Our Take: Biggest moves in religion and politics in 2012
December 31st, 2012
07:10 AM ET

Our Take: Biggest moves in religion and politics in 2012

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.

By Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox, Special to CNN

(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.

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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.

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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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Opinion

soundoff (256 Responses)
  1. ItsOnlyMe

    Excellent article. The GOP should shudder at these facts. Their entire power base is corroding before their eyes. White males, religious fanatics, bigots of all varieties, gay haters, and so on, have finally been overshadowed by the great majority of Americans who feel they did not have a voice or a chance in politics. Barack Hussein Obama has overcome the dark forces of evil and the American experiment is strong. God is good! Yes, she is!!

    December 31, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  2. Jen

    It's weird watching the US from the outside, to see a country which claims to be the greatest democracy on Earth and yet it has precious little separation of Church and State. You wouldn't need an article like this in Australia.

    December 31, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • tkogrady

      You would in Queensland!

      December 31, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  3. cuzIsaidso

    The under 30 voters outnumbering seniors 19% to 16% may be the most significant point of the article. Any political party that wants to remain relevant needs to realize that America is gradually shifting from white/conservative to diversity. Anyone trying to take America back to the 1950s will get left behind.

    December 31, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • albert yester

      You "progressives" are going to see who gets left behind in these next four years. By the time Obama's second term is over you will wish you had never heard his name.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Julie

      @ albert yester, you know, phychosis is treatable in most cases.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Edweird69

      @ Albert – the only name I wish I'd have never heard is George W..that's for sure! He is an amazing man...Amazing one squinty eyed little weasel can do so much damage in so few years.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Heathen

      Lol another conspiracy-drawn bible fanatic. "Buy soup and guns because Obama is the antichrist!" Bahaha

      December 31, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • albert yester

      @Julie. You must be speaking from experience.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • ??

      @ albert.speaking of,"never heard his name",how many times did you hear the name GEORGE W BUSH at the GOP convention?..They tried to pretend his 8 years didn't even happen.It did not work.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  4. empresstrudy

    Having an article about religion on CNN is a bit like having an NA meeting in a crackhouse.

    December 31, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • CosmicC

      Maybe I need more coffee, but your analogy makes no sense to me.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Edweird69

      I concur with Cosmic. I don't quite get the analogy.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  5. MagicPanties

    buh-bye GOP

    December 31, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  6. JJ

    The GOP also underestimated the Muslim vote. 96% went to Obama as Romney received only 6%. And they were crucial in key swing states like Florida and Virginia.

    December 31, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • albert yester

      It is ineresting to me how many "progressives" disdain the thought of living by faith, when they themselves have faith in a preposterous theory that cannot explain the "Cambrian explosiion" or how all of creation happened by some chain of cosmic happenstances. Those who frown on those who live by faith in God, for the most part are living by faith in a theory has never been proven. Their faith is a belief in something some other person has said or written that says people came into being from nothing. Their faith is one that asks one to belive that a tornado could hit an airplane parts warehouse and leave behind a fully assembled 747. Seems to me that theirs is the fairytale.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Timodeus

      Check your math dude.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Nic

      @albert "Those who frown on those who live by faith in God, for the most part are living by faith in a theory has never been proven. Their faith is a belief in something some other person has said or written that says people came into being from nothing". Sounds a lot like religion to me.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • longshot

      albert clearly has no education or understanding of science, must live in a fox-news world based somewhere in texas

      December 31, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • CosmicC

      @Albert – I'm not sure why you're off on this particular rant. The article is not about belief vs. non-belief. It's about how different demographics, primarily based on belief systems, voted this year.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Heathen

      @longshot Ha! @albert a scientific theory has loads of evidence and has a different meaning than the common term 'theory'. This is literally 3 grade science. Evidence doesn't require faith so go back under that rock.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  7. cc

    Among people I talk to the contraception coverage issue is thought to be a red herring. If the religious aren't hypocrites then their employees support their views & don't use contraception-so covering it shouldn't be an issue. Since it is, either they're making it one to cover something else or they believe their own employees don't support their beliefs.

