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. Charles

    Why did the GOP lose? When your flagship candidates and spokespeople, at various times, seriously offend women, gays, muslims, blacks, Latinos, scientists, and atheists, all you have left are white Christian males, "obedient" women, the very rich, and racists. It is no longer feasible to win a national election with only those demographics. Until the Republicans think very hard on their platform, they will continue to lose ground. Saying "Soy Mitt Romney" isn't going to cut it.

    December 31, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Edweird69

      Fantastic post!

      December 31, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  2. jerrylax

    why is it religion scares the left? Why would they vote for a man from no where whom has done nothing? Done nothing of value in the past four years....? You deserve what you will certainly get, the bread line.

    December 31, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Edweird69

      Why does religion scare us? Are you freaking kidding me??? Ever heard of crusades, witch trials?? Religionists would love to enslave/destroy anyone they disaprove of. They have a history of doing just that. Religion is extremely dangerous.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Edweird69

      Also – George W. Bush inherited a strong economy, a budget surplus, and a nation at peace.
      Eight years later, he left Obama with a shattered economy, a trillion dollar deficit, and two useless wars.
      Obama saved the country from another Great Depression, rebuilt GM, reformed healthcare, reformed Wall Street,
      doubled the stock market, created 12 straight quarters of GDP growth, created 30 straight months of private sector
      job growth, got Bin Laden, got Gaddafi, and got us out of Iraq.

      December 31, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • bp

      Religion is scary because it gives people like you the opportunity to justify your hatreds and evil acts in the name of your god. For instance, genital mutilators of children and suicide bombers are exclusively people of faith. No one would be capable of such evil unless they were convinced their god approved of such.

      December 31, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • skeeter

      Let em eat cake- that's the ticket!

      December 31, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • RAWoD

      Agnostics don't fear "believers". We feel sad that you choose to try and convince (bully) your fairy-tales into law.

      December 31, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Paul

      I am a person of faith but I fear religion. Too often it has been used to control and even enslave people. Just because it is 2012/13 doesn't mean it the past can't be repeated. You will notice that some people of faith still want to leave their mark on government buildings when those are supposed to be for all the people. I'm sorry, but not everyone shares my faith with me. If I want to be an advocate for my faith I do so by living my life in such a way that people will ask me why I'm happy. Then, I share my faith with them. I never yell or force people to listen to me.

      I definitely do not believe we should try to use government to enforce our beliefs on others.

      December 31, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • skeeter

      And why would the white christian evangelicals suddenly fall all over themselves voting for a mormon; a member of a cult that believes in baptism for the dead; that God was once a man; that does not believe in the virgin birth; that all men will become gods; different levels of heaven; that Jesus came to America, etc., etc. Until Romney became the nominee the SBC and all good little southern baptists considered mormonism a cult for almost a hundred years. The Billy Graham website took mormonism off of their website as a cult AFTER Romney was nominated.

      December 31, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  3. Happy

    To CNN
    they should run the story above on belef blog
    It was just released.. The truth has been found.

    December 31, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  4. frank

    It has been an interesting year for religion. Old salesman Billy de Graham Cracker & Sons, Inc. taking on a new product: Planet Kolob and Co., Inc. to add to their conglomerate of folklore wares. Who knows, maybe Chick-fil-A will come out with a happy meal with a little toy planet Kolob to commemorate that partnership. Then of course there was the juicy NT scandal: finding out that the carpenter was actually gay and into feet evidently – and that he kept a wife, no less. I suspect the wife was all for show, so it was probably someone like Michele Bachmann.

    And of course, the guy with the pointy hat in Rome was feeling left out, so he felt compelled to try to lift his idle (and idol) flock out of boredom by clarifying what kind of pets were around when the carpenter was born. Perhaps the big surprise was Pat Robertson becoming more sane – refuting the goofballs who keep trying to write a new screenplay for their little book of fable ever time we learn something new in science. So all in all, it was a fun year, religiously speaking.

    December 31, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • It's a start

      that old Ratzinger would admit to the sheepies that they were pushing a load of BS at that for many years; now if they could get around to mary being a bit of sl ut, sleeping around, with goatherders and such.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  5. Art

    Who says the Mormon question has been put to bed. That white evangelicals "lined up" behind Romney does not in the least resolve the Mormon question. If anything it shows that white evangelicals have preferences not convictions. They would rather support someone who until fairly recently was a member of what they called a cult over a black or mixed race president who professes to be a Christian, i.e. one of them. It is simply amazing to me that Mormonism stopped being a cult after Romney won the nomination. So, all the Southern Baptists who were taught in their seminaries and Bible Colleges that Mormonism was a cult have to be re-trained. Apparently, God has changed his mind, again... These guys can't be serious. Hypocrites anyone?

    December 31, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • skeeter

      Art -thanks for your comment. Southern Baptists have always shown themselves able to interpret their theology in whatever way suits their politics. Really quite remarkable.

      December 31, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  6. Chuck

    Apostasy is Full Blown in the US now, thanks to the "raiser of taxes"
    and govermnent run Media

    December 31, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Edweird69

      Yes, we are abondoning fairytale politics and beliefs. We are now facing reality, harsh as it is, on its own terms. We have tried denying reality via prayer, but prayer has failed us miserably (as it falls on non-existent ears). If you can't cope with reality, please go pray in your closet, and stop expecting the rest of us to stroke your fairytale existence. And please get rid of any guns you may have.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  7. Surfer George

    3) The religiously unaffiliated are not all 'nones'

    We are probably MOSTLY not 'nones.'
    The mentality that "believes" that people like us MUST be Atheists if we don't believe what they believe is the same mentality that "believes" that ALL MORALITY, ALL ETHICAL BEHAVIOR springs from their beliefs and that WE can have neither morals nor God if we are not sheep in their flock.

