Elections In early 2012, the political tumult over providing contraception to employees of religiously affiliated institutions reminds us again of the symbiotic relationship between American government and religion. The debate has taken on greater significance in light of the most recent presidential election last November. The buildup to that election brought an increased level of political religiosity beyond Just this issue. The primary process was filled with potential Republican candidates’ attempts to appeal to religiously inclined voters.
President Obama, too, made an effort to solidify his image as a faith-based leader as the campaigning process began to heat up. This is no new phenomenon, as the United States has a long-standing tradition of religious and political interplay dating back to the nation’s inception. Specifically, in his 1789 Inaugural address, George Washington declared, “it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe. L His acknowledgment of a higher power marked the beginning of the trend of religiously grounded presidential politics that continues to thrive today. The recent 2012 presidential campaign process was notably and especially religiously charged. Republican hopefuls from a diverse array of religious denominations made use of faith in their attempts to win the candidacy. President Obama made a shift in his discourse toward more spiritually grounded rhetoric and religious invocations not seen since before his successful 2008 campaign.
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And yet all of these developments are despite the fact that Americans appear to have become considerably less religious. According to Mark Shaves, “faith-filled rhetoric and campaign stops make Americans appear more Christian than they really are. ” In fact, only 25% of Americans now attend weekly religious services and 20% now claim they have no religion, up from 3% in 1957. 2 The religious convictions of our nation are in a period of transition that seems to illustrate a country that is becoming less religious. And yet, religious rhetoric has seen a marked increase since 1980.
Religious issues often take a backseat to more immediate economic related concerns during elections; and the last election was heavily motivated by unemployment, national debt and general global economic vulnerability. The 2010 national electoral cycle demonstrated that religious issues played a minor role in determining electoral outcomes. A mere 9% of voters claimed that their religious beliefs were the single biggest influence on their vote. 3 Essentially, when the country faces difficult economic times, voters shift their focus. These trends embody the fundamentals of post-modernism.
When the nation is flourishing, voters are more apt to focus on social issues with religious implications, thus making them more likely to fall back on religion when making decisions at the ballot box. However, when the economy is struggling, voters revert to a survivalist mode and care less about the issues that lend themselves to religious involvement. For instance, only 3% of voters in the 2010 elections held same-sex marriage as the most important issue in determining their votes. The same percentage of voters viewed abortion as the most the economy. Despite the media attention that these issues command and the manner in which they polarize society, the statistical evidence shows that they do not directly correlate to voting decisions. These findings, however, present a paradox: if these socio-religious issues do not determine voting patterns, why are they so prominent in political rhetoric? And why do religious undertones still permeate candidates’ platforms? Anyone who watches the nightly news would agree that media coverage often centers on religiously motivated terminology in political discourse.
However, these are not the issues that are determining elections. In light of this paradox, this paper explores the influence of religion on contemporary politics by examining how it tends to predict voter decisions and how potential voting trends affect political campaigning. More specifically, it will focus on election cycles since 1980 and what earlier trends tell us about how members of different religious groups might vote, and have voted up until the 2012 presidential election.
These voting patterns help shed light on how President Obama and the Republican candidate Mitt Rooney made use of religion while campaigning for the 2012 election in an attempt to acquire delegates and votes. By analyzing the historic voting patterns of distinct religious groups and the status of the current electoral campaign it becomes clear that religion plays a much more prominent role in the campaigning process than most would have originally believed. From a broadened vantage point, impact of religion on actual voting trends varies widely between elections and is influenced by a variety of other factors based outside the realm of that.
Through analysis of several electoral cycles it, too, becomes evident that while religion is featured prominently during electoral campaigning, issues of religion do not decide the outcome of elections. By first providing background information on the history of religion’s role in the electoral process it will become easier to examine the voting trends and issues that will likely define the elections of the future. There is little doubt that the United States, despite its constitutionally secular government, has always been influenced by a contemporaries constructed, reddened religious spectrum.
When compared with citizens of other developed nations, Americans place an exceptionally heavy value on religion. According to a 2002 survey conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, 59% of Americans say that religion plays a very important role in their lives. But only 30% of Canadians, 27% of Italians, and 12% of Japanese held the same opinion. 5 While religion has played a significant role for many Americans, the prominence of religion in political discourse has become even more pronounced in recent years with the rise of the modern presidential campaign.
At its core, the electoral process has become an institution of American political life, beginning months before Election Day at primaries and caucuses, seemingly commencing earlier and earlier every four years. The process dominates the attention of the media through televised debates, rallies, and other forms of campaign coverage. Alongside questions of economics and foreign policy the personal proving ground for potential candidates is often defined by social issues: many of which are tied to religion.
Ranging anywhere from debates over abortion to concerns about individual candidates’ religious beliefs, questions rounded in issues of faith play a prominent role when determining the candidates’ Religion has always played an important role in American political life, but it has historically remained less visible than it is today. Every president has incorporated religion into his presidency to some extent, regardless of personal beliefs. Many of the Founding Fathers are considered to have been deists.