    December 31, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • albert yester

      Busness owner's employees don't necessarily agree with there boss's views. However those who truly have a conviction about the murder of innocent children can simply make all their employees part time so they won't have to provide coverage. Violating your conscience is worse than violating the law.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • NorthVanCan


      December 31, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • NorthVanCan

      Totally 2

      December 31, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  8. sparky

    ...just found out that 76 trombones led the big parade... I thought there were only 74....
    With 2 more trombones added, the noise is nearly deafening. What did you say?
    Being Politically Correct isn't always about the nearness of God you feel when voting. Options...
    We must have more trombones in the big parade. more options...more noise.
    Some people won't notice the difference anyway

    December 31, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  9. Name*penguin

    The stats brought up in this article prove that white evangical christians are evangelical but they most certainly are not Christian

    December 31, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • albert yester

      Stats can be made to read any way you want them to read. And, if you are not a Christian, you certainly don't know what one is.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • CosmicC

      I know many Christians. I know many Evangelicals. I know few of the second group that really fit in the first.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  10. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Where are the "Evangelical" voices in the fiscal cliff debates as the GOP only want to protect the wealthiest Americans and squash the remaining, that's not a Bibical teaching. Speak Evangelist or forever remain silent.

    December 31, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Edweird69

      So true! Feels like Repugs just robbed my house, and as they're leaving, one of them discovered there were a few coins left in my plastic milk jug..

      December 31, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • albert yester

      You are part of the minority in this nation who ignore the most important part of your being. The spiritual part. I have prayed to God and seen physical healings. I have also seen him transform hard and callous individuals into tender-hearted human beings. There is a Hell and there is a Heaven. And the fool has said in his heart there is no God.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Edweird69

      ONly a fool says "there is no god"? And where did this quote come from? The bible? So the bible is true, because it says it's true? You have fallen for the oldest con game in history. Believe it, or be labeled a fool.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • albert yester

      You condemn other's faith in God when you haven't even read the Bible for youself. If you had you would know that the scripture I referenced came from the Bible. By the way, your hero Obama professes to be a Christian himself. Or the fact that you don't condemn him show that you recognize that he is just a big hypocrite??

      December 31, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Edweird69

      @Albert – I haven't read the Quran either, and neither have you. Why do you think I'd favor your fairytale over another?

      December 31, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • DougNJ

      Albert, If god is everywhere, where is hell?

      December 31, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Pete

      Where is hell? Most likely it is a five mile radius around where ever Albert happens to be.

      December 31, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  11. Julie

    Mathematicians predict that within 100 years religious affiliation as we know it will be a very small and insignificant minority. Ever wonder why?

    December 31, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Edweird69

      Wish I was young enough to see that day. Those delusionists made my years here on earth, a living he11. Their scare tactics, always passing the plate at church wanting money, convincing my family there are invisible beings watching them, threatening them. My entire childhood was based on a fairytale.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Freedom FROM Religion

      I hope they are wrong and that day comes much much sooner.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  12. Caleb Boone


    I have read your complete article, in full, with interest.

    Your first point is the most striking to me.

    You have concluded, essentially, that white Christians voted for Governor Romney just because they didn't like the President.

    You have attributed this to "partisanship and antipathy toward Obama."

    That is another way of saying Republicanism and racism.

    I believe your conclusion is correct.

    I am willing to assume you have not allowed any of your personal views to creep into your article.

    If you are right, then you have proven that those caucasians in America who call themselves Born-Again Christians are racists who are willing to vote against an African-American just because he is African-American.

    Even though that would involve supporting someone whose beliefs are completely contradictory to Christian beliefs.

    You have therefore further proven that white American Christians do not care about what they say they believe, if it stands in the way of their racism.

    That is trashy, junky and tacky.

    Have a Dovely.

    Sincerely yours,
    Caleb Boone.

    December 31, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Heathen

      And boom goes the dynamite. I bet that'll burn for a day or two.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • becool

      I totally support the idea of racism prob. that the white Evangelicals suffer from; it happens not only in politics but in churches as well, my experience has shown me how this nonsense works at the churches that let me walked, me and thousands!!!! There will be a backlash in the future when the white evangelicals and others like them will become minority in U.S. because the law of physics rules that for every action there;s a reaction.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Pierre - Westmount

      "....Even though that would involve supporting someone whose beliefs are completely contradictory to Christian beliefs."

