July 13, 2012
By Wayne Slater
A funny thing happened in the presidential race. God has left the stage. Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney is putting religious faith in the spotlight – certainly not like earlier in the GOP primary when Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich routinely invoked God and faith in framing their political views. George W. Bush was among our most religiously expressive presidents. And four years ago, Barack Obama very publicly hired a religious-affairs director on his campaign team and, angering some liberals, promised he would keep predecessor Bush’s faith-based initiatives intact if elected president. Nothing like that is happening now. Georgetown University professor Jacques Berlinerblau says “faith and values politicking” is nearly invisible in this year’s general election.
“Ah 2008! Good times for Faith and Values politicking, be it red or blue. It seemed every candidate – from Mike Huckabee to John Edwards – was invoking God on the stump and seasoning his or her rhetoric with scriptural allusions. Yet now that we have entered the 2012 general election F and V campaigning is at its lowest ebb since the 1996 presidential campaign,” Berlinerblau wrote recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
There are reasons: Romney’s Mormon faith is something that some in the GOP base are uncomfortable with. As for Obama, says Berlinerblau, “no bone-crushing, rain-making, coalition of religious progressives has emerged to support him.” The most active religion-talk this election is not coming from the candidates but the clergy – specifically, Catholic bishops on the issue of contraception. As the cable-news pundits remind daily, this election is about the economy. And so Faith and Values politicking isn’t front and center this year. Is that good or bad?
Is our electoral process better off without the polarizing issues of faith-based politics at center stage? Or does the absence of explicit moral and religious expression impoverish our political debate? Our Texas Faith panel weighs in:
MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University
While not all public discussion of faith and values issues is elevated and edifying, the relative absence of moral discussion in the current campaign does reflect an impoverished political discourse. Both candidates, for different reasons, have shied away from articulating the moral underpinnings of their policy proposals (and often from articulating any real policy proposals at all, though that’s a different subject). As a result, we are deprived of any deep discussion of the real ethical choices that we face as a society.
What does a just society really look like? Is inequality inherently bad, or is some level of it morally acceptable or even desirable? What are the boundaries of our community, and who is morally entitled to the protection of the state (Immigrants? The unborn?). What are the moral implications of bequeathing our children a legacy of massive debt? Does marriage, as recognized by the state, reflect any underlying natural reality of the human condition, or is it an entirely subjective legal and cultural construct? These are some of the critically important questions facing our society, but we hear virtually no discussion of them. Instead, we fixate on minor variations in the monthly employment numbers (which, as any economist will tell you, the president can affect only at the margins) and debate whether it’s OK that Mitt Romney’s wife likes to ride horses.
The irony, however, is that even though the candidates prefer to duck moral discussions because they can be “divisive” (Isn’t that inherently true of partisan politics?), these issues will be hugely consequential in shaping vote choice this fall. Mentions of abortion will be few and far between in the campaign, but there will be a huge gap between pro-life and pro-choice people in their level of support for President Obama. Neither candidate will want to delve into the issue of where we should be on the continuum between a religious and a secular society, but the difference in partisan preference between religiously committed and secular voters will be a chasm, dwarfing, I guarantee, the vaunted “gender gap.” The different moral visions underlying the Republican and Democratic worldviews are now to a large extent “baked in” to our politics—they don’t need to be mentioned for voters to sense instinctively that they are there. It would be very refreshing, however, to see the candidates wrestle with some of these big questions of social values that will define the nature of our society going forward. I am not holding my breath....