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. Pravda

    Wrong, the majority of Evangelical voters fell behind Romney because his religious beliefs were closer to evangelicals than whatever religion Obama follows. Obama claims that he is a Christian, but his actions and stances nullify that. Also, the majority of Black Christian voters voted for Obama simply because he is black. It had nothing to do with his "Christian" beliefs...

    December 31, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • chubby rain

      Whatever helps you sleep at night...

      December 31, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • sam

      Whatever. In the years leading up to this election, the evangelicals were screaming nonstop that mormons aren't real christians. The hypocrites change their minds more often than they change their underwear.

      December 31, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      simply because he is black? only a fool would say so.

      look a the presidents in a history book. notice anything? think about it from a black person's perspective - or any other race than white. when you hear that anyone can be president, but then you open a history book and see that 42 times in a row, it's been an old white male. so kind of hard to blame them for wanting to vote in someone that can see things through their eyes. and the old white men on the conservative side have never done anything for any minority in this country, so is it hard to believe they would overwhelmingly vote democrat? seriously, try to look at it from the other side, just for a minute.

      December 31, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  2. ForGoodOfAll

    I am looking forward to the extinction of GOP angry, bigotted old white men – hopefully happening in my lifetime, but if not – during the lives of my children. The GOP members who played the hate card and obstructed meaningful and nation-strengthening legislation for the sole purpose of making a certain President a 1 term President must be fired!!

    December 31, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  3. niknak

    Hey white xtian fundies,
    If you love your jeebus so much, and you are sure that you are going to heaven and live in god's glory, then what is keeping you from going there now?
    Go home, get out one of your many guns, and shoot yourself in your fu_kking lilly white head. Then you can go see jeebus.

    Bet you won't, because deep down inside you know all that bull you follow is just that, bull.
    You digust me with your backwardness and your racism and your hyprocirsy.

    December 31, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Arlen

      I get that you do not love Christians or Jesus. But the tone of your comment indicates that had you lived 2000 years ago, you could have driven the nails in His hands and feet. But He still would have loved you, in fact, He still loves you this very day. He can change your life, if you will let Him. Since you are so intelligent (much more so than us Christians), I challenge you to ask God to reveal Himself to you with all sincerity. However, if you do that, you will never be the same.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Michael

      Actually, Arlen, from what the loudest American Christians seem to represent, it's probable that THEY would be more likely to happily pound those nails in than the average non-Christian. Their contempt for the poor, their hatred towards the outcast, their love for weapons of mass murder (keeping in mind that Jesus said those who live by the sword will die by it), etc. Indeed, those who most loudly proclaim their Christianity tend to be the least Christ-like. As Gandhi put it, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

      December 31, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • sam

      Today's christians would scream that he was a hippie liberal and string him right up.

      December 31, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  4. niknak

    Another thing I like to see is the children of the fundies getting away from their "values voter" mentality perents.
    The fundie kids have woken up and realize there is nothing for them in their perents lifestyle, rural area and their viewpoints.
    Most are moving away from that bull and voting dem because the gop is so fu kked up.
    Hurry up and die off white rural xtian fundies, our country needs you to exit quitely.

    December 31, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  5. niknak

    White evangelicals would get behind satan if that meant not having a half black man in the white house.
    I work with many white fundies and they are the most racist people I have ever had the misfortune of being around.
    Retirement can't come fast enough so I can get away from them.

    December 31, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  6. Freedom FROM Religion

    The day cannot come fast enough when the "non-believers" largely outweigh the "believers" to the point of irrelevance. Only when that happens will we truly have a free, ethical, moral, tolerant, accepting, and rational society. Religion and hard drugs are one in the same, both are addicting and destroy individuals..... sometimes entire societies!

    December 31, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Just look at what the white government has done to minorities. Projects? Crack??

      December 31, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • JPX

      Right on, Freedom From Religion! I am so pleased to be living in a time when people are starting to realize that religion is just magic and make-believe. I'm only sad that I won't get to live in a world without religion. Someday kids will be reading about religion in history books and they will marvel that people could be so stupid.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • John Stefanyszyn

      Your "society" is already here for all believe in freedom of self-rights...that it is right to be free to worship any "god". And this way of "freedom" is a "religion" in itself, for it places itself above the Creator and His Christ.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  7. John Stefanyszyn

    ...because there is one universal belief, one religion, one way of life that all Americans believe in ....that it is" right to be free" to worship one's own self-justified "god".
    This is the "mark of liberty" that all have on their forehead, as Obama proclaimed.
    This is the image that all worship.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • JPX

      You sound like a nut-job, John. Finish that GED and take a few courses in basic science.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  8. DustyOnes

    This is great political fuel. Only 39% of the people that voted for Obama are Christian!

    We can use this is get Donald Duck elected in 2014 and 2016! Christians Unite!

    December 31, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • sandalista

      He is be just as ficticious as god, allah or any other deity. I stopped believing in either after finishing grade 4.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Ned Johnson

      Christians Unite? Right,.... That happened once before. Lots of people died,. Lots more suffered. They all couldn't wait to get out of Europe. They came here to get out of that mess. If you want that kind of a mess please go to a place where it already exists. I like my freedom of religion AND freedom from religion in my FREE country thank you very much.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Pravda

      LOL, nice try. 95% of blacks voted for Obama. Supposedly 79% of them claim to be religious...

