Posted Oct. 18, 2012
By NICHOLAS MOORE
School of Communication
University of Miami
For most of America’s history, a president’s faith was a very stagnant and dull topic.
The term WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) best described basically all major party candidates until John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, ran for office in 1960. Since this shift, complications concerning faith and the Oval Office can be seen in almost every election.
In the 21st century, the topic of faith and its importance in the political realm has been highly debated. Candidates must now balance being open to all faiths while still staying true to party members with a certain party affiliation. As religiously charged topics such as abortion rights and gay marriage have been particularly important in the last few elections, the “religious right” has gained strength in the political landscape and has further polarized the American people in regards to the their party identification.
Dr. Randall Balmer, chair of the Religion Department at Dartmouth College and author of God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush has heavily studied the formation of the religious right and how faith has impacted elections.
“While the American people have become more open to [presidential] candidates of different faith, there is still a flawed assumption that political figures who aren’t religious aren’t moral,” Balmer said during a panel entitled “Faith Matters: Obama, Romney, and the Race for the White House” at the University of Miami on Oct. 8.
Data from the Pew Research Center show a significant increase in Republican Party affiliation has happened from 2008 to 2012. White Protestant voters have increased their support of the GOP from 65 percent to 71 percent while white mainline Christian voters have raised their support from 45 percent to 51 percent, a 12 percent advantage over the Democrats. According to the study, Jewish and Black Protestants have slightly raised in their support of the Democratic Party.
In the recent elections of 2004 and 2008 and the upcoming 2012 election, more voters who identify themselves as affiliated with a particular religion have leaned towards or become a part of the Republican Party. However, despite the statistical evidence, a candidate’s profession of faith has become of less importance rhetorically in recent years, especially in comparison to the 2000 election.
As then-governor George W. Bush began his campaign for the White House in 1999, it landed him in Des Moines, Iowa, on Dec. 13. There he was challenged with a difficult question from journalist John Bachman: “Which political philosopher or thinker resonates with you most?” Bush responded with a religiously charged answer: Christ. Answers such as these sparked a strong backing of Bush from evangelical Christians associated with the “religious right” that eventually helped carry him to the White House for two terms.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney would be hard-pressed to mention Christ’s name in a forum as public as a debate. While he has no problem identifying himself with the Church of Latter Day Saints, Romney has ran a very tight campaign in regards to expressing his religious views.
Prof. Joanna Brooks, a member of the English Department at San Diego State University who was also seated on the panel, sees how Romney’s strategy in keeping his faith private could be helpful but wishes the candidate spoke out more to educate the public on Mormonism.
“We know religion matters because he has spoken so little about it,” Brooks, who is a Mormon herself, said. “He is even self-conscious and awkward around certain groups such as African-Americans because he doesn’t want to lose those votes.”
As research has shown, more Christians are identifying with the Republican Party and are looking to vote for Romney in 2012 (53 percent compared to Obama’s 40 percent, according to a Gallup poll from this September), but more voters are also becoming religiously unaffiliated.
According to Pew Research Center, 24 percent of Democrats don’t identify with any religion. That is the highest percentage of any affiliation for Democrats (Black Protestants being second at 16 percent). Consequently, only 9 percent of evangelicals identify or lean with the Democratic Party.
These statistics show the polarizing effects religion is having on the bipartisan system. Christians make up over half of all voters who are or lean Republican and more than half of Democrats or those who lean Democrat aren’t Christian.
With this being said, both Obama and Romney are talking less about religion. As voters become more solidified in their political affiliations based upon their faith, the candidates’ strategies seem to be shifting towards other issues such as taxes, the deficit, and healthcare
As we are in the wake of an economic recession, the aforementioned issues are of greater regard. For Republicans, words such as “socialism” or “big government” harbor the same reaction that not having a born-again Christian in the White House used to create only a dozen years ago.