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2:32 am
Tue October 2, 2012

Both Candidates Leave God Off The Campaign Trail

Originally published on Tue October 2, 2012 12:33 pm

Religion used to be everywhere in the presidential elections. George W. Bush courted conservative believers in 2004. In 2008, Sarah Palin excited evangelicals and — unexpectedly — so did Barack Obama.

What a difference a few years make. In 2007, then-candidate Obama used evangelical language to describe his Christian conversion: He was a young, secular community organizer who occasionally visited the local Chicago church, when one day he walked to the front of the sanctuary and knelt before the cross.

"I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me," Obama recalled. "I submitted myself to his will and dedicated myself to discovering his truths and carrying out his works."

The testimony startled and intrigued some evangelicals, like David Gushee, director of Mercer University's Center for Theology and Public Life. But now, Gushee says, Obama's evangelical language has disappeared.

"So instead of, 'I love God, God loves me,' 'Here's a hymn quote' or 'Here's a Bible cite,' it's the Golden Rule. It's the common good. It's concern for the poor," Gushee says.

A Less Overt Religious Message

It's a message even nonbelievers can accept: less emphasis on Obama's Christian faith, and more about how his faith has shaped his values. Earlier this year, the president cited the Golden Rule when explaining why he supports same-sex marriage. And he uses New Testament language to connect his mainline Protestant faith to more secular issues like poverty.

"Let me tell you about values," Obama told a group in Burlington, Vt., in March. "Hard work, personal responsibility, those are values. But looking out for one another, that's a value. The idea that we're all in this together, I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper, that's a value."

Four years ago, Gushee says, Obama actively courted moderate believers in a major outreach campaign, convincing them that this was a new kind of Democratic Party.

That's not the case today. Sources say that several senior people were invited to head up the campaign but declined, because they felt the Obama administration was not serious about reaching out to believers. Now, the tiny outreach campaign is headed by a 24-year-old.

Gushee and other observers say there's a split among Obama advisers. One group is furious about the campaign ignoring the faith vote.

"But then there's another group that appears to believe that religious voters of this type are more trouble than they're worth," Gushee says. "That as soon as you think you've pleased them, they complain about something else.

"And so it seems the energy is shifting to shoring up the base of women voters, and union voters, and other kinds of voters that are a more reliable constituency," Gushee says.

Indeed, religion is something of a minefield for Obama. Many voters still believe, wrongly, that he is a Muslim. And his advisers are loath to remind people of the controversy that surrounded his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who declared, "God damn America."

But the greatest deterrent of all, says Mark Rozell, a scholar of religion and politics at George Mason University, is President Obama's record over the past four years. Rozell says conservative believers are upset with the president's support of same-sex marriage and his health care mandate that would require some religious groups to provide birth control coverage.

"I think it's quite clear from their standpoint that Obama's policies have not been friendly to their worldview and that they're going to turn out for Mitt Romney," Rozell says.

A Minefield For Both Candidates

As for GOP candidate Mitt Romney, he, too, is noticeably mum about his faith.

The Republican National Convention presented an opportunity to introduce himself to the world — and the faith that has dominated his life. But in his one reference to Mormonism, he played it down, noting that while he attended a Mormon church as a child, "my friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to."

Shaun Casey, who teaches politics and religion at Wesley Theological Seminary, says there are several reasons for Romney's reluctance to emphasize faith.

"The downside for Romney is, first of all, he's not a natural cultural warrior," says Casey, who also advised the Obama campaign in 2008.

Second, Casey says, is that every reference to Mormonism "reminds people in his conservative base that he is a Mormon and he is not an evangelical Christian."

Romney needs those voters to turn out in record numbers, Casey adds, "and the fear is there, that those folks are going to stay at home."

But despite reservations about Mormon theology, evangelicals immediately snapped into line once Romney became the Republican candidate. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, says that new unity means Romney doesn't have to spend time or money reaching those religious voters. Instead, Jones says, the GOP candidate needs to focus on voters in the middle.

"And when he makes his case more to the middle," Jones says, "I think he has to speak less in overtly religious language than he did earlier on, when he was still struggling to make the case that he was the evangelical's candidate."

Moreover, Jones says, raising religious issues has not helped Romney. Consider the most potent religion weapon: the administration's birth control mandate. That rule sparked the U.S. Catholic Bishops to launch their "Fortnight for Freedom" campaign this summer.

Romney tried to capitalize on frustration with the rule in a campaign ad that accused President Obama of using his health care plan to "declare war on religion, forcing religious institutions to go against their faith."

But the ad had little traction, pollsters say, in part because Catholics are split about the mandate. If that was Romney's silver bullet, Jones says, it appears to have been a blank.

