Religion and Politics in the 2008 Race

What role is religion likely to play in the 2008 presidential election? How are the candidates dealing with the issue? John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, offers his insights to Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

For more on the role religion may have in determining our next president, we've called John Green. He's a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and often helps us sort out these issues.

John, good morning again.

JOHN GREEN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So let's set aside the fact that Mitt Romney is a Mormon for a moment. He's reaching out to evangelical Christians and that makes him like a lot of Republican presidential candidates in recent years. Is that evangelical Christian vote as important in 2008 as it has been in some other recent elections?

GREEN: Well, certainly in the Republican primaries, which will be well underway this time next year. Evangelicals and other social conservatives will be very important. A lot of the early primaries are in places like South Carolina, where evangelicals are numerous will vote in Republican primaries.

So in terms of the Republican nomination, they are a very important group. Now exactly how important they'll be in the general election next year remains to be seen. It'll depend a lot on who gets the nomination.

INSKEEP: Well, you wonder about this because a lot was made of the evangelical vote in 2004, later people wondered if it was really that significant. And then in 2006, Democrats seem to succeed in getting voters to focus on a different set of issues, their issues rather than conservative Republicans' key issues.

GREEN: Well, the evangelicals are a very important part of the Republican coalition. So they're likely to matter to some degree in any event. But a lot really will depend on what issues are in the forefront of the debate. If social issues are very prominent, then they may play a somewhat bigger role because it will be easier for candidates to mobilize from around those issues. But if the issue again then changes to other matters, they may not play quite as big a role.

INSKEEP: Are you basically saying either the issue is Iraq, which then you have a certain kind of election, or people manage to change the subject to something else?

GREEN: You know, I think that's a good way to look at it. But it may not be Iraq, it may be the economy and may be the environment. It's a little bit early to determine what exactly that issue agenda will be, and it's the issues that engage religious voters.

INSKEEP: Are Democrats who've acknowledged not being very good at all in reaching out to religious conservatives getting any better?

GREEN: You know, I think they were trying very hard. All the major candidates - Senator Clinton, Senator Obama, Senator Edwards - are working very hard to reach out to religious voters. They're talking a lot about their faith, trying to connect their issue positions to religious values. This may be important in the very competitive Democratic primaries next year, but it may be even more important in the general election, where Democrats would like to do better than John Kerry did in 2004 and perhaps win a close election.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about one possible Republican candidate, Rudy Giuliani, who's stepping closer, the former mayor of New York City. Now there's a possible Republican candidate who does not have a lot of issue positions that would automatically appeal to social conservatives.

GREEN: That's right. And being a former mayor of New York and having pretty liberal positions on a lot of the social issues that evangelicals and other religious conservatives care about will be a challenge for Mayor Giuliani. That doesn't mean he can't win the Republican nomination, but it does mean that he'll have to find another way than trying to get a majority of the social conservative vote.

INSKEEP: Some people might have said that it would mean that he couldn't win. Now you're saying that things are - have things changed slightly, that he does have a chance?

GREEN: Well, things may have changed. The issue agenda may be a bit more complex. Not all the Republicans are social conservatives. There are lots of other kinds of conservatives in the Republican Party. And also, we're looking at a crowded field where there are a lot of people competing for the conservative religious vote. And in that context, another type of candidate might be able to do quite well.

INSKEEP: Mr. Green, always good to talk with you.

GREEN: Good to talk to you as well.

INSKEEP: John Green is a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. And by the way, you can find the results of public opinion polls on politics and faith at npr.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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Faith Could Be Hurdle in Romney's White House Bid

Former Gov. Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will have to win over some voters who are uncomfortable with his Mormon faith. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images

Public Opinion Polls Weigh Faith and Politics


Los Angeles Times / Bloomberg


June 2006

Percentage of 1,321 respondents who said they could NOT vote for the following presidential candidates because of religion:

  • A Mormon candidate: 37%
  • A Jewish candidate: 15%
  • A Muslim candidate: 54%
  • An evangelical Christian candidate: 21%
  • A Catholic candidate: 10%

December 2006

Percentage of 1,489 registered voters surveyed who could NOT vote for one of the following, even if they were presidential candidates nominated by the respondents' party and even they and the respondents were in general agreement on most issues:

  • A Mormon: 14%
  • A 72-year-old: 14%
  • A woman: 4%
  • An African-American: 3%

Newsweek


December 2006

Percentage of 864 registered voters surveyed who would NOT vote for the following for president even if they were qualified for the job and nominated by the respondent's party:

  • A Mormon: 25%
  • An African-American: 3%
  • A woman: 8%

NBC News/Wall Street Journal


December 2006

Percentage of 1,006 adults who said they were very uncomfortable or have some reservations about voting for a presidential candidate who is:

  • Mormon: 53%
  • Jewish: 19%
  • An evangelical Christian: 54%

ABC News/Washington Post


December 2006

Percentage of 1,005 adults who said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate for president who is:

  • Mormon: 35%

Fox News/Opinion Dynamics


December 2006

Percentage of 900 registered voters who said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate for president who is:

  • Mormon: 32%
  • Protestant: 6%
  • Roman Catholic: 10%
  • Jewish: 10%
  • A member of the Christian Coalition: 24%
  • Muslim: 45%
  • An atheist: 50%
  • A Scientologist: 53%

Percentage of 900 registered voters who said they be less likely to vote for Mitt Romney because he's a Mormon: 24%


Source: Compiled by NPR from searches of the iPOLL Databank provided by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has long believed that religious faith is important for presidential candidates.

