October 25, 2012
By William McKenzie
Billy Graham met with Mitt Romney this month, offering what some considered his approval of the campaign of a Mormon seeking the presidency. And earlier in the campaign, mostly during the primaries, there was discussion about the definition of religious freedom.
But, by and large, religion has not played a major role in this year’s election. There have been few religious-themed debates over issues such as gay marriage, abortion, the Middle East and Islamic extremism. And there has been little high-profile courting of pastors such as Rick Warren, Jim Wallis or T.D. Jakes.
At least not like in the last several election cycles, where candidates from George W. Bush to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama to John McCain to Sarah Palin talked openly about their religion or courted “values voters” and their leaders from right, left and center.
With that in mind, the question for this week is this:
Do you agree with this assessment? If so, why do you think religion has played less of a role? And is that a healthy phenomenon?
If not, please make the case for why you think religion still has played a major role. And explain whether you think that has been a positive or negative contribution to the campaign....
WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
Religion is playing a role in the 2012 election campaign. But its effects are more subtle than in other years, primarily because neither party has chosen to use high-profile religious leaders or events as wedge issues in the campaign.
In 2008, forces within the Republican Party chose to wage political warfare against Barack Obama’s local church membership. Based on statements in sermons by his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the opposition to Mr. Obama made such a huge issue of his church affiliation that he was forced to resign as a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Whether there was any precedent for Americans’ allowing such political intrusion in private and constitutionally protected religious freedom remains an unexamined question.
This year, Republicans have allowed their fringe friends to trumpet the lie that Mr. Obama is a Muslim. (Being an adherent of Islam is clearly not a constitutionally disqualifying factor in the race for the presidency, of course.) However, mainstream Republicans have chosen not to make an issue of the president’s faith or affiliation.
Likewise, Democrats have chosen not to make an issue of Mr. Romney’s deep devotion to Mormonism. It is constitutionally correct to leave Mr. Romney’s faith alone. But it may be politically unwise. Southern Baptists, it should be remembered, have resolved to evangelize among Mormons and save them from their false faith. And Mormons have escaped criticism for their official policies that subordinate and subjugate women. The Democrats, nevertheless, have avoided making Mormon beliefs a topic for discussion.
It seems that both parties, at least in their presidential campaigns, have decided that religion is potentially too “hot” an issue to control. Would further attacks on Mr. Obama’s faith rile undecided voters among Jews, Muslims, and others to rally to his side? Would assaults on Mr. Romney’s faith backfire?
But perhaps there is another explanation. Younger Americans, according to one major study, have become very unhappy with religious organizations that tie themselves to specific political ideologies and parties. Perhaps the religious leaders of America have decided that it is in their organizations’ own best interests to take a lower profile this political year. It may be that instead of the politicians’ reducing their use of religion, religionists are resorting less to politics....
MATTHEW WILSON, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University
I think we have reached the point where religion has become so “baked in” to our politics that candidates don’t even have to talk about for it to matter for vote choice. Candidates almost never talk explicitly about race in presidential campaigns, but no one would argue that racial issues are irrelevant to American politics.
Despite the relative absence of religious discussion in the campaign, I guarantee that on Election Day religious commitment will be one of the biggest predictors of vote choice. The “God gap,” or the difference in support for Republican candidates between those who attend church regularly and those who attend seldom or never, will dwarf the vaunted gender gap, and will be much greater than the partisan differences stemming from income.
In every election since 1980, the Democratic candidate has been unambiguously pro-choice and the Republican candidate has been pro-life. Beginning in 1972, elites in the Democratic Party moved sharply to the cultural left and away from the values of traditional Christianity. Voters know these things, and they have become so self-evidently true that they don’t really require talking about any more.
At the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, speaker after speaker fired up the crowd with references to abortion rights and gay marriage, and the party infamously struck all mention of God from its platform (something that it hastily and superficially corrected once the media noticed). Given this pattern, do Republicans really need to say much to win the lion’s share of support from religiously-committed voters?
All in all, I would argue that it’s a good thing that people bring their religious values to bear in the political process. To be sure, some do so in a shallow, unsophisticated way, but this is true of every sort of political reasoning that shapes partisanship and candidate choice. Robust religion cannot be a wholly private matter; it must shape how we act in the public sphere as well. When the two parties diverge on such fundamental questions as the nature of personhood and the meaning of marriage, how could voters not decide based on their most deeply held values?...