Faith-Based Politics

Church and StateYou might think that by now, everyone knows Mitt Romney’s religion.

He’s Mormon. Or “a cult,” if you buy into one crazy Texas pastor’s description, a good illustration of Romney’s difficulties with that basic element of the GOP base, Christian evangelicals.

A recent survey, though, found only 42 percent of Americans could correctly identify Romney’s religion. According to the report, the number who answered the question correctly is unchanged since earlier in the year when the controversial comments of a Christian pastor first made the political front page. So the news didn’t matter, at least in informing the public about his religious affiliation. Why? Only 42 percent got his religion right because, frankly, only 42 percent are paying attention to the presidential campaign.

Everyone else has something better to do.

I’m not saying the news doesn’t matter. When Al Gore selected Joe Lieberman as his running mate in 2000, it made a huge splash. Lieberman is Jewish, a first for a major party ticket, and everyone short of the brain dead knew it. But that was later in the campaign, summer and fall of the election year. You know, when people are paying attention.

If we’re going to talk candidates and religion, this brings us of course to Barack Obama. Doesn’t everything?

Back in 2008 (remember 2008? we were so hopeful, so naive), a lot of people couldn’t answer the Obama religion question correctly because they were oddly convinced he was actually Muslim. I say oddly because they also criticized his controversial Christian pastor (are we forced to use that phrase too often?), the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Heads didn’t explode (not sure why) as people managed to let these thoughts hang out together in their skulls.

I promise, no more parentheses. I’m in a 12-step program.

At one point, 1-in-5 Americans believed Obama was Muslim. Among Republicans, this was significantly higher. Among Christian evangelical Republicans, higher still. Throw in a few more demographic and political modifiers before Republican and I suspect we’d push 100 percent. Math is fun. As an aside, white evangelical Protestants were the only subgroup in the recent survey to improve in knowledge about Romney’s religious identification. Why? Because it matters to them.

The obvious result in 2008: fewer could accurately identify Obama’s religious affiliation because, unfortunately, a lot of them were making it up as they went along. Yes, I’ve written about this before. Next week I’ll write about kittens.

A candidate’s religion rarely matters in a presidential election. We point to 1960 and Kennedy’s Catholicism as the best exception to the rule, but you have to know – or think you know – a candidate’s religion before it can influence your attitude toward him or her. Even so, research and common sense tells us a whole bunch of other factors, real or imagined, matter more when it comes to deciding how to vote.

So let’s jump to 2012 and let’s say it’s Romney versus Obama for the presidency. Is it Christian versus Christian? Not if you follow certain evangelicals who not only don’t believe Romney is a member of their club but who also doubt Obama’s Christian creds. Is it Mormon versus Christian? Is it Mormon versus, um, er, whatever?

Does it even matter?

No, not really, so on the religion thing let’s just call it a tie and move on to something really vital when deciding between two men seeking the most important office in the world. You know, like their favorite pizza toppings or preferred contestant in Dancing with American Idol (or they’re thoughts on the alarming underuse of parentheses).

And maybe, just maybe, the people who vote because of religion will sit this one out.

A guy can dream. Or maybe pray.

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Photo: Licensed by LikeTheDew.com on iStock.com © Daniel Deitschel
Barry Hollander

Barry Hollander

Former hack at daily newspapers, now hack journalism professor at the University of Georgia, number cruncher and longtime Net user, caffeine addict, writer of weird fiction, and a semi-retired god in an online fantasy world where godhood suits him quite well, thank you very much. He also blogs at http://www.whatpeopleknow.com