December 31st, 2012
07:10 AM ET
Editor’s Note: Robert P. Jones, Ph.D., is the CEO at Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Daniel Cox is the Director of Research at PRRI and specializes in research on millennials and the religiously unaffiliated.
(CNN) – Considering that 2012 saw the first presidential contest in which there was no white mainline Protestant anywhere on the presidential ticket, religion played a surprisingly subtle role in the election cycle. But even if religion played more of a supporting than a leading role in the election, the religion factor was nonetheless alive and well this year.
Here are the 10 most important ways religion influenced politics and culture in 2012, trimmed out with findings from 16 surveys and over 22,000 interviews conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute research team in 2012.
1) The Mormon question is finally laid to rest
We, too, thought the speculation would never end, but the “Mormon question” was essentially answered by May, when white evangelicals fell in line behind Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee. This answer was confirmed at the ballot box in November, when white evangelical Protestants, who made up nearly one-quarter (23%) of all voters in 2012, turned out at a rate comparable to 2004 and supported Romney (79%) over Obama (20%) by nearly 60 points.
The bottom line: partisanship and antipathy toward Obama ultimately trumped theological concerns about the Mormon faith among white evangelical Protestants.
2) The end of a white Christian majority
Obama’s decisive victory in 2012 was largely the result of his strong support among the growing number of non-Christian, nonwhite Christian, and religiously unaffiliated voters. While white Christians made up the vast majority (81%) of Romney’s vote, they comprised only 39% of Obama’s coalition. Over the past few decades, Democratic presidential candidates have relied less and less on white Christian voters (e.g., white Christians were 60% of Bill Clinton’s 1992 coalition), while Republican presidential voting coalitions have continued to rely on coalitions that are approximately 8-in-10 white Christian.
The bottom line: In presidential election years, there simply are no longer enough white Christian votes to overcome deficits among other demographics for Republican presidential candidates.
3) The religiously unaffiliated are not all 'nones'
Americans who identify with no particular religion now represent nearly 1 in 5 (19%) Americans, but they are not all “nones” or nonbelievers. Although more than one-third (36%) of the religiously unaffiliated are atheist or agnostic, roughly 4-in-10 (39%) of the unaffiliated identify as secular, and nearly one-quarter (23%) belong to a newly identified category of “unattached believers.”
These groups differ significantly not only in their level of religious commitment and belief - most secular Americans believe in some type of God and unattached believers overwhelmingly believe in a personal God and pray with some regularity - but in who they are.
Unattached believers are more likely to be Hispanic and African-American, while the vast majority of seculars and atheists and agnostics are white. As a whole, however, religiously unaffiliated voters are fairly unengaged, politically. They strongly supported Obama (70%) over Romney (26%) in 2012, but despite representing nearly 1 in 5 Americans, they made up only 12% of voters in 2012.
The bottom line: The growth of the religiously unaffiliated is changing the American religious landscape, but it has only partially been felt at the ballot box due to lower turnout rates.
4) Jewish voters unswayed by rhetoric on Israel
Despite strenuous efforts by Republican leaders and strategists to convince Jewish voters to abandon Obama because of his record on Israel, only 4% of Jewish voters reported that Israel was the single most important factor in their vote this year.
A majority of Jewish voters reported that the economy was the most important issue in determining how they would vote. The proof was in the pudding on Election Day: Obama won 69% of the Jewish vote, a result that was lower than his support among Jewish Americans in 2008 (78%), but only slightly lower than John Kerry’s level of support in 2004 (74%).
The bottom line: GOP leaders will have to expand their outreach strategy beyond the topic of Israel to reach into the American Jewish community; this will present a challenge on the domestic policy front, since American Jews strongly favor economic justice and are among the strongest supporters of rights for women, immigrants, and gay and lesbian Americans.
5) Failure to launch: Contraception mandate as religious liberty violation
Bishops sought to raise Catholics’ ire against the “contraception mandate,” a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires religiously affiliated organizations to provide no-cost birth control to their employees through health insurance plans. Yet, throughout the year, most Americans (55%) and a majority of Catholics (52%) agreed that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to comply with this requirement.
