RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And in recent presidential elections, religion was everywhere. In 2004, George W. Bush actively courted conservative believers. In 2008, Sarah Palin excited evangelicals - and unexpectedly, so did Barack Obama. This year, religion is playing a supporting role when it even makes an appearance. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty explains why.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: What a difference five years makes. Here's candidate Obama in 2007 - describing how, as a young, secular community organizer, he knelt before the cross and became a Christian.
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BARACK OBAMA: I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to his will, and dedicated myself to discovering his truths and carrying out his works.
HAGERTY: The testimony intrigued some evangelicals, including David Gushee, who's the director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. But Gushee says now, that evangelical language has disappeared.
DAVID GUSHEE: So instead of "I love God, God loves me," here's a hymn quote, or here's a Bible cite; it's the Golden Rule. It's the common good, it's concern for the poor.
HAGERTY: It's a message even non-believers can accept. It's less about Mr. Obama's Christian faith, and more about how his faith has shaped his values. Here's the president, campaigning in Burlington Vermont earlier this year.
OBAMA: The idea we're all in this together - I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper - that's a value.
HAGERTY: Gushee says four years ago, Mr. Obama actively wooed conservative Christians, in a major outreach campaign. Not anymore. He and others say there's a split among Obama advisers. One group is furious about ignoring the faith vote.
GUSHEE: But then there's another group that appears to believe that religious voters of this type, are more trouble than they're worth; that as soon as you think you've pleased them, they complain about something else.
HAGERTY: And so the campaign has focused on shoring up the more liberal base. But the greatest deterrent of all, says Mark Rozell, a scholar of religion and politics at George Mason University, is President Obama's record over the past four years. Rozell says conservative believers are upset with the president's support of same-sex marriage, and his health-care mandate that would require some religious groups to provide birth control coverage.
MARK ROZELL: I think it's quite clear, from their standpoint, that Obama's policies have not been friendly to their worldview, and that they're going to turn out for Mitt Romney.
HAGERTY: As for Mitt Romney, he, too, is noticeably mum about his faith. The Republican National Convention, for example, was a chance to introduce himself to the world, and the faith that has dominated his life. The one time he referred to Mormonism, he played it down.
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MITT ROMNEY: We were Mormons; and growing up in Michigan, that might have seemed unusual or out of place. But I really don't remember it that way. My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed, than what church we went to.
HAGERTY: So what's going on?
SHAUN CASEY: First of all, he's not a natural cultural warrior.
HAGERTY: Shaun Casey teaches politics and religion at Wesley Theological Seminary, and advised the Obama campaign in 2008.
CASEY: The second thing is that to the extent he uses those themes, he reminds people in his conservative base that he is a Mormon - and he is not an evangelical Christian. And the fear is there, that those folks are going to stay at home. And he needs them to turn out in record numbers.
HAGERTY: But after Romney became the Republican candidate, evangelicals immediately snapped into line, despite reservations about Mormon theology. Robert Jones, of Public Religion Research Institute, says that means Romney doesn't have to spend the time, or the money, to reach those religious voters. He needs to focus on voters in the middle.
ROBERT JONES: And when he makes his case more to the middle, I think he has to speak less in overtly religious language than he did earlier on, when he was still, I think, struggling to make the case that he was the evangelicals' candidate.
HAGERTY: Moreover, Jones says, raising religious issues has not helped Romney. Consider the most potent religion weapon: the administration's birth control mandate. That rule prompted the U.S. Catholic Bishops to launch their Fortnight for Freedom campaign. And in an ad this summer, Romney tried to capitalize on it.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: President Obama used his health-care plan to declare war on religion, forcing religious institutions to go against their faith. Mitt Romney believes that's wrong.
HAGERTY: But Jones says that silver bullet appears to be a blank.
JONES: We don't see the Catholic support for Romney going up after the Fortnight for Freedom campaign is on the ground. In fact, we see the opposite.
HAGERTY: Indeed, Romney has seen his 20-point lead among white Catholics - critical swing voters - completely disappear. There are a lot of explanations for that, primarily that voters are focusing on the economy. But the effect, Jones and others say, is that the 2012 campaign is like the old days, when candidates wore their religion lightly - not on their sleeves.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you are hearing that story on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.
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