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Why So Little Religious Politicking in This Presidential Election?

Don't wait for Romney to bring up religion. (Photo by Austen Hufford via Flickr/CC)

Four years and nine days ago today, Barack Obama stunned (uninitiated) analysts at a campaign stop in Zanesville Ohio with the announcement that if elected he would retain George W. Bush’s much-maligned Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. It would become “a critical part” of his administration, said the junior senator from Illinois.

Some liberals were shocked. They shouldn’t have been. As the current writer and a few others had been arguing prior to 2008, the Democrats had finally figured out that they could no longer be the “Party of Secularism.”

Ah 2008! Good times for Faith and Values politicking, be it red or blue. It seemed every candidate–from Mike Huckabee to John Edwards–was invoking God on the stump and seasoning his or her rhetoric with scriptural allusions.

Yet now that we have entered the 2012 general election, F and V campaigning is at its lowest ebb since the 1996 presidential campaign. We have been spared the “pastor disasters” of 2008. A scriptural silence prevails. It’s a deceptive silence, to be sure. But we need to figure out why it exists:

Because the GOP presumptive nominee is not of the same faith as his party’s base: Mormon Mitt Romney–unlike the endless slate of Protestant GOP presidential candidates who have preceded him since World War II–has to be cautious. Real cautious.

He is not a Protestant. More precisely, he is not an Evangelical Christian. In an era where the late Jerry Falwell realigned the American electorate so that Evangelicals became a mainstay of the Republican base (they used to vote Democrat) Evangelical worldview is the lingua franca of the realm.

A candidate such as Rick Santorum (a Catholic) mastered that dialect. Yet given the historical enmity between Mormons and Evangelicals, not to mention their very real competition for souls across the globe in each faith’s massive missionary endeavors, Romney has little room for error.

By all accounts he is doing well with white conservative evangelicals. Yet the sensitivity of the relation demands that he lay off the hard F and V stuff on the stump–which is precisely what he did a few weeks back at Liberty University (where he he never even pronounced the word “Mormon”).

Because the Democrats still don’t have their faith and values platform in order. Still!: Barack Obama, he of the Awesome God in the Blue States, was supposed to cure the Democrats of their Dukakis/Kerry-like addiction to separationist secularism. And to a great degree he did just that in 2008.

The problem is that in the intervening years no bone-crushing, rain-making, fund-raising, coalition of religious progressives has emerged to support him. I emphasize the bone-crushing part.

Say what you will about the religious right, they have had scads of efficient, if incendiary, leaders who have marshaled this bloc into a force to be reckoned with on the local, state, and national levels. Progressive religious folks as I point out in my forthcoming book, have lacked this type of leadership and political clout since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Coming out in favor of gay marriage, supporting immigration reform–in theory these are policies that should galvanize significant swaths of the “liberal faiths.” Yet the galvanizing has been restrained. This is part of dilemma of the religious left in America and its inexplicably imperfect interface with the Democratic Party.

Because of the storm cloud of the Catholic bishops: Outside of the now-vanquished Republican contenders for the presidency, who has been talking about religion and politics this election year? The answer: conservative–nay, ultra-conservative–Catholics.

Catholics are not only the largest denominational voting bloc in America, but they are the most beguilingly diverse. Predicting their ballot is always difficult and always important because their ballot is crucial.

This is why the recent hard right turn of Catholic bishops speaking on behalf of “religious freedom” is so central to understanding the F and V narrative of 2012. I have devoted many posts to this issue. For now, all I will say is that Church leaders in America have identified the Obama administration as the enemy and are devoting their considerable resources to making that known (see, for example, the coming “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign).

In many ways–and this is what so exasperates Catholic and Catholic-friendly observers who wish for the Church to be neither predictably liberal nor conservative, Republican nor Democrat–the Bishops are doing Mitt Romney and the GOP a huge favor (as they did with George W. Bush in 2004; think John Kerry’s “communion crisis”).

This accounts, in part, for all of that religious silence on the campaign trail. The walking-on-eggshells Romney camp can just sit back and have the bishops do the fulminating for them! The aforementioned evangelicals, incidentally, are right there with the bishops on religious-freedom issues, so this is a triangulated heaven for Mitt.

The Obama folks, for their part, would be insane to inflame the Church leaders any more than they already have. Their best hope is to sit tight and hope (and pray) that lay Catholics aren’t listening to their leaders’ views on contraception, gay marriage, etc.

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