Center for American Progress

10 Things You Should Know About Religion in the 2012 Elections

10 Things You Should Know About Religion in the 2012 Elections

“God Talk” Is Alive and Well in This Year’s Campaign

Catherine Woodiwiss and Sally Steenland identify 10 ways religion will influence this year’s presidential contest.

Mormon church leaders have been careful to not come out in support of Mitt Romney, above,  or former candidate Jon Huntsman. The church generally aims to steer  clear of electoral politics for tax-exempt status reasons, and wants to promote a  broader image of Mormons than its conservative reputation allows. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Mormon church leaders have been careful to not come out in support of Mitt Romney, above, or former candidate Jon Huntsman. The church generally aims to steer clear of electoral politics for tax-exempt status reasons, and wants to promote a broader image of Mormons than its conservative reputation allows. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

On January 24 CAP hosted an event, “God and Politics: Examining Religion in the 2012 Elections.” Panelists included Joanna Brooks, columnist for Religion Dispatches and author of the upcoming book The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith; Shaun A. Casey, professor of Christian ethics, Wesley Theological Seminary and author of The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy v. Nixon 1960; Dr. Robert P. Jones, founding CEO of Public Religion Research Institute; and Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and executive member of the Latino Leadership Circle. Sally Steenland, Director of the CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, moderated the event’s panel. Several of the issues addressed in the discussion are highlighted in this article. Watch a video of the event here.

Religion is a dynamic force in America, so it’s no surprise that every four years religious language jumps to the forefront of presidential campaigns. From the Mormon faith of Mitt Romney to the voting clout of evangelicals and Catholics, religion is debated by candidates and seized on by the press.

Although the economy and jobs rank first in voters’ concerns, “God talk” is widespread and often loud this primary season, and culture-war issues like abortion and same-sex marriage get top billing in many candidates’ speeches. Hearing it all, voters can be excused for wondering: Is there anything more to say about God and politics?

Actually, yes. Despite the headline-grabbing appeal of the sensational and the strange, a number of important religious issues and trends have been under-the-radar, misinterpreted, or invisible in the 2012 campaign. Here are 10 things to know about religion that are likely to influence elections this year.

1. All major religious groups favor a more equitable distribution of wealth

Six in 10 Americans agree that society would be better off if the distribution of wealth were more equal. This majority includes every major religious group. Despite significant differences on other issues, one belief that unites white evangelicals (53 percent), mainline Protestants (55 percent), Catholics (61 percent), black Protestants (79 percent), and other faith groups (61 percent of the “non-Christian affiliated” including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists) is that severe economic inequality is both unfair and morally wrong. Interfaith engagement in Occupy Wall Street protests, unemployment benefits protection rallies in Washington, and collective bargaining rights battles in Ohio and Wisconsin indicate that populist religion is alive and well. Candidates who seek to divide the religious vote along “class warfare” lines should take note.

2. Latino evangelicals may hold the key to swing states

Latino voters are among the fastest-growing group in the United States—and Latino evangelicals, at about 15 percent of the Latino population, are on the rise as well. Latino evangelicals constitute a significant presence in the swing states of Nevada, Florida, Colorado, and New Mexico, where they may play a decisive role this year.

According to Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, pollsters and candidates alike largely overlook Latino evangelicals as a subgroup. Similar to other groups, jobs and the economy rank as their top concerns. But their second priority is immigration reform, where both political parties have disappointed them: Latino evangelicals voted decisively for Bush in 2004 and then for Obama by a slim majority in 2008.

Same-sex marriage and abortion are also issues of top concern for Latino evangelicals. Whether these issues or immigration emerges as a voting priority for Latino evangelicals will help determine if their states will go red or blue.

3. Don’t expect Romney endorsements from Mormon leaders

Mormon candidate Romney’s growing strength in the GOP primaries has prompted speculation about the role of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in his campaign—and its clout in the world, should he become president.

According to Mormon columnist and scholar Joanna Brooks, church leaders have been careful to not come out in support of Romney or former candidate Jon Huntsman. The church generally aims to steer clear of electoral politics for tax-exempt status reasons, and wants to promote a broader image of Mormons than its conservative reputation allows. Additionally, there is a perception of Mormons as having theocratic ambitions, and the church would prefer to avoid endorsing a candidate and inflaming that concern.

4. White mainline Protestants and white Catholics are trending in opposite directions

Fifty years ago, most Catholics voted for Democrats, while most mainline Protestants such as Methodists and Episcopalians voted for Republicans. But beginning in 1980, as Republicans began to champion conservative social issues, and Democrats embraced civil rights and social justice, these voting patterns started to change. Catholics have moved to being the bellwether swing vote, with white Catholic voters leaning more Republican, while mainline Protestant voters—historically more solidly Republican—are leaning Democratic. The result is a swing vote across the center from opposing sides, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. With each group important for electoral victory, will this be the year they switch sides?

5. Shared religious beliefs are directly related to approval ratings for candidates of either party

Two-thirds of voters say it’s important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs, according to a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. Among these voters one in five say they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate whose religious beliefs were different from their own. Such attitudes hold true when it comes to President Barack Obama—only half of respondents say the president’s religion is similar to their own, and of those who see his religion as “very different,” a full 8 in 10 hold an unfavorable view of the president.