    God Loves ME (and you) whether you like it or believe it OR NOT, whether YOU believe it or not.
    I KNOW it as a part of my being. Like blood flows through me, like air surrounds me, like my Knowledge (the step beyond mere Faith) guides me, God is with me (and you – like it or not, admit it or not – "Believe" it or not).

    December 31, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • nyc

      Feel sorry for you.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • mk

      There is no god whether you like it or believe it OR NOT, whether YOU believe it or not.
      I KNOW it as a part of my being. Like blood flows through me, like air surrounds me, like my Knowledge guides me, there is no god (like it or not, admit it or not – "Believe" it or not).

      December 31, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Surfer George

      MK, at least you "Know" something.

      But you COULD be wrong... I suppose I could too, but...

      December 31, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  8. Edweird69

    “There is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious
    believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after
    death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of truth until the end of the world;
    everyone who disagrees with me will spend eternity in hell… An average Christian, in an average church, listening to
    an average Sunday sermon has achieved a level of arrogance simply unimaginable in scientific discourse — and there have been some extraordinarily arrogant scientists.”- Sam Harris

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

      Ed, the four horsemen (Sam Harris, Chris Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet) have not professed to be Atheists as far as I can recall. They just state that they don't know. The believers are pretending to know more than us non believers do. While rejecting hundreds or even thousands of gods past and present, the sheep insist that their current deity is the only true one to be worshipped. Us realists reject one more invented deity than they do.
      What scares me the most is that the flock takes their moral code from a 2000 year old book, that is full of crimes against humanity! Does that mean without their book they would be all serial killers and rapists? Sad indeed if that is the case.

      December 31, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  9. John

    It is crazy that many people would blame God when something goes wrong, but wont give him credit when things go right.

    December 31, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Edweird69

      Amazing people blame the devil when something goes wrong, but never give him credit when things go right. Your mentality is that of a 3rd grader. What a ridiculous post!

      December 31, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • RAWoD

      It is crazy to think either position.

      December 31, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  10. End of our Republic.


    December 31, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  11. atlas

    Fiscal Cliff

    The Great Depression Boom and Bust in America

    December 31, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  12. Bob

    Present any verifiable evidence for your god. No one has ever managed to do that, after hundreds of years of wild claims of talking snakes, virgin birth, and rising from the dead, as well as the brutal tales of vicious, vindictive, bible god.

    Christians, get on it: Put up or shut up already.

    December 31, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • End of our Republic.

      Then you have no consideration that a benevolent Extraterrestrial would give us a code of conduct that encourages us to have mutual respect and to redirect us from our selfishness?
      What code of benevolent conduct do you live by?

      December 31, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Edweird69

      @End – The fact that you have to get your conduct from a book, and not common sense, gives me the willies. You don't own a gun do you?

      December 31, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  13. albert yester

    Those of you who say the GOP is through seem to forget the 2010 election. After another term of Obama, there will be a Republican in the WhiteHouse.

    December 31, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • frank

      Good luck with that – especially after this little cliff thingy.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • allenwoll

      Pleasant hallucinations ! ! !

      December 31, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • mk

      Not if the trend towards moving away from religion continues.

      December 31, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • n

      Last time I checked Democrats got more seat in both house so I think u are getting wrong information.

      December 31, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  14. Tom

    The days of door to door marketing of religion are over (i.e., I hope). The next thing I'd like to see is less of those sickening religious talk shows, like the "700 Club."

    December 31, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  15. Tyler

    Smoking weed isn't at all going against religion. Tell me, in the bible where it salys, tha'll sha'll not get baked off natural herbs???

    December 31, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Edweird69

      The bible states that anything you do to "defile the body, aka temple", is a sin. It was created for the sole purpose of worshipping its creator. I'm an atheist, I'm just telling you what I believe an Xtian would say to you.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  16. End of our Republic.

    Reverend Wright got his wish.

    December 31, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  17. Freedom Storm

    To occur in 2013, the very last reality movie: "2012: The Year the Music Died"

    December 31, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  18. Nic

    Religion and politics are two words that should never be used in the same sentence. Religion has no business in politics.

    December 31, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Freedom Storm

      You have the cart before the horse. Politics has no business in religion.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Freedom from Religion

      Religion has no business anywhere.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • End of our Republic.

      Taking away a sense of accountability after death assures the fall of civility.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Mack

      No way, Storm. Politics impact every single person. There is a dizzying array of religion options that can't all be accommodated by a uniform political sphere. Your religion (and everyone else's) out of everyone's politics and then everyone wins. Your voluntary religious selection stays at home where we'll stay out of it.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • DemFromSC

      I couldn't agree more. When a politician mentions a "god", you know that he/she is on the verge of another lie.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Faith-Isn't-a-Preacher

      There will always be a Religion or Organization that pushes a Social Doctrine upon the people.
      What we have now is a Social Doctrine framework in the ACA.
      Religions and Organizations have been created by apostates, atheist, and whoever finds that they can gain power over the gullible.
      We are now making the Federal Government our ultimate organization that dictates Social Doctrine. Call it a National Church or Secular Governance; the effects are tyranny over those who find themselves out of favor with the oligarch in power.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  19. NorthVanCan

    Just another nail in the coffin for religion .

    December 31, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  20. Vidyashanti

    More religious one claims to be more hateful they are in every day living.
    That is what White protestants have shown by voting for Romney.

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

      By limiting your comments to white folk you demonstrate that racism is your motivation.

      Just because somebody votes for someone you do not like, does not mean that they are hateful. You demonstrate a serious lack of maturity and, indeed, intellectual acuity.

      December 31, 2012 at 10:21 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.