitist with a tin ear for religion.

Since then the president has put his foot in it on matters religious on several other occasions.

Especially egregious was his handling of the 9/11 mosque controversy, where he seemed at first to say the mosque should be built and then explained he meant only that the people who wanted to build it had a right to do that. Fairly or not, critics on both sides of the argument took this to be presidential straddling. Among other things, such gaffes probably help account for the bizarre fact that, according to a recent poll, nearly one American in five believes that Obama, a self-declared Christian, is actually a Muslim.

In the eyes of some people, too, Obama has dug a deep hole for himself and his party by pro-abortion policies and appointments, apparently including his two choices for seats on the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Volume and message

Even so, there is no comfort here for those religious Americans who fear a de facto alliance may now be taking shape between some of their fellow believers and the partisans of a political agenda focused on taxes, “big government,” and illegal immigrants, homosexuals and Muslims.

Each of these subjects involves legitimate political questions, but activists of the political right — mirroring their counterparts on the left — often come at them with an unnerving mix of fearfulness and hostility. Against a background like this, religious Americans who are neither secularists nor theocrats are waiting nervously to find out how loudly the religious voice will speak in November. And what it will say when it speaks.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

Election priorities (sidebar)

Not surprisingly, the economy and jobs topped the list of issues American voters viewed as extremely important in their election of a congressional representative this year. Here are the five key issues and the percentages of voters who felt they were extremely important, very important, moderately important and not that important.

Source: Sept. 1 USA Today/Gallup Poll