      December 31, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  9. mark

    I'm just glad to see the younger ones break down the restrictive barriers imposed on societies by the bigots of religious standing. Nothing would be fine than to see the Pope in a frenzied state with the pedal to the metal and slithering out of sight in his tomato-splattered Poop Mobile. His broadcasts of hate, intolerance, and divisiveness should be heard by no one. He's just a Nazi in a fancy dress.

    December 31, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Tuckerfan

      The Pope? Really? What hate speech?

      December 31, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • sam

      Hmm...my favorite at the moment is the 'gay marriage threatens society' BS he recently spouted.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  10. sandalista

    I'd be inclined to believe the Bible', K'oran, Talmud etc. if one of the following words would be in it: Electricity, computer, genes, laser, and perhaps radio. But since these words we daily use are not in any of the scriptures, they are nothing but khat induced hallucinations by goat herders.

    December 31, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  11. Jeff O'Dette

    Far too many people have died in the name of christ for ANYONE to heed the call!!

    December 31, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • William Demuth

      How about the ones who were murdered in the name of Christ?

      Millions upon millions of them.

      The genocide, mass murder, war and indifference the Christians embraced for so long may yet come back to bite them.

      Just remember what happened to the old religions, and then imagine what the next overlords will do to the Christians who get caught in the sinking ship of faith!

      Will the Mormons do to the Christians what the Christians did to the Jews, or what the Jews have done to their historic neighbors?

      What went around may soon go back around.

      December 31, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      But we heed it because of one who died

      December 31, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Justinian

      He died knowing he was coming back... what's the big deal?

      December 31, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • William Demuth

      JT, ignore Bill Deacon

      He would kill for the imaginary Christ he hears in his head, and feel sanctimonious when he was done.

      It's a fever some of them have, some mixture of paranoia and indoctrination

      December 31, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Surprise

      Bill Deacon
      How was you Sunday work out, kneel, sit, stand, kneel, pray, sit, stand, sing, sit, stand, pass the plate around, suck up some wine and bread sorry I meant blood and flesh, kneel, pray, stand up, go in the backroom and count the take, eh offerings, etc. Did you do any thing more strenuous than that, Billy?

      December 31, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  12. Mohammad A Dar

    "...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."

    ..........and YES, the question "were evangelicals morons?" was finally laid to rest

    December 31, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  13. Jennifer

    Remember when The Passions of the Christ gripped America? Good to see America slowly starting to move on from that period.

    December 31, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  14. William Demuth

    So, in a nutshell, what we are seeing is the Demise of Christianity

    Any moment in time may seem more or less pivotal, but any real assessment of the past quarter century will clearly show that the dominant religion is losing it's grip.

    History teaches us the battles heat up as the dominate faith loses its grip on power.

    Watch for some key points.

    1. Discrimination charges AGINST churches in both education and public policy
    2. Non Abrahamic Supreme court nominations
    3. Wealth Distribution morality arguments dividing the religious elite
    4. Pressure being applied to Israel to resolve their issues ASAP
    5. Open Non-Believers being elected to State Wide offices
    6. Successful litigation against previously invulnerable churches
    7. The slow rise of Non Abrahamic cultural icons
    8. Military and Strategic alliances between the US and Non-Christian nations

    December 31, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  15. Tom Sawyer

    Politics and religion are both belief systems–it's no surprise that trends for both change over time as culture changes.

    December 31, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  16. Siara Delyn

    I like the new "unattached" category. The fact that you believe in a deity doesn't mean you have to buy a standard religious dogma.

    December 31, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Siara Delyn

      I'vw always objected to the fact that not believing in a standard dogma was equated with not believing in God. The is a step forward in terms of expressing religion in the modern world.

      December 31, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  17. Bonjourno

    are you all insest related

    December 31, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      No, I don't think so.But I like wine and cheese.

      December 31, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  18. ELRod

    Sola Fide

    Sola Fide (by faith alone) was the other watchword of the Reformation. This doctrine maintains that we are justified before God (and thus saved) by faith alone, not by anything we do, not by anything the church does for us, and not by faith plus anything else. It was also recognized by the early Reformers that Sola Fide is not rightly understood until it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of Sola Gratia, by grace alone. Hence the Reformers were calling the church back to the basic teaching of Scripture where the apostle Paul states that we are "saved by grace through faith and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God," Eph. 2:8.

    December 31, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • iann

      Frankly, I prefer the Enlightenment to the Reformation. and these days I like what the new atheists are writing. The religions practiced these days are not any different from the ancient mythologies, in other words, they're also mythologies.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  19. Apple Bush

    read the bible and replace the word "God" with "dildo". see a difference? neither do i.

    December 31, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Well it would have made "The Ten Commandments" a VERY different movie indeed!

      December 31, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • sam

      LOL William...

      December 31, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Akira

      Oh, Apple, that made me laugh...

      December 31, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Akira, that was bootyfunks joke, I just tweeked it a bit.

      December 31, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  20. BOb the Prairie Dog

    NO ONE knows what happens when we die and ANYONE claiming such knowledge is a LIAR who wants your money or soul, probably both. The sooner we all accept this simple TRUTH, the sooner society can flourish without the intolerance, hatred, violence and division that Organized Religion inspires on a daily basis.

    December 31, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      I agree. One in the same.

      December 31, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      No everyone knows what happens to you, except you lol!

      December 31, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Mohammad A Dar

      No, when I die, I will not know what happened to me because I shall be dead.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
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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.