It is not likely that either President Obama or Gov. Romney will say much about their religious beliefs during the upcoming election campaign, and this is unfortunate. If they were to do so, it would be good for them and good for the American people.
America is by far the most religious of the western, industrialized democracies, and Americans expect their presidential candidates to have a connection to religion.
To be sure, religion and politics are not an easy fit. Religion deals with absolutes: what is right and what is wrong. Politics is about mediating between competing views of truth and involves the kind of compromises that religion cannot make. Nonetheless, Americans like to know that when their politicians make judgments on policy, religious values play a part in those decisions. Americans respect politicians who are involved in a religious tradition and who bring their religious upbringing to bear on matters of importance in the political realm.
There are limits, of course, and these limits were on display in the Republican primaries. If a politician is not guided by religion but is controlled by it, always preferring the dictates of religion to the practical and pluralistic realities of American life, the voters will abandon him. (Think of Rick Santorum.) If a politician is sanctimonious, professing religious belief or piety that is manifestly absent in his or her private life, the voters will say "no thank you." (Think of Gingrich and his "baggage.") But sincere religious conviction is still a plus. And if you doubt this, try to imagine a serious presidential candidate who declared "I am an atheist," or "I reject religion." Such a candidacy would be impossible, in either party.
Gov. Romney has avoided talking about religion for obvious reasons. Mormonism is not widely understood, and many Americans who are even modestly acquainted with its teachings find it odd. (All religions, of course, are in some measure odd, but it would be foolish to deny that many Americans find Mormon traditions to be especially bizarre.) Also, polls indicate that there is more prejudice against Mormons than most other religious groups. That prejudice has not surfaced in a major way, thankfully, and Mr. Romney undoubtedly does not want to tempt fate by focusing on religious matters.
Nonetheless, the Governor has much to gain from an honest discussion of his religious convictions. He is widely seen as the antithesis of a "regular guy." His public image is that of a wealthy, distant, out-of-touch business tycoon, robotic in manner and unable to relate to average Americans. The best way to overcome this image, which is arguably the greatest obstacle to his election, might be to remind his fellow citizens of his lifelong devotion to his Church. He has supported the Church financially with extraordinary generosity throughout his adult life. He has served as a Mormon bishop and stake president, responsibilities that entail significant pastoral as well as administrative duties and that are undertaken in addition to one's career obligations; from all reports, he was a supportive and caring presence in these roles. And as a young man, he left Stanford to devote two years to a mission abroad, working to bring others to the Church.
This is an impressive record of religious commitment. A lot of Americans talk religion; Romney does religion, and such devotion could not exist without deep religious conviction. If he were to share that conviction and talk about his religious experience, it would soften his image and, by presenting another side of the man, enlighten the voters.
President Obama generally avoids talking about religion as well, again for obvious reasons. He had an eclectic religious upbringing and members of his family were not regular churchgoers. More important, his conservative opponents have delighted in savaging him for the views of his Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. (There is no more pernicious development than the notion that candidates -- even those whose churchgoing is occasional -- are to be held responsible for the views of their clergy; as Sarah Palin discovered, this has become a despicable tactic of both the right and the left.)
But the president too has good reason to talk about religion. In the first place, an absurdly high percentage of Americans still think that he is a Muslim, and it simply makes sense to set the record straight on this point. And in the second place, personal accounts indicate that it was during his time as a community organizer in Chicago that the President came to see the powerful role that religion plays in the life of a struggling community; observing how the church inspired and supported people coping with difficult economic conditions, he came to feel that religion had a place in his life as well. Americans should know that, and should be reminded that the Harvard-educated lawyer who could have made money decided instead to make a difference at the grassroots, and was drawn to God and religion in the process.
When candidates flaunt their religion or manipulate it as a political tool, Americans are angered. When candidates share their religious beliefs as a way of telling us who they are, Americans are grateful. My hope is that President Obama and Gov. Romney will choose to share with us at least some elements of their religious lives.