Religion, politics cross in presidential race

In 10 months’ time, the United States could be voting for its 45th President, and compared to the 1961 election of the first Catholic President John F. Kennedy, religion is not as large a factor on this year’s ballots.

The current political candidates come from a variety of Christian denominations, including Protestantism, Catholicism, Methodism and Mormonism. According to two Marquette professors with differing views on the topic, the diversity in the presidential race sheds light on the more pertinent issue of a culture war within the U.S., but simultaneously shows the current inability of politicians to separate religion from policy agendas.

Marquette political science professor John McAdams said he believes that religion plays a minute role now in comparison to past elections.

“Religion does not necessarily play a large role in the election — the culture war does,” McAdams said. “We have secular people going against religious people. It is no longer Catholics versus Protestants. It is secular and religion regardless of denomination.”

For example, McAdams cited a comparison between “secular” Jews and more orthodox practitioners of Judaism. According to 2008 presidential election exit poll results, 78 percent of Jewish voters voted for n0w-President Barack Obama, a Christian liberal, while 21 percent voted for Republican nominee John McCain, a Christian conservative.

“The minority of Jews are highly religious (the Orthodox) and conservative and Republican,” McAdams said.

McAdams also pointed to the example of Franklin Graham’s endorsement of current Republican candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is Mormon. Graham is an evangelical preacher and the son of the famed Billy Graham. Romney’s Mormon religion has often been raised as a potential issue in his two presidential bids.

Graham is a conservative who said Romney’s Mormonism is not a problem and that voters should look past a candidate’s religion when it comes to choosing someone to lead their country.

Marquette professor of law Scott Idleman believes religion is still important to both the voter and the candidate, but agrees with McAdams when it comes to a general election. Clergy members in Texas and South Carolina decided to back former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a Catholic, and, in Idleman’s opinion, it was because of Romney’s Mormon faith.

According to a Public Religion Research Institute survey conducted in November, 67 percent of all voters said it is either somewhat important or very important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs.

Idleman agrees. He said it is difficult to discard candidates’ religious beliefs when the voters are looking for someone who can lead them in values they understand and appreciate.

The same survey revealed that 53 percent said they were somewhat or very comfortable with a Mormon president, while 42 percent said a Mormon president would make them feel very or somewhat uncomfortable.

“Policy agenda and affiliation of candidates (with) religion may be inseparable,” Idleman said. “If (voters) don’t understand what Mormonism is or believes, then they may question Romney’s genuine conservatism.”

Santorum and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich are Catholic, Republican candidates competing for the evangelical vote in South Carolina, a place known for its social conservatism and large evangelical population. The South Carolina Republican primary will be held Saturday.

McAdams said that though both Gingrich and Santorum are doing well in the polls, their religion is neither a roadblock nor a stepping stone. Idleman, on the other hand, believes religion plays a role in a voter’s opinion until the candidates have dwindled and the choices have slimmed.

“As the time goes on, people will be more willing to suppress their religion and McAdams’ argument is more applicable,” Idleman said.  “The voters will choose the lesser of two evils at this point, disregarding parts of a candidate’s persona, such as religion.”

Marquette professor of theology Michael Duffey does not believe religion plays a role in the race for most voters.

“At least among some conservative evangelical Christians, there seems to be a Christian orthodoxy test with which they evaluate candidates,” Duffey said. “I myself don’t think it will influence the majority of voters.”