White Catholics were more divided, but white evangelical Protestants are notably the only religious group that remains staunchly opposed (66%) to the mandate.
The bottom line: Rank and file Catholics strongly support the principles of religious liberty, but most do not have moral objections to contraception and failed to see the religious liberty threat in the ACA.
6) Shattering the myth of the “Catholic vote”
While it’s a much-repeated fact that the winner of the Catholic vote has won the popular vote in every presidential election since 1972 (Obama led Romney 50% to 48% in 2012), this fact hides the presence of at least two Catholic votes. Three-quarters of Hispanic Catholics voted for Obama, while nearly 6 in 10 white Catholics supported Romney.
The bottom line: While Catholics maintained their bellwether status again this year, the shrinking number of white Catholics coupled with the rapid growth of Latino Catholics promise to tip the scales toward Democrats in the future, if current voting patterns continue. Look for delicate negotiations as the laity drifts left while the bishops tack right.
7) Millennials not their parents’ 'values voters'
Upending many likely voter models in pre-election polls, this 75 million-person cohort flexed its political muscle once again this year. On Election Day, millennial voters under the age of 30 outnumbered seniors (19% vs. 16% of all voters), and strongly supported state ballot initiatives on marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage. Fully 6 in 10 lined up behind Obama. Pre-election polls found that more than two-thirds (68%) of millennials nationwide favor same-sex marriage, and 6 in 10 (59%) favor legalizing marijuana.
The bottom line: Using traditional models, most polling firms underestimated millennial turnout; this generation is sending analysts back to the drawing board to understand both their style of political engagement and a new generation of “values voters.”
8) The sea change on same-sex marriage
Same-sex marriage advocates went from a 13-0 losing record on state ballot measures in 2004 to 4-0 winning record in 2012. Before a single vote was cast, it was already clear the landscape on the issue of same-sex marriage had shifted considerably over the past decade. Most notably, Obama’s support for same-sex marriage before the election was not a prominent theme in negative campaign ads. Three states (Washington, Maryland and Maine) legalized same-sex marriage through popular referendums, and a ban against same-sex marriage was defeated in Minnesota, marking the first time this issue has ever triumphed by popular vote at the polls.
The bottom line: Look for this issue to fade at the national level as a campaign wedge issue. The polling shows that it’s not just America’s youngest voters who favor same-sex marriage – a majority (51%) of Americans age 30-49 now support allowing gay and lesbian people to marry.
9) The perils of staking out extreme views on abortion
Republican Senate candidates Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin seemed not to realize just how far outside the mainstream their comments about rape and abortion were, even among their base.
While 69% of white evangelical Protestants say abortion is morally wrong, two-thirds (66%) nonetheless believe that women should be able to obtain a legal abortion in cases of rape.
The bottom line: While the issue of abortion continues to divide Americans, political leaders on both the left and the right would do well to remember that Americans hold complex views on this issue, that they distinguish between moral disapproval and legal prohibition, and that few on either side are absolutists.
10) Americans support Second Amendment, but also strict enforcement
Earlier this year, just after the mass shootings in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, we discovered that although more than two-thirds (68%) of Americans perceive the right to bear arms to be as important as other constitutional rights, majorities also want both stricter gun laws (52%) and stricter enforcement of existing gun laws (67%).
Furthermore, roughly three-quarters of Americans believe that concealed weapons should not be permitted in churches, on college campuses, or in government buildings. While support for stricter gun control laws has generally waned since the 1990s, there is early evidence that in the wake of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, support for stricter gun control laws is now in solid majority territory and at a 10-year high.
The bottom line: Still to be seen. The Columbine High School shootings resulted in an increase in support for stricter gun control laws for about a year before support began to flag and continue its downward trend.
Finally, the 2013 religion and politics forecast:
Look for religious groups and themes to appear in debates over immigration reform, economic policy as the “fiscal cliff” fight spills over into 2013, implementation of the ACA, and LGBT rights as the Supreme Court hears challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox.
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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.