"People in this country want a person of faith to lead them as their...president," Romney said on Fox News Sunday last year. But he bristles when his particular faith attracts attention, as it did in 1994, when he tried to unseat Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy.

"I am not here to run for cardinal," Romney said at the time. "And I'm not going to get into discussions about how I feel about all my church's beliefs and my church's doctrines... All that does, in my view, is play into religious bigotry."

Faith an Issue Among Evangelical Voters

Romney is back on the campaign trail as a Republican candidate for president - he officially announces on Feb. 13 - and his Mormon faith is right along with him. His membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comes up often in interviews and polls. And it's a significant issue for evangelical Christians, who are considered key to the Republican nomination for president.

"As an evangelical Christian, it is a big thing for me, yes," said South Carolina State Rep. Gloria Arias Haskins, after Romney addressed the state's House Republican caucus in late January. "His faith is inconsistent with my faith. His faith is consistent with the Book of Mormon. My faith is consistent with God's word, the Bible, and they're not compatible."

Many evangelicals do not consider Mormons to be Christians. That's due to unique Mormon interpretations of Christian theology. Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon is a biblical text that supplements the Old and New Testaments. They believe that mortals can achieve godhood. They believe that the president of the Mormon church is a modern prophet of God. And they believe that the Mormon gospel is the one true faith.

Fundamentalist Christians reject these beliefs as antithetical to accepted Christian theology. The Southern Baptist Convention officially lists the Mormon faith among "cults, sects and new religious movements."

"There's a special tension with Mormonism, because probably two of the more aggressive evangelistic faiths in America are Southern Baptists and Mormons," notes Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Land says that the Mormons' missionary zeal puts them in direct conflict with the missionary efforts of his church.

"Everyone acknowledges that Judaism is not a Christian faith," Land says. "Yet, most Southern Baptists had absolutely no problem with an observant Jew running for vice president." He adds: "The difference [between Judaism and Mormonism] is that Judaism is not an actively evangelistic faith."

Polls Point to Hurdles

Mitt Romney has been courting Southern Baptists and other evangelicals, hoping he can get them to look beyond religion and see him as the only viable social conservative seeking the Republican nomination for president.

During a January swing through South Carolina, Romney emphasized his executive competence: as a successful venture capitalist, as the man who rescued the scandal-plagued Salt Lake City Olympics, and as a governor who tackled a billion-dollar budget deficit.

But Romney's Mormon faith appears to be a significant hurdle. Six national public opinion polls (see sidebar) conducted since June 2006 found that a significant number of respondents are less likely to support a Mormon candidate for president. Fourteen percent of respondents in a December Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey said they wouldn't support a Mormon candidate, even if they were in general agreement with that candidate on most issues. More than half of the respondents in a December Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll said they'd have some reservations or be very uncomfortable about supporting a Mormon candidate.

Some of the resistance — from both the religious right and the secular left — stems from concern that, if elected, Romney would promote the Mormon Gospel and do the bidding of the Mormon prophet.

Romney has tried to allay the fears of those who can't see beyond his Mormon religion. Referring to a speech by Abraham Lincoln, Romney said on Fox News, "America has a political religion, which is to place the oath of office, an oath to abide by a nation of laws and a constitution, above all others. And there's no question that I make that my primary responsibility."

Politics Not Always in Line with Faith

In fact, Romney has already taken political positions that seem to conflict with the stated positions of Mormon leaders. In 1994, during his campaign for the Senate, Romney showed support for both abortion and gay rights. He took a decidedly pro-choice stance when he served as the most senior Mormon official in the Boston area. He also supported an Indian casino in Massachusetts, despite his church's steadfast opposition to gambling.

"In the past, [Romney] has distanced himself from some official [Mormon] Church positions on some social issues," says Ron Scott, a fellow Mormon and Boston-based journalist writing a book about Romney's courting of the religious right. "In doing so, he's shown his ability to act independently of them."

"The suggestion that a Mormon leader would dictate policy to a President Romney is absurd," says Mike Otterson, the spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "I can't imagine any president that would allow that."

Romney still has a ways to go before he can completely assuage conservatives that his ideological conversion is sincere. But the Southern Baptist Convention's Land believes Romney can still win over evangelicals: "He can overcome the Mormon part of it. It's not a deal killer...if he proves that he's the most viable social conservative candidate."

Land offers this perspective on Romney's candidacy: "I'm not electing a pastor-in-chief. I'm electing a commander-in-chief."

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