October 17th, 2012
09:11 AM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) – When judged on their ability to relate to the desires of secular Americans, the presidential candidates aren’t making the grade, according to a large coalition of secular organizations.
Looking at their positions on everything from faith’s place in the presidency to where it fits in education, health care and other American priorities, GOP candidate Mitt Romney got an F, President Barack Obama barely got by, earning a C, and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson came out at the top of the class, receiving a B.
At a time when the Pew Forum determined the religiously unaffiliated are the fastest growing “religious” group in America, with one in five Americans not affiliated with any religion, a candidate scorecard from secularists should matter, says Lauren Anderson Youngblood, spokeswoman for the Secular Coalition for America.
The coalition, which is made up of a collection of atheist, humanist and agnostic organizations, set out to grade the candidates by first identifying the criteria it deemed most important. The coalition then crafted questions to determine where the politicians stack up when it comes to, say, their stances on faith-based initiatives, public prayer and support of the word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The group pulled media reports and speech transcripts to find answers and further analyze these politicians’ performances on issues that matter to secular voters.
The coalition asked, for example, “What role would religion play in the candidate's decision-making as president of the United States?”
Based on an Obama speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2012, one in which the president said he has “fallen on my knees” and asked God for guidance “in the life of this nation,” the group handed down an F. But Romney didn’t fare any better – earning the same grade for saying in his 2007 speech on faith in America that he “will also offer perspectives on how my own faith would inform my presidency, if I were elected.”
Marks given for various questions were then added up to determine the candidates’ final grades.
Though the goal in doing this was to “help people who vote on secular values” decide who to vote for, the coalition spokeswoman believes the results could be valuable to the candidates, too.
“Political parties need to learn how to reach out to the secular community, and I think tools like the scorecard will help them do that,” Youngblood said.
The scorecard faults Obama on his continuation of faith-based initiatives, his support of keeping “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and his participation in prayer events. Obama earned As for his recognition of America as a secular nation, his appreciation of the separation of church and state, and his support of science in education.
Out of 17 categories, Romney received two As – for his support of science in education and his willingness to appoint someone secular, which he said he would do in a 2007 interview with NBC’s Tim Russert. Romney’s more common grade, though, is an F, where the coalition faults him for his use of faith in decision-making, his stance on separation of church and state and his use of religious beliefs to determine public health care policy.
Youngblood told CNN that the coalition did send questionnaires to each campaign, allowing them to answer for themselves, but no one responded – a result she called “unfortunate.”
“Many of them have religion and government intertwined,” Youngblood said, “and we are not even on their radar, not even important enough to return our questionnaire.”
But one party in particular may soon have to take notice, says John Green, a senior adviser to Pew.
Pointing to 2008 exit polls and findings that 63% of the religiously unaffiliated identify with or lean Democrat, he said that group may be poised to gain a foothold, much as the religious right gained power in the GOP in the 1980s.
For many secularists, agnostics and atheists, a standing and recognized influence can’t come soon enough.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.