Faith and religion have played a role in American politics and history since the country’s founding. But the 2012 presidential candidates’ faiths have not yet been critical concerns for voters, indicating a possible shift in the American voters’ mentality.
“I think for a lot of Americans, they really don’t care whether Romney’s a Mormon,” said Kevin Sims, a political science professor at Cedarville. “Catholic? Well guess what, so is my next-door neighbor. That’s the way it is.”
A recent poll found that 63 percent of Americans believe that public officials should not rely on religious beliefs in making public policy decisions. Fifty-eight percent agreed that it does not matter if a presidential candidate shares his or her religious views.
Despite these numbers, contrasting polls regarding the possibility of having a Mormon president reflect differing points of view. In a Pew Center poll, a quarter of voters said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate.
In another Pew Center poll, when asked what the first word to come to mind was when hearing the name “Romney,” respondents most frequently answered “Mormon.” Some analysts see this perceived fear of having a Mormon president as simply being a result of ignorance about the Mormon faith. Sims contended that these questions about the Mormon faith could easily surface in the general election, if not sooner.
“It won’t be President Obama,” Sims said, “but there will be questions brought up about his faith. The SuperPACs will raise those types of questions.
“It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for Obama and his campaign to emphasize [Obama’s] Christianity because then it ends up being a contrast between ‘Here’s Obama the Christian’ and ‘Here’s Mitt Romney the Mormon,’” Sims continued.
Rick Santorum, a Catholic candidate for the GOP nomination, has struggled to gain traction with the Catholic electorate while being able to harness the support of the evangelical conservative base instead.
The polls of Santorum supporters reflect telling data regarding this. Only 34 percent of Santorum supporters (as opposed to 59 percent of Romney supporters) agree that it does not matter if a candidate shares his or her religious beliefs. Forty-two percent of Santorum supporters (as opposed to 67 percent of Romney supporters) believe that public officials should not rely on religious beliefs in making public policy decisions.
In other words, the base of Santorum’s support lies in people who make religion first priority. Romney’s supporters, however, reflect the general electorate, an encouraging sign for Romney’s campaign.
Sims said faith has been part of politics since the Constitutional Convention. “I think faith has been a big part of what we are about as a group of citizens,” he said.
Jewerl Maxwell, another Cedarville political science professor, noted that there are references to Scripture on buildings and in presidential speeches.
“You look at each president and each one almost continually ends their speeches with ‘God bless America,’” Maxwell said. Directly after the country’s conception, one of George Washington’s first acts as president was instituting a national day of prayer.
This widespread belief by Americans in a higher power is sometimes referred to as the country’s civic religion. The peculiar uniqueness in the United States’ civic religion may lie in the constant correlation made throughout history of patriotism with religion.
This concept is evidenced in the Bible verses on the Liberty Bell, the biblically-themed murals in the Supreme Court and the overall reverence given to distinctly American symbols like the American flag.
These religious undertones have carried over into whom American voters choose to represent and lead their country as president of the United States. Forty-three of the 44 presidents to govern the United States have been members of some sort of Protestant denomination.
The 1928 election was the first time a major party had a Catholic presidential candidate on the ticket, Al Smith. Smith lost that election, but about 30 years later, Americans saw the first and only Catholic president inaugurated, John F. Kennedy. But Kennedy did not campaign without having to answer questions about his faith.
“In a famous speech in 1960,” Maxwell said, “Kennedy had to explain his religion. There was this perceived fear that, because of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy, that the president would somehow be subservient to the pope.”
Maxwell and Sims agreed that the candidates’ faith relationships haven’t yet become a major issue in the 2012 presidential election, taking a backseat to other issues.
With Romney’s commanding lead in delegate count suggesting he will be successful in securing the Republican nomination, these issues regarding religion have become all the more immanent.
Maxwell contends that the wild card issue when it comes to the general election will be whether the evangelical conservative right, which currently makes up Santorum’s support base, will be willing to support a Mormon candidate.
“It’s not necessarily their choosing to vote for Obama over Romney,” Maxwell said, “but they might just choose not to vote.”