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PT 13.5 Published: The ambiguous place of religion in the 2012 race for the White House

While neither of the presidential candidates may wish to discuss religion at this stage of the race to the White House, it nonetheless exerts an important influence on voting intentions and the political policies and strategies of both parties. The latest issue of Political Theology, on ‘Religion and the US Presidency’, offers some thought-provoking contributions on these themes from Michelle A. Gonzalez and Dexter Callender Jr., both of the University of Miami, Jeffrey S. Siker of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Gastón Espinosa of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, and Anthea D. Butler of the University of Pennsylvania. In the post below, guest editor Michelle A. Gonzalez gives us a taste of what’s in store.

Faith Matters: Religion in the 2012 Presidential Election
Michelle A. Gonzalez

The 2012 midsummer issue of Cathedral Age magazine, the publication of the Washington National Cathedral, contains insightful interviews of presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Both candidates were given an identical set of questions to answer. Their answers to these questions are just as revelatory as the need for the interviews themselves. They demonstrate to us that in U.S. presidential elections religion matters. The 2008 presidential election was marked by the category of race. The significance of Barack Obama’s race, who became the nation’s first black or bi-racial president, depending on who you asked, plagued discussions about the historical significance of his candidacy. Discussions of a post-racial “America” quickly ensued. In this election season race is no longer at the forefront. Indeed it is religion, not race, that has become a key issue. Yet discourse on religion is eerily subtle, given the complex religious identities of these two men.

Religion has taken many guises and functioned differently within both the Democratic and Republican Parties, yet it has become an omnipresent force on the U.S. political arena. In order to have a comprehensive understanding of U.S. politics, an awareness of the function of religion is fundamental. While the U.S. embraces a constitutional separation of Church and state, this does not prohibit religion from becoming a key player in political rhetoric and debates.

While religion is a fundamental component of the 2012 elections, it has remained below the surface in this 2012 election year. This is most likely due in part to both candidates’ religious backgrounds that are tenuous to the U.S. public. Mitt Romney almost never refers to his Mormonism or his leadership positions in the Church of Latter Day Saints. This is most likely due to U.S. voters’ ambiguous relationship with Mormonism, which many do not see as authentic Christianity. Similarly Obama’s religious background is a question mark for many voters, despite the fact that he has distanced himself from Jeremiah Wright and presents himself as a Christian throughout both campaigns and his presidency. It almost seems that neither wants to raise the issue of religion, for it could cause potential damage to both.

Scholars, commentators, and journalists will continue to debate the role of religion in presidential politics and politics as a whole in the United States. In many ways these debates are mute since the interconnectedness of faith and politics is part of the culture that we live in today. Voters in the United States are comfortable with politicians speaking about religion because religion impacts how they think politically. This is most likely not going to change in the near future, despite the fact that the religious faith of recent presidents has little impact on their moral character or policy. What remains for the 2012 election cycle is the manner in which religion will play a role in how voters perceive their candidates and the decisions they make on Election Day.

The contents of issue 13.5 are:

  • Dexter Callender Jr., “Fear and Foreign Bodies: The Bible and ‘Post-racial’ American Identity”
  • Michelle A. Gonzalez, “Religion and the U.S. Presidency: Politics, the Media, and Religious Identity”
  • Jeffrey S. Siker, “President Obama, the Bible, and Political Rhetoric”
  • Gastón Espinosa, “Barack Obama’s Political Theology: Pluralism, Deliberative Democracy, and the Christian Faith”
  • Anthea D. Butler, “From Republican Party to Republican Religion: The New Political Evangelists of the Right”

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