May 10th, 2012
10:56 AM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) – Everyone knows the 2012 presidential race is about jobs and the economy. As likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney said a couple weeks ago: “It’s still about the economy, and we’re not stupid.”
But have you noticed how the culture wars keep intruding into this it’s-all-about-the-economy election?
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama voiced personal support for same-sex marriage, launching a new wave of national debate around the issue. A day earlier, North Carolinians voted to amend their constitution to ban gay marriage and other legal arrangements for gay couples.
It’s a one-two punch of reminders that social issues with deep religious reverberations still matter.
In that spirit, here are five ways faith-based politics could shape this presidential contest, drawn up with help from religion reporter friends who gathered this week to talk about God (and godlessness) and politics:
1. President Obama’s support for same-sex marriage means a hot-button social issue will be a factor in the race. How much of a factor is up for debate. Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition chief, calls the president’s announcement a “gift to the Romney campaign,” because it will mobilize social conservatives and won’t play well in swing states like Ohio, Florida and Virginia. It's also likely to disappoint some black voters, who tend to be socially conservative. But the University of Akron's John Green says battleground fallout is unclear; we don’t have reliable polling about where voters stand on gay marriage in those states, he says.
2. Regardless of the issues at play, religion is one of the best predictors of how Americans vote. That’s been true in elections like 2004, the year of “values voters” and more than a dozen state-level gay marriage bans, and 2008, when most of the political talk was about reviving the economy.
Even in years like 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life determined that frequency of attendance at religious services was a better predictor of how Americans voted than any other demographic factor besides race. That means religiosity was a better predictor than gender. Better than education level. Better than age, union membership, or whether someone lived in a rural vs. an urban area. That’s pretty amazing.
As USA Today’s Cathy Lynn Grossman points out, “There’s a set number of people for whom religion really matters.” That doesn’t change from election to election. It’s a safe bet that level of religious observance will be a good predictor of how we vote this year, too.
3. Despite their focus on jobs, debt and taxes, the two major parties and their candidates are really presenting two competing moral visions for America. National elections, Washington Post religion columnist Lisa Miller says, are more about those contrasting narratives than about how each candidate would craft a federal budget.
Miller says that most voters fall into one of two camps: those supporting a “communitarian” America, in which we’re all our brother’s keepers, and those stressing “self-reliance and individual achievement.” The former are liberals, the latter are conservatives, and Miller argues they're separated by different moral takes on economic systems. Conservatives would disagree, saying that they are their brothers’ keepers – they just don’t want the government playing that role. Still, Miller is onto something about competing moral visions.
4. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. There’s been so much discussion of how Romney’s faith will affect his chances – some Christians consider Mormonism a cult, etc. – that there’s no need to rehash it all here. But Kevin Eckstrom, the editor of the Religion News Service, notes that Romney has yet to prove that he could win the evangelical base of his own party. (Eckstrom also notes that President Obama has his own base problems.)
On the question of whether Romney can surmount doubts about Mormonism, Eckstrom has invented what he calls the “A.J.” test, named after his Southern Baptist father-in-law. A.J. ain’t fond of Mormons, but he hates President Obama even more. Eckstrom theorizes that a despised incumbent – Obama – will make it much easier for Romney to win evangelicals than it would be otherwise. Worth noting that some political/religious minds believe Romney’s Mormonism will be a bigger stumbling block for independents than for the GOP base.
5. The battle over the White House’s contraception mandate provided a strong frame for women’s issues in the election, especially on health care. The conventional wisdom is that the White House won the battle with the Catholic bishops for public opinion, and the GOP is working overtime to win back independent women. To wit, the party is promoting its own version of the Violence Against Women Act in Congress. And Romney has equated Obama’s economic policies to an economic war on women. What started as an inside-the-Beltway battle over a proposed Health and Human Services policy has metastasized into a full-blown metanarrative.
One caveat to all this is that the presidential candidates themselves may talk a lot less about religion than during the 2008 and 2004 elections.
Romney doesn’t like to discuss his Mormonism, and Obama got burned for his close relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 2008, which may make him more reticent on his personal faith this time around. His campaign has yet to hire a religious outreach director this year, even after pioneering such outreach for Democrats in the last election.
This doesn’t mean religion won’t matter in the battle for the White House (see points 1 through 5, above) but it will matter differently than it has recently. Which should keep things interesting.
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