BETHESDA, Md. –- Will presidential candidates' religion matter in next month's election? Does the religion of voters? Should religion matter at all?
In the strictest, most personal sense of the word, the answer to all three questions is no. At least that's what officials from the campaigns for President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney pitched to dozens of religion reporters on Friday at the Religion Newswriters' Association annual conference, despite continued discussions of religion-based voter reticence over both candidates because of their religious views and practices.
In most elections, “we look for competence and then, for many us, if the selected competent person is of faith, that is seen as a bonus. If they happen to be a person of similar faith, maybe that is a double-bonus,” said Mark DeMoss, a senior advisor to the Romney campaign and an evangelical Christian. DeMoss said much of his work over his six years advising Romney has been focused on convincing religious groups, such as evangelicals, to look at “shared values” with Romney, even if they disagree with his Mormon religious views.
“Somehow when it becomes a presidential election, there are people who apply a different standard than they do when making another selection,” DeMoss said. “I think that dynamic has diminished some, ... but I think it's still out there.”
Broderick Johnson, a senior advisor to the Obama campaign who works on Catholic voter outreach, said a candidate's religious practice is “personal and they shouldn’t” discuss it. He said the president has no interest in engaging the incorrect belief among a significant minority of American voters who think Obama is a Muslim, for example. Michael Wear, the national faith vote coordinator for the Obama campaign, added that president's “personal faith is out of bounds.”
But faith has played a significant role in the election. Romney's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to be a point of either fascination or contention, with a minority of evangelical voters still saying in recent polls that they would not vote for a Mormon. Vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan has been criticized for speaking proudly of his Catholicism while having spearheaded a controversial budget plan that cuts entitlement programs, although some Catholic bishops have said Ryan's budget would go against the church's social teaching to protect the poor.
A video released by conservative news outlets this week with Obama praising his controversial former Chicago pastor (the president was still a member of his congregation at the time) has been used by some pundits to say Obama comes from a divisive religious background. Catholic bishops have launched a religious freedom campaign to battle a part of the president's health care overhaul that requires religious institutions aside from houses of worship to provide free contraception to employees. Some pastors have reneged supporting the president because of his endorsement of same-sex marriage.
Spokesmen for both candidates said Friday that their campaigns were focused on the economy and issues that weren't strictly based on religion, but may nevertheless be addressed from a religious perspective.
“The economy is the single issue that transcends every demographic, every coalition, every interest group," said DeMoss. Romney, who has tithed millions of dollars to his church and a charity he runs, has spoken in recent interviews about the importance of charity in his faith.
“Look at what the Nuns on the Bus,” a group of liberal Catholic nuns who have campaigned against Ryan's budget plan, “have gone out and done in a presidential year to go and talk vey deliberately to people across the country about how faith affects the value judgments and decisions about how the economy should treat people, what we should do about immigration and education,” said Johnson.
On the Republican side, that includes Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition, which plans to send 40 million voter guides to potential Romney supporters. The group's voter guide lists issues such as balancing the budget and tax cuts. At the same time, the Obama campaign faith platform includes economic recovery, “tax fairness” and Wall Street reform.
“Some of the usual issues may not be percolating in this election,” said Wear. “We are seeing a broadening of issues that are related to faith.”