The Role of Religion in the U.S. Presidential Election

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What role might religion play in Election Day decisions by the nation’s voters as they choose between President Obama or Gov. Romney?  Dr. Mary Segers, a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark who is a respected analyst on the inter-action of politics and religion, shares some thoughts.

This brief consideration of the role of religion in the 2012 election reviews, first, the religious identity of both presidential candidates, President Obama and former Governor Romney.  Second, I briefly describe those religious and ethnic groups which typically align with one of the two major political parties, and then suggest how they might vote in 2012.  Third, I discuss two large religious groups who might be described as swing constituencies in the upcoming election.  Finally, I note that the 2012 election could present citizens with a dilemma in which both sides claim to be defending the religious freedom of Americans. 

Some 17 percent of the electorate think President Barack Obama is Muslim (this has increased since 2008)---despite the fact that Obama identifies as a Christian and was a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago from 1992 to 2008.  He and his wife were married in that church and their two daughters were baptized there.
Gov. Romney's Mormon affiliation does not seem to have had a negative effect on his candidacy, despite the fact that, in 2008, according to a poll by the PEW Forum on Religion & Public Life, 30 percent of Americans said they would never vote for a Mormon for president.  Perhaps American society has become more tolerant of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints in the last four years.  On the other hand, Gov. Romney has seldom referred to his Mormon faith, despite pleas by some that he be more forthright in discussing his values and vision for the country.  Apparently, he has been concerned about alienating members of the GOP's evangelical base (some of whom do not accept LDS as a Christian religion).

While some analysts claim there is a “God Gap” in American politics between religious Republicans and secular Democrats, the data do not support this view.  On the contrary, large majorities of Hispanic Catholics, African-American Protestants, American Muslims, and Jewish voters are likely to vote Democratic in the 2012 presidential election.  In addition, while Mormons and Evangelical Protestants are reliably part of the GOP base constituency, a large majority of secular voters---the unchurched, those who profess no institutional religious affiliation---are likely to be in the Democratic column.

Since 1976 (for the last nine presidential elections), a majority of Jewish voters have supported the Democratic presidential candidate.  In 2008, the Jewish presidential vote split 78 percent for Obama and 21 percent for McCain.  This is not to minimize the periodic attraction of the Republican Party for Jewish Americans.  Neoconservatives were prominent in the coalition supporting George Bush's election in 2000 and also were prominent in the administration of President Bush.  However, the influence of Christian Right organizations in the Republican Party has frightened some Jews who strongly oppose the agenda of evangelicals on abortion, gay rights, and church-state issues.
Although American Jews number 1.5% of the voting age population, voter turnout is high in the Jewish community.  Moreover, Jews are strategically located in electoral-vote-rich states such as California, Florida, New York and Illinois.  In the 2012 election, key issues for Jews are the national security of Israel facing the prospect of a nuclear Iran, the Arab Spring and stability in the Middle East, the conflagration in Syria, and the stalling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

That leaves two large religious groups, Mainline Protestants (14% of the voting age population in 2008) and Roman Catholics (25% of VAP in 2008), who might be described as swing constituencies in the upcoming election.

Mainline Protestants include Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and United Church of Christ congregants.  Once solidly Republican, they have increasingly moved over to the Democratic Party.  On issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, these Protestants are more liberal than Evangelicals and Catholics. A majority also hold relatively liberal views on social justice issues such as poverty and care for the environment.  In 2004, Mainline Protestants voted 51% to 49% for Bush over Kerry. In the 2008 election, they voted 54% to 46% for Obama over McCain. It is difficult to predict how they might vote in 2012.

American Catholics constitute 22 percent of the population but 25 percent of the electorate.  They are present in significant numbers in the nine battleground states, Florida, Ohio, Nevada, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia, Iowa, and North Carolina.  In the 2008 presidential election, 54 percent of Catholics voted for Obama while 46 percent went for John McCain.  The vote will be much closer this election---for several reasons. 

First, the two vice-presidential candidates (Rep. Paul Ryan and Vice President Joseph Biden) are both Catholic, yet they represent two wings of the American church.  Biden represents an older generation of Catholics who voted Democratic, were working class, stressed responsibility to community and tended to emphasize the social justice teachings of the church.  Ryan represents a more recent generation of Catholics who tend to be affluent suburbanites, praise a capitalist market economy, stress individualism, and emphasize the church's moral teachings on reproductive matters such as abortion. In a sense, Biden and Ryan represent the two wings of a polarized Catholic church. 
Romney may gain a majority of white Catholic voters, but this will be offset by the Latino vote. Latinos and Latinas now number some 50 million, two-thirds of whom are Catholic. The most recent polling shows Latino voters going for Obama by a margin of 3 to 1.
Second, Catholic church leaders – specifically, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops -- have strongly opposed some aspects of President Obama's Affordable Healthcare Act, namely the provision that church-affiliated hospitals and universities must provide health insurance that covers contraception.  The bishops contend that this puts Catholic employers in the untenable position of violating Catholic moral teaching against artificial contraception. 

By contrast, the Obama administration contends that since Catholic employers in hospitals and universities provide health insurance for non-Catholic as well as Catholic employees, then depriving the non-Catholics of coverage for contraceptives, which they view as moral, is an infringement of their religious freedom. 

While churches are exempt from this particular federal regulation, church-related hospitals, universities and social service agencies are not exempt---chiefly because they serve non-Catholics as well as Catholics.  In this way, the Obama Administration seeks to protect the religious liberty of non-Catholics.  However, the bishops claim that the government has no right to define churches and religious institutions so narrowly, and that in so doing, the government is infringing upon the religious liberty of Catholics.  

For the last 10 months, church leaders have been on a crusade to defend the religious freedom of the American Catholic Church.  This campaign against the Obama administration may influence some Catholic voters to vote Republican; it may also alienate other Catholic voters. 

This is obviously a very important election and a close, hotly contested race.  Voter turnout will be decisive, so the GOTV drives are very important.  I worry that we might suffer a repeat performance of the 2000 election recount, which delayed for six weeks any resolution of the actual Florida vote as well as the final victor in the presidential election. 

Finally, I must sound a cautionary note.  Religious voters should be cautious and realistic about the ways in which religious beliefs shape voting behavior.  We may want to translate our religious beliefs and values into sound public policy for the common good.  But we must be prudent and realistic about the risks involved.  This is, after all, a complex, pluralistic, and highly diverse society.  As the Founders James Madison and Thomas Jefferson acknowledged, there are negative consequences to being sectarian.


Mary C. Segers, Professor and Graduate Director
Rutgers University Department of Political Science, Newark