"We don't see the Catholic support for Romney going up after the Fortnight for Freedom campaign is on the ground," he says. "In fact, we see the opposite."

Jones' polls show that Romney has seen his 20-point lead among white Catholics — critical swing voters — completely disappear. There are a lot of explanations for that — primarily, that voters are focused on the economy above faith. But Jones and others say the effect is that 2012 election is more like the days before George W. Bush — when candidates wore religion lightly, not on their sleeves.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And in recent presidential elections, religion was everywhere. In 2004, George W. Bush actively courted conservative believers. In 2008, Sarah Palin excited evangelicals - and unexpectedly, so did Barack Obama. This year, religion is playing a supporting role when it even makes an appearance. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty explains why.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: What a difference five years makes. Here's candidate Obama in 2007 - describing how, as a young, secular community organizer, he knelt before the cross and became a Christian.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to his will, and dedicated myself to discovering his truths and carrying out his works.

HAGERTY: The testimony intrigued some evangelicals, including David Gushee, who's the director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. But Gushee says now, that evangelical language has disappeared.

DAVID GUSHEE: So instead of "I love God, God loves me," here's a hymn quote, or here's a Bible cite; it's the Golden Rule. It's the common good, it's concern for the poor.

HAGERTY: It's a message even non-believers can accept. It's less about Mr. Obama's Christian faith, and more about how his faith has shaped his values. Here's the president, campaigning in Burlington Vermont earlier this year.

OBAMA: The idea we're all in this together - I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper - that's a value.

HAGERTY: Gushee says four years ago, Mr. Obama actively wooed conservative Christians, in a major outreach campaign. Not anymore. He and others say there's a split among Obama advisers. One group is furious about ignoring the faith vote.

GUSHEE: But then there's another group that appears to believe that religious voters of this type, are more trouble than they're worth; that as soon as you think you've pleased them, they complain about something else.

HAGERTY: And so the campaign has focused on shoring up the more liberal base. But the greatest deterrent of all, says Mark Rozell, a scholar of religion and politics at George Mason University, is President Obama's record over the past four years. Rozell says conservative believers are upset with the president's support of same-sex marriage, and his health-care mandate that would require some religious groups to provide birth control coverage.

MARK ROZELL: I think it's quite clear, from their standpoint, that Obama's policies have not been friendly to their worldview, and that they're going to turn out for Mitt Romney.

HAGERTY: As for Mitt Romney, he, too, is noticeably mum about his faith. The Republican National Convention, for example, was a chance to introduce himself to the world, and the faith that has dominated his life. The one time he referred to Mormonism, he played it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOP CONVENTION SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: We were Mormons; and growing up in Michigan, that might have seemed unusual or out of place. But I really don't remember it that way. My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed, than what church we went to.

HAGERTY: So what's going on?

SHAUN CASEY: First of all, he's not a natural cultural warrior.

HAGERTY: Shaun Casey teaches politics and religion at Wesley Theological Seminary, and advised the Obama campaign in 2008.

CASEY: The second thing is that to the extent he uses those themes, he reminds people in his conservative base that he is a Mormon - and he is not an evangelical Christian. And the fear is there, that those folks are going to stay at home. And he needs them to turn out in record numbers.

HAGERTY: But after Romney became the Republican candidate, evangelicals immediately snapped into line, despite reservations about Mormon theology. Robert Jones, of Public Religion Research Institute, says that means Romney doesn't have to spend the time, or the money, to reach those religious voters. He needs to focus on voters in the middle.

ROBERT JONES: And when he makes his case more to the middle, I think he has to speak less in overtly religious language than he did earlier on, when he was still, I think, struggling to make the case that he was the evangelicals' candidate.

HAGERTY: Moreover, Jones says, raising religious issues has not helped Romney. Consider the most potent religion weapon: the administration's birth control mandate. That rule prompted the U.S. Catholic Bishops to launch their Fortnight for Freedom campaign. And in an ad this summer, Romney tried to capitalize on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: President Obama used his health-care plan to declare war on religion, forcing religious institutions to go against their faith. Mitt Romney believes that's wrong.

HAGERTY: But Jones says that silver bullet appears to be a blank.

JONES: We don't see the Catholic support for Romney going up after the Fortnight for Freedom campaign is on the ground. In fact, we see the opposite.

HAGERTY: Indeed, Romney has seen his 20-point lead among white Catholics - critical swing voters - completely disappear. There are a lot of explanations for that, primarily that voters are focusing on the economy. But the effect, Jones and others say, is that the 2012 campaign is like the old days, when candidates wore their religion lightly - not on their sleeves.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you are hearing that story on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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