In God We Poll?

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
Campaign 2012

A look at the role religion and faith play in the race to be president

religion and politics

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In defending or condemning the idea of the separation of church and state, people on both sides of the debate have invoked the Bible, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and Thomas Jefferson, among others. The issue at stake is not whether there should be, as Thomas Jefferson put it, "a wall of separation" between the civil and the religious, but how high the wall extends, and where its footings lie.

Most Americans agree that church and state should be separate, and we certainly demand religious freedom. It is the proper expression of that freedom where the issue gets blurred. Similarly, we want persons of faith as candidates for president, but we don't want our president to be too religious. We want our candidates to have values we can relate to, but we don't want them to proselytize or be spokespeople for their religion.

Faith Matters

A basic truth of human nature—which trumps any social construct—is humankind's need to lend meaning to life, our pain and joy, to explain our existence. For many, this explanation comes in the form of religion. One's religion, church, belief system, in whatever form it takes, provides the background and the foundation of morality, a sense of right and wrong. Why is religion a big deal for the presidential election and the presidency? Because religion is important to our culture, because faith matters.

Survey Says

A national survey conducted June 28-July 9, 2012, by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 67% of adults say it is important for the president to have strong religious beliefs. This number has remained within five percentage points in polls conducted since 2000 and reflects a consistent attitude of voters concerning the importance of religion. Correspondingly, a May 2011 poll found that 61% of adults would be "less likely to support a presidential candidate who does not believe in God. Of 14 items tested, this was the only potential trait that a clear majority of Americans said would affect their vote negatively."

Surprisingly, for a nation in which two-thirds of adults want their president to have strong religious beliefs, less than half (49%) actually know that Barack Obama is Christian. Of the registered voters, 17% think President Obama is Muslim, and 31% don't know. The majority (82%) of those who know his religion are fine with it. As for Mitt Romney, 60% of voters know about his Mormonism and are comfortable with it (60%). With voters overall, 45% are comfortable with Obama's religion and 19% are not; 41% are comfortable with Romney's religion and 14% are uncomfortable. It would seem that we want our leaders to have strong religious beliefs, but aren't overly concerned with the details.

The Candidates Speak

In the 2012 midsummer issue of Cathedral Age, the Washington National Cathedral published interviews with both Governor Romney and President Obama in which the two men were asked the same set of questions about faith and the election. Here's what they had to say.

On personal faith:

Obama: "First and foremost, my Christian faith gives me a perspective and security that I don't think I would have otherwise: That I am loved. That, at the end of the day, God is in control—and my main responsibility is to love God with all of my heart, soul, and mind, and to love my neighbor as myself."

Romney: "My faith is grounded in the conviction that a consequence of our common humanity is our responsibility to one another—to our fellow Americans foremost, but also to every child of God."

As a faithful leader:

Obama: "From slavery to the suffrage movement to civil rights, faith—and the moral obligations that derive from our faith—have always helped us to navigate some of our greatest moral challenges with a recognition that there's something bigger than ourselves: we have obligations that extend beyond our own self-interest. . .that requires a certain basic commitment to one another."

Romney: "Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office is whether he or she shares these American values: the equality of humankind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty. They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common."

State Meets Church

The separation of church and state is a basic constitutional principle. It precludes the establishment of a state-sponsored religion, but it doesn't mean God can't be present in public affairs. That's where the Bill of Rights comes in. The first amendment ensures our religious freedom: Congress "shall make no law...prohibiting the free exercise" of religion. Our nation was born in the shadow of religious persecution and centuries of conflict; our Founding Fathers wanted to make sure the state did not abuse such power again.

Both candidates agree that faith-driven deeds must form a part of political service; there is not only a place, but there is a very real need for faith-based organizations in a healthy America. Both agree that religion can unify us—in service. The wall between church and state cannot be too high—it must allow for partnerships between the secular leaders and the spiritual. President Obama explains it as a pragmatic enterprise, "Faith communities often know their cities better than most anyone else. They also have an institutional memory and history of service that we have and can continue to learn from. On the other hand, the federal government has tools and resources that faith communities often do not have."

The Chosen One

What do we want in our candidate? We want our candidate to have religious beliefs, but not flaunt them. We want our candidate to be a person of faith with a value system we can recognize. We want our candidate to honor what Mitt Romney calls our American values: belief in equality, obligation to serve, commitment to liberty. We recognize that religion colors the decisions our candidate makes every day, but as the current president says, ". . .it is important that we not make faith alone a barometer of a person's worth, value, or character." We want our candidate to take a stand, then step forward, in front of their faith, willing and able to defend their deeds with words that we, of all creeds and belief systems, can understand and believe in. Jefferson again, "the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions"; in the end, after all the polls and the ballots are cast, it is what our president-elect does that matters.

by Catherine McNiff
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