      In order for your comment to be credible, you should elaborate on your statement.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • CosmicC

      While I certainly believe that many Americans voted against Obama because they are racist, I disagree with your statement that they voted against their Christian beliefs. I assume by that you are referring to Romney's Mormonism. While they may believe that Mormons are not Christian, as an outsider I don't see that much difference between Mormonism and other Christian sects. I mean it's not like Catholics and Protestants are so far apart that they would go to war over it...oh, wait. They did. Never mind.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • DougNJ

      To 'becool', I love physics. Physics truly is universal. Where ever you go it is the same. Religion though, I was raised catholic and depending on where in the world one is,,, American Catholic use birth control, do not go to mass every Sunday or Saturday. Protestant has many factions, even Baptist has many flavors. Evangelicals are even more diverse as to what flies or does not. When is the last time they killed someone for breaking the sabath [numbers 15.35-36]? They cherry-pick the bible to death.

      December 31, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  13. are122

    Obama’s decisive victory in 2012 <~~ Barely won popular vote.

    December 31, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • DalaiLama

      Compared to Boosh who LOST the popular vote, having to be appointed by a corrupt Supreme Court, and he claimed a "mandate", it looks Like President Obama's victory was a LANDSLIDE!

      December 31, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Bermille

      And yet Romney still didn't win.

      December 31, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • ??

      ..Wasn't it 12 of 13 battleground states.Get over it already, Karl.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  14. Doc Vestibule


    Suri Cruise will be named the 2nd coming of L. Ron Hubbard. From that point on, all photos of the child will prominently display dozens of ficti.tious military decorations.
    Paris Hilton will adopt a 3rd world child and then discard it when it becomes too large to tote around in a handbag.
    Iran will breed a race of brobdignagian insects that breathe atomic fire. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will claim that they are "purely decorative".
    Capitalizing on the success of Botox, plastic surgeons will begin injecting clients with salmonella to promote weight loss. "Salmonex" booths will pop up in mall food courts all over America.

    December 31, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  15. Mohammad

    Let's not forget that Muslims voted for Obama almost 94% to 6% for Romney. Such vote was the tipping vote in few swing states such as Florida.

    December 31, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  16. Happy

    Happt New Year
    Raising a chalice of wine into the air, Pope Leo X toasted: "How well we know what a profitable superst_ition this fable of Christ has been for us ...

    December 31, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • TEH

      that quote is one of my favorite mis-attributions. Leo never said such a thing. There is not a single shred of evidence apart from really honest skeptics sites that have been re-quoting it over and over again for the better part of a century. Sad, really.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  17. Number 3=10

    and the conclusion. People that use a lightening rod issue to determine their vote do a disservice to democracy. What happened to the idea of electing the candidate that is the best capable of leading the country to a better future? Every election you hear the cry to throw the bums out and we end up with little change. If we continue to elect leaders who are not capable or willing to compromise, we deserve the government that we now have, gridlock and failure.

    December 31, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • Amberglas

      Why don't they vote the bums out? Sometimes it's fear that the devil they don't know may be worse than they devil they know. And I fear that for a growing number of Americans, politics has become just another sports team, which means "our team" has to win and the other team has to lose – there's no compromise in sports, and you support your team, good or bad.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • Number 3-10

      True and frightening. Vegas even puts up a line on who will win.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • CosmicC

      We can't "vote the bums out" of the House. There's are several reasons why the Senate remains the higher chamber. Most districts are gerrymandered to the point where very few seats in the House can be challenged by the other party. The result is that the more extreme elements of both partys win while any who are not complete ideologues do not stand a chance.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Jen

      I don't get why you don't have an independent body deciding electoral boundaries?

      December 31, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  18. Number 2

    This may take a long time, point two. Does any other sane democracy break down the religious back ground of the electorate like we do in the USA? When and why did this become an obsession and what good does it do?

    December 31, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • Happy

      When dog was talking to Bush maybe..

      December 31, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  19. Number !

    Couldn't get past the first point, white evangelical Protesants equates to bible belt redneck bigots, now on to point two.

    December 31, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • CosmicC

      Strike "redneck".

      December 31, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  20. Happy New Year Everybody

    No Need for religions to say a thing they should be answering the statement below!
    ORIGIN OF LIFE: Hypothesis Traces First Protocells Back to Emergence of Cell Membrane Bioenergetics
    Dec. 20, 2012 — A coherent pathway – which starts from no more than rocks, water and carbon dioxide and leads to the emergence of the strange bio-energetic properties of living cells – has been traced for the first time in a major hypothesis paper in Cell this week.

    December 31, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • UncleM

      It's all over for god.

      December 31, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Happy

      soon !!!

      December 31, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • Heathen


      December 31, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • ???????????

      Looks like they found the truth !!!

      December 31, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • ??

      All and any scientific facts will be ignored if they contradict god's word in the bible.This is a truth.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:46 am |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.