In past elections, most presidential candidates, Democrats and Republicans, had no qualms with invoking God on the campaign trail.
The 2008 election season was no different. Then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama talked about his Christian conversion in a Chicago church several years earlier, telling a campaign audience that he “heard God’s spirit” beckoning him.
Four years later, President Obama, dogged by lingering suspicions, wrongly, in some corners that he is a Muslim, rarely speaks about his religious faith as he runs for a second term.
Even his Republican opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is careful not to talk too much about his religion, possibly to avoid alienating evangelicals and other conservative Christians who harbor deep suspicions about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I don’t think religion has played any role in this election,” said James F. Keating, an associate professor of theology at Providence College.
Keating told Our Sunday Visitor that the economy has “crowded out” many issues important to Catholics and people of faith, including the candidates’ religious convictions, even though the 2012 election features the first-ever Mormon presidential candidate and two Catholic vice-presidential candidates.
‘Front and center’
David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, told OSV that Romney’s Mormonism is the “front and center” religious issue in this campaign season.
Campbell noted some polls have indicated that 20 percent of Americans who are aware of Romney’s faith said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon to be president.
“To me, that’s a pretty high number,” Campbell said. “If that same percentage said they wouldn’t vote for a black man to be president, that would be major news.”
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In his first presidential run four years ago, Romney gave a speech on Mormonism, but he has not been as open this time around.
The Romney campaign focused a bit more on his religious faith during the Republican National Convention, where Mormon officials and congregants praised Romney’s leadership in their church, but even then Romney said that his friends who grew up with him “cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to.”
Geoff Layman, a Notre Dame political science professor, told OSV that he believed Romney’s Mormonism could still play a role in depressing evangelical turnout for the Republican ticket this November.
Layman said evangelicals tended to favor other Republican candidates — such as former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, a Catholic — during the primaries.
“For Romney, it’s a difficult spot,” Layman said.
“At the convention, there were efforts to frame him as a good Christian family man, but you can’t take that too far in the way an evangelical candidate might, like President George W. Bush or [Texas] Gov. Rick Perry. All you can say is that Romney is a strong family man with good morals, and leave it at that. If you go too far, you raise too many questions about the differences between Mormonism and evangelical Christianity,” Layman said.
However, a July poll by the Pew Research Center suggested that Romney’s faith will likely have little impact when voters go the polls on Nov. 6.
The poll found that 60 percent of voters who knew Romney is Mormon said they were comfortable with that, while 19 percent said his religious faith did not matter. More than 93 percent of polled Republicans who were uncomfortable with Romney’s faith said they would still vote for him.
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Evangelical antipathy toward President Obama, who is pro-choice and supports same-sex marriage, may explain why many Republicans will vote for Romney, despite their misgivings about his religion.
Campbell said the evangelical support for Romney is evidence that the “God gap” — where regular churchgoers tend to vote Republican — is still strong despite Democrats’ efforts in recent years to reach out to religious voters and shore up their traditional base of working-class devout Catholics.
“It’s notable because it’s become a semi-permanent feature in our politics,” Campbell said.
The persistent God gap may also account for the Obama campaign’s decision to not talk about the president’s religious faith, or heavily court churchgoing voters. That decision has been the source of friction within the Obama campaign, according to a Oct. 2 report by National Public Radio.
Talking about religion may not be a good political tactic anyway for Obama, who, according to the Pew poll in July, is believed to be Muslim by 17 percent of voters, despite his self-identification as a Christian. After four years in office, voters who believe President Obama is a Christian fell by six percentage points, to 49 percent.
“We haven’t heard much about the president’s religion, which seems to say he doesn’t think this is a topic worth getting into,” Campbell said.
Another factor probably guiding the Obama campaign is the fact that many polls show the country is becoming less religious.
The Pew Research Center says more than one-quarter of American adults (28 percent) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion, or no religion at all.
The number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today — 16.1 percent — is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children.
Among Americans ages 18-29, one in four say they are not currently affiliated with any religion.
People who are not religious tend to vote Democratic, which presents a challenge for that party’s politicians to not alienate secular-minded voters by talking too much about religion.
“It’s possible that as the numbers of nonreligious Americans grow, the Democratic Party realizes that the more we talk about our own faith, the harder it is to generate excitement among people who are not religious,” Layman said.
“It may be that in their thinking, Obama talking about his personal faith is not a good idea, and given that Romney is not talking about his own faith, it’s really not necessary,” Layman added.
Ryan and Biden
One interesting intersection of faith and politics in this election deals with the vice-presidential nominees.
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan and Vice President Joseph Biden, both Catholics, have come to represent the polar opposites on the Catholic political spectrum: Biden, the traditional working-class, social justice Catholic who supports legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, against Ryan, the pro-life, socially conservative Catholic who espouses a vision of limited government criticized by some bishops for hurting the poor.
“It’s definitely very interesting. These two guys symbolize the tensions in the Church, and the tensions that individual Catholics feel by being pulled in opposite directions on Church issues,” Layman said.
However, whether that has any impact on voters is doubtful.
Political analysts say the types of Catholics who are attracted to Biden or Ryan were already decided on voting Republican or Democrat anyway, though Layman said he could see Ryan attracting some conservative white Catholics who have been trending in a Republican direction in recent campaigns.
Keating, of Providence College, does not see the candidates’ religious faiths having any effect.
“When the bishops came out against the Ryan budget, did that have any effect? Did people even know?” asked Keating, who noted that moral issues — such as religious liberty and right to life — have not gained any traction on the campaign trail.
“It seems those issues are not playing,” Keating said.
Brian Fraga writes from Texas
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