One of the most interesting things about this presidential campaign is how little we've heard - thus far - about the candidates' religion.
While there are still those fringe (and not so fringe) allusions to President Obama being Muslim (he is not, he's a Protestant), there has been almost no public conversation about Governor Romney's Mormonism. And remarkably, President Obama is the only Protestant on either ticket. Vice President Biden is a Catholic. Representative Ryan is a Catholic.
We have actually heard significantly more lately about Catholicism and how to be a good Catholic Politician than we have about Mormonism.
1. Does this mean individual religion isn't such a big thing in politics anymore?
There is some evidence for that proposition.
The Court: Right now on the Supreme Court there are 6 Catholics and 3 Jews - this is the first Supreme Court with no Protestants. In 1960, JFK's Catholicism was a big deal, and we've never had a Jewish president or even presidential candidate (Senator Lieberman is the only Jewish vice presidential candidate we've had).
Congress: Generally speaking, Congress is fairly well representative of religious communities in America. Protestants (generally), Catholics, Jews, and Mormons are all over-represented. I read the "unaffiliated" 16.1% (below) of the American public as atheists, agnostics, and "spiritual but not religious" folks - and they are seriously underrepresented (Pew doesn't really count this openly for some reason).
And by Chamber:
If you look at Leadership in Congress:
- Senate Majority Leader Reid is a Mormon.
- Speaker Boehner is a Catholic.
- Senate Minority Leader McConnell is a Baptist.
- House Democratic Leader Pelosi is a Catholic.
- House Majority Leader Cantor is Jewish.
That's pretty darn diverse.
That is not to say that religion has not come up in this election.
2. There is still the Obama is a Muslim meme. That has been compounded by allegations by Romney and Republican leaders, Fox News, and some Catholics that the President is waging a War on Religion.
3. There is a fair amount of talk with the selection of Ryan about how Biden and Ryan will impact the Catholic vote. For what it's worth, the conservative Catholic League President Bill Donohue has this to say about Catholic VP v. Catholic VP:
In many respects, the Catholic community today is divided into pro-life and social justice camps. That is unfortunate, and while this division can be overstated, it remains true that most Catholic activists sit in either one camp or the other; cross-over Catholics are a rare breed.
Paul Ryan represents the pro-life wing, and Joe Biden represents the social justice wing. Indeed, both exemplify the differences, and not just on the issue of abortion. For example, Ryan’s idea of freedom of choice commits him to supporting school vouchers; Biden’s notion of choice commits him to abortion rights. Ryan is opposed to reinventing the institution of marriage; Biden wants to expand marriage to include two people of the same sex.
The Catholic Church opposes abortion and gay marriage. On both of these issues, Biden disagrees with the Church. Biden’s defenders, e.g., Catholics who identify with social justice concerns, argue that Ryan’s budgetary prescriptions make him the dissident Catholic; his ideas are said to hurt the poor. This assumes, however, that there is a clear Catholic teaching on what constitutes the best means to conquer poverty. There isn’t. For instance, fidelity to the Church’s preferential option for the poor can be realized by making a serious case to raise taxes, or to lower them. In effect, both Biden and Ryan can plausibly maintain that he is a champion of the poor. But only one, Ryan, can be identified as the champion of the unborn.
Not all policy issues are equal. Abortion is regarded by the Catholic Church as “intrinsically evil.” Moreover, the bishops’ conference has explicitly endorsed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. This puts Biden at a decisive disadvantage in making the case that he better represents Catholic teachings.
So there's that. Abortion Supposedly Trumps Poverty in Catholic Political Poker.
Not sure the nuns agree with you, Mr. Donohue.
4. And maybe we're just getting to Mormonism.
In the past week we have two New York Times pieces, one long New Yorker piece, and a Washington Post story about Mormonism. To be fair, these stories are all fairly benign pieces about what Mormonism is and a few fun facts about the religion, coupled with the usual process story of how to use/not use Mormonism in the Convention process (which has become the coronation process for nominees in recent history).
Then we have a HuffPo wish list of what a documentary-maker (of the PBS series The Mormons) and her Mormon consultant would like Romney to address about his religion. Sample:
2. How does Mormonism's boundless optimism, which transcends even death in a manner unlike any other religion, shape your vision of America's present and future?...
4. When Mormons are asked about Joseph Smith's powerful final vision about man becoming God, "God-like" is almost always substituted for becoming God. But Mormonism's oft-quoted tenet is unambiguous: "As God is, man may become." Can you explain this core belief in a way that addresses the charge of blasphemy made by other religions?...
9. Of all the misconceptions surrounding your religion, which one has offended you the most? Or, to interject a lighter note, what misinformation or stereotype has caused you to roll your eyes and even laugh when you are with your Mormon friends?
Slightly less Mormon-friendly are the pieces from Reuters about how much money the Mormon Church gets from tithing (Spoiler Alert: $7 billion a year), and The Daily Beast's interview with Brigham Young's Great-Great-Grandaughter about why she left the Mormon Church (Spoiler Alert: it's because of the way the Church treats women).
5. If there were ever an election about religion, this one would be an interesting one.
I suspect the press is pretty wary of tackling the subject head-on, but considering how much religion can impact one's political views, there are some pretty interesting conversations to be had about religion in this election.
- How will the tug of war over Catholics progress? Does abortion really trump social justice with Catholic voters?
- How much do voters know about/understand Mormonism? How will those views develop as we learn more about the fairly secretive religion?
- And what does a war on religion look like in America? Is that what's going on? Or is it - as some Emilys would say - rather about what role our individual beliefs should have in determining what is right and wrong in a democracy, and what beliefs/matters/decisions/actions are public versus personal?