Robert P Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, interprets this finding as a way for voters to “vet” their candidate. According to Jones, religion is a proxy for moral character and trustworthiness, and a similarity in this realm reassures voters that the president’s moral compass will reflect their own. Conversely, if voters are not confident that a candidate reflects their own values, they are much more likely to register disapproval.

6. Flirting with the “nones”

Religious affiliation—identifying as a Catholic or Baptist, for instance—is waning, even as highly partisan gaps are developing between very religious and nonaffiliated voters (including those who identify as spiritual but not religious, often called the “nones”). This widening gap poses an ever-steeper challenge to any elected official who wants to speak to particular moral concerns and also unite a diverse public. Campaigns must target diverse religious and nonreligious voters, as well as those in the shrinking middle, appealing to each without alienating the others—no easy task.

7. “Islamophobia” is costing conservatives a key group: Muslims

In the past Muslim voters have trended conservative and voted for Republicans. For instance, in the 2000 election more than 70 percent of Muslims voted for George W. Bush. On issues ranging from free enterprise to same-sex marriage, Muslims are more likely to mirror the views of Republicans than those of Democrats.

But after September 11, two wars in majority-Muslim countries abroad, and anti-Muslim bigotry at home, Muslims have felt increasingly under attack by conservative and right-wing forces that portray Muslim Americans as an “enemy in our midst.” Anti-Sharia bills have been introduced by Republican legislators in more than a dozen states, and conservative media have been a megaphone for anti-Muslim rhetoric. Since the death of Osama bin Laden, anti-Muslim sentiment has risen even more, with 25 percent agreeing that American Muslims make the country more dangerous, and 33 percent agreeing that “the government and media has shown more respect to Muslims than they deserve.”

President Obama currently has high approval among Muslim voters (76 percent) in part for his support for democracy during the Arab Spring and his leadership in ending the war in Iraq. But some Muslims would prefer a libertarian president, and support for the president—and for political engagement in general—has waned with Obama’s opposition to Palestinian statehood and as anti-Muslim sentiment remains in the country. Muslims are unique, however, in that the more religious they are, the more Democratic they tend to vote. And if the GOP candidates engage in Islamophobic rhetoric, Muslims are likely to remain with Obama, despite lack of agreement with his social policies. As long as their religious identity is under attack, expect voting Muslims to trend left.

8. Evangelical voters are not monolithic

“Voting bloc” is shorthand for a demographic group whose members tend to vote in a predictably unified way year after year. Despite these patterns even the most allegedly reliable voting blocs contain diversity within their ranks that can, over time, disrupt their voting patterns.

Take, for example, the 26 percent of Americans who identify as evangelical. Historically this group has voted for socially conservative Republican candidates. Yet evangelicals are becoming more racially and economically diverse, and young evangelicals are becoming more politically progressive. They are more likely than their elders to see issues of poverty, immigration, and climate change as key to their faith. And contrary to the perception that evangelicals are primarily concerned only about “culture-war” issues, evangelical leaders and voters agree that the economy is the most important issue this year.

Outreach efforts matter to what is becoming less of an assured bulwark for conservative votes, particularly among nonwhite evangelicals and young voters. (In 2008, for example, Barack Obama doubled the young evangelical vote from his Democratic counterpart in 2004.) Ultimately, the conventional wisdom about evangelicals is no longer a robust narrative.

9. …And evangelical kingmaking days are over

A week before the South Carolina primary, a group of more than 100 evangelical leaders met in Texas to endorse a candidate in the hopes of influencing evangelical voters in their choice for president. Rick Santorum won their endorsement, but the vote was soon contested by Gingrich supporters and controversies over ballot-stuffing and other irregularities. Days later Santorum placed third in the South Carolina primary.

This lack of influence is in sharp contrast to the past, when evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority enterprise helped Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush win the Republican Party nominations. Shaun Casey, religious and political historian and professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, points to these trends as signs that “king-making” days are over. No longer can a group of men sit behind closed doors and decide who the Republican candidate will be. Casey points to the aging of conservative evangelical leaders and the coming-of-age of younger evangelicals who are not looking for top-down leadership for voting cues as two reasons for this shift.

10. Religious liberty will be a contentious issue

Religious liberty is an American value deeply ingrained in the core of our democracy. A long tradition of religious liberty has allowed faith institutions in our nation to thrive.

Unfortunately, the principle of religious liberty has become a divisive weapon in the 2012 campaign, as differences regarding conscience are being misused and extrapolated for political gain. Disagreement over a Department of Health and Human Services regulation requiring certain religious-based institutions to include contraceptive coverage in their health plans as part of the Affordable Care Act has morphed into divisive rhetoric and knee-jerk responses. The result is that “religious liberty” is likely to be in the arsenal of this year’s political battles.

As in years past, religion is once again playing a major role in the 2012 campaign. In order to educate voters and promote leadership that works for all of us, it is important for politicians, the media, and faith leaders to exercise civility, be truthful, and seek to bind us together rather than divide us.

Catherine Woodiwiss is the Special Assistant for Faith and Progressive Policy and Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

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Catherine Woodiwiss

Special Assistant

Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative