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Why Didn’t Religion Matter More in This Election?

Six months ago, it seemed like a good bet that religion would be a significant factor in the 2012 presidential election. No one ever thought it would be the biggest issue driving votes, of course—the economy still has a lock on that distinction. But with a Mormon as the Republican nominee, the Catholic church waging a war of words against the incumbent president and his biggest legislative accomplishment, and the heavy representation of conservative white evangelicals in the Tea Party movement, religion was always hovering around the edges of political discussions. 

And yet for better or worse—or, I would argue, both—religion has been largely absent throughout the general election campaign. Here are some of my best explanations for why that is:

1. Media hesitancy/confusion about covering Mormonism. By far the development that surprised me the most this year was a non-story. I was sure that the candidacy of a Mormon would be too much for journalists to resist, and that we would be treated to all manner of anthropological treatments of these exotic creatures called Mormons. That can make for some pretty bad journalism and I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s also irrelevant in the context of a political campaign. But that’s never stopped journalists before. I’m kind of shocked that we haven’t seen so much as a blog post about whether President Romney would celebrate Pioneer Day at the White House.

I suspect a number of factors steered members of the media away from looking closely at Romney’s faith. The first is a simple lack of knowledge about Mormonism, its structure, beliefs, practices, and the role of lay leaders. You can’t cover what you don’t know. The second is the fact that Democrats have admirably stayed away from making any issue out of Romney’s faith. And with the exception of Andrew Sullivan, who started making an issue of Romney’s Mormonism in the past few weeks, most journalists have followed this lead of maintaining a hands-off attitude toward Mormonism. Third is the not insignificant fact that the Romney campaign has pushed back hard and swiftly on even vague references to Romney’s “otherness” or questions about whether we really know who he is. The argument they’ve made is actually brilliant: so few Americans know about Mormonism that reporting anything about it will make the faith—and Romney himself—look weird. Therefore, to report about Mormonism is to be biased against Romney. 

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I break from my usual plea for restraint—and find agreement in this one case with Bill Keller, who has argued that we need to know more about candidates’ personal faith—because Romney is such a unique case. He is the first major party candidate to have served as a religious leader. Yes, I know that LDS bishops perform a lot of administrative duties and such, but it's ridiculous to argue that the position is completely secular. Romney was a bishop in his church. I cannot imagine journalists displaying such little interest in that fact if he was instead a rabbi or an evangelical minister. Romney’s experience as a bishop should by no means disqualify him, but it does make me want to know more about his beliefs regarding the relationship between church and state. 

2. LDS Church’s (Relative) Distance from Politics. A related factor is the LDS Church’s modern tradition of mostly abstaining from political involvement, particularly from the pulpit. In fact, it’s that distance that explains the enthusiastic participation of many Mormons in the Prop 8 campaign in 2008. Because Mormons so rarely hear from the church about a specific political initiative or candidate, the church’s support of Prop 8 signaled to many Mormons that this was a serious issue that affected their faith and required their involvement. 

That said, are most Mormons going to vote for Romney? Yes, of course. Mormons are overwhelmingly registered Republican voters. (That’s one reason this piece by nine Mormon women who are voting for Obama is so fascinating.) And, yes, your average Mormon knows darn well that the their leaders and fellow members would really like them to back Romney. But the church has stayed out of the election. If it had done otherwise, that would have given many journalists an excuse to dig into more Mormon stories, because institutions are always easier for political reporters to cover than personal beliefs and practices. 

3. The Catholic Bishops’ Religious Liberty Campaign Has Flopped. Despite focusing its nearly-undivided attention on opposition to Obamacare and the accompanying contraception mandate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not managed to convince a majority of American Catholics that this is the issue that should determine their decision in the voting booth. Nor have they even won the ideological debate over whether this issue (referred to by the bishops with the much broader term “religious liberty”) should be the top priority of the U.S. Catholic church. In a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a majority of Catholics thought that the church’s public statements and engagement on public policy should “focus more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor, even if it means focusing less on issues like abortion and the right to life.” A majority of Catholics—that includes Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly, as well as Catholics who support Romney.

At the same time, Barack Obama opened up a large lead over Romney among Catholics in the months that followed the bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom”—a national teach-in about threats to liberty that focused on Obama’s contraception coverage policy. Nor does the Fortnight campaign appear to have moved Catholic opinions regarding the contested policy. According to PRRI polls taken both before and after the Fortnight, white Catholics are split precisely down the middle when asked whether “religiously-affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to provide employees with no-cost contraception coverage.”

What happened to the bishops' influence? One problem they face is the continuing erosion of trust in institutions—including religious institutions—that has taken place across American society. The Catholic church and its slow response to clergy sex abuse scandals has suffered a particular serious blow to its reputation for moral leadership. But it has also severely bungled its opposition to the Obama administration. A local Washington, DC priest penned an essay for the National Catholic Reporter this week with his thoughts about the religious liberty campaign's failure. It’s worth reading in full, but I want to quote his observation about the hyperbolic rhetoric of Catholic leaders: “Bishops and Catholic publications used words like ‘alarming,’ ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unconscionable’ about the HHS mandate. But most people did not see it as an existential threat to our religious liberty. They saw it as a disagreement over government policy.”

The bishops also seem not to have recognized that they have lost the edge they once held in the media as well. Not so long ago, if the Catholic bishops came out against a Democratic administration with the energy they have marshaled against several aspects of Obamacare, the story would not only make headlines but would dominate the storyline about that administration. But while journalists made note of the Fortnight for Freedom and have duly covered the bishops’ objections, the coverage is more pro forma, the way reporters cover a Glenn Beck rally or provocative remark from Pat Robertson. Whether they realize it or not, the bishops risk being seen as just another arm of the Religious Right, saved only by their occasional statements supporting anti-poverty programs or immigration reform. 

4. The Invisibility of Conservative Evangelicals. After an exciting GOP primary season that featured evangelical leaders vying to play kingmaker and to find someone, anyone other than Mitt Romney to win the nomination, conservative evangelicals have all but disappeared from the 2012 election. Ralph Reed is out there organizing them, of course, and white evangelicals will no doubt cast an overwhelming majority of their votes for the Republican ticket this year. But enthusiasm is decidedly dampened among conservative evangelicals this year. Many people forget that until John McCain brought aboard Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, conservative evangelicals supported him, but were unenthusiastic. In fact, the most conservative evangelicals were the least likely to be enthusiastic about McCain. Romney is McCain without Palin. Many evangelicals prefer him to Obama, but that doesn’t mean they’re excited.

5. The Candidates Have Stayed Away From Religion. Sure, it may be more of a mutually-assured-destruction pact than a good-faith agreement to refrain from attacks based on religion. But both Romney and Obama deserve credit for avoiding the ready opportunities to bash each other about religion. Obama has stayed away entirely from making Romney’s Mormonism an issue, and in fact has repeatedly mentioned that he admires Romney as a man who “loves his family, cares about his faith.” Romney has not been as restrained, accusing Obama at points during the GOP primary of pushing a “secular agenda,” but his delivery always seemed especially half-hearted. Romney reportedly pressured a conservative Super PAC to scrap plans for an ad this spring about Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, although he did briefly run one of his own in August calling Obama’s contraception mandate a “war on religion.” Still, by the standards of previous campaigns—not to mention the potential for fear-mongering about Mormonism and the belief among some Americans that Obama is Muslim—this election year has been blessedly free of religious wars.