Even Theodore Roosevelt was believed to have doubted the divinity of Jesus Christ. 6 However, religious rhetoric did not permeate past presidential politics to the extent that it does today. With some disagreement over individual beliefs, traditionally, white Protestant males have dominated the presidency. In fact, John F. Kennedy remains the nation’s only Catholic president. This past year the Republican Party was poised to nominate a non-protestant for the presidency for the first time in modern political history, as candidate Mitt Rooney is a practicing Mormon.
Thus, one deduces, change does not appear to come quickly insofar as the sphere of presidential politics and religion are concerned. Popular New York governor Alfred Smith staged the first significant challenge to his Protestant presidential supremacy during the 1928 presidential election. Smith, a Roman Catholic, faced staunch opposition from those who believed that he was subject to the will of the Vatican. The idea that the future president of the United States would be controlled by the papacy was prevalent enough to derail Smith’s hopes for election.
Methodist Bishop DNA Leonard took it a step further, stating, “No Governor can kiss the papal ring and get within gun shot of the White House. “7 The strong anti-Catholic sentiment that characterized the election marked the first serious clash of religions in presidential politics. Religion played a crucial role in determining the victor, in part because many Americans feared papal control over the presidency. But, religion was not the only factor that led to Smith’s defeat and Hover’s victory.
As David Chairman and Leo Rebuffs once stated, “for a substantial number [of voters] his religion was less important than the price of wheat or the preservation of white supremacy. “8 While religion certainly seemed to play a larger role in the electoral cycle of 1928, it was far from the sole determinant. After Smith’s defeat, there would not be another notable non-protestant foray into presidential ileitis until the election of 1960. Prior to 1980 the most glaring example of religiosity in a presidential election was the electoral cycle of 1960.
In the decades following AAA Smith’s defeat there had been no serious Catholic contender for the position of president, until the arrival of a handsome young senator from Massachusetts. John F. Kennedy launched his presidential campaign only to be met with much of the same anti-Catholic sentiment that impeded Governor Smith. The same accusations that had faced Smith would be leveled against Kennedy. Many voters feared that the Vatican would control the overspent through Kennedy, or that the separation of church and state would be threatened by his religious beliefs.
Many Protestant leaders sought to publicize the belief that Kennedy’s Catholicism was a serious issue. A group of Protestant clergy and layman met behind closed doors to discuss the worrying prospect of a Catholic president. Calling themselves the Citizens for Religious Freedom, this congregation aimed to inform the masses about the notion of a Roman Catholic sitting in the Oval Office. Unlike Smith, however, Kennedy chose to address this religious issue head on. Dress to Southern Baptist leaders took place before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.
For the first time, a Catholic presidential candidate was directly addressing the concerns that many voters held over his beliefs. Kennedy was quick to make his point when he said, “because I am a Catholic and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured. “9 Kennedy went on to state his beliefs in a complete separation of church and state: essentially providing the public eye with a president free from the influence of religious leaders, and a nation free from religious intolerance.
He emphasized the importance of the “real issues” facing the nation, like the threat of communism and the need for better healthcare and education. Kennedy’s articulate speech was enough to convince many Americans that a Catholic could indeed hold the position of president, but it did not sway the opinions of all. In one of the most closely contested presidential races in history, Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon to become our nation’s first Catholic president. It is estimated that Kennedy’s religious beliefs cost him one and a half million votes.
But, to his credit, Nixon had done nothing to encourage bigots who opposed Kennedy on religious grounds, nor did he appeal for a public endorsement from Billy Graham, the undeclared leader of Christian evangelists at the time. 10 The 1960 election may not have been the watershed for Catholic politicians that many predicted, but it did mark the beginning of religious rhetoric’s rise in presidential politics. The ascent of faith-based rhetoric in political discourse and the incorporation of more religious terminology in government can be attributed, in part, to the hotly contested elections of 1928 and 1960.
However there were many other factors at play, articulately the rise of communism and, consequently, the threats it posed. In an attempt to distance themselves from who were then known as the “godless communists” of Soviet Russia, the political leaders of the United States turned toward the nation’s rich spiritual heritage. Eisenhower in particular felt the need to steer the nation in a more religious direction. In 1952 he purported, “our form of government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith. 1 1 The president purposefully did not specify what religion he believed this foundation should be, but till his message was clear. Two years later in 1954 the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1956 the nation’s official motto become “In God We Trust. ” Religion began to feature more prominently in political life as a way of differentiating the United States from its Cold War enemy, as well as a way of keeping the nation spiritually grounded.
However, as David Dome pointed out, “even in this setting religious conservatives restrained their political engagement. “12 The level of religious rhetoric would continue its upward trend with Kennedy’s campaign for the residency in 1960 and the rise of the youth-endorsed sub- and counter-cultures, alongside the civil rights movements that followed. From an all-purpose outlook, the civil rights movement contributed greatly to the incorporation of more religious ideals in mainstream American politics and society.
Further, it fundamentally altered the political sways of many voters. Historically, before 1960, white southerners represented the Democratic Party’s largest voting bloc: a reactionary measure to Lincoln previous triumphs of morality. The traditional Protestants tended to vote Republican, Catholics tended to vote Democratic. Blacks in the north also tended to vote Democrat because of the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt. 13 Racial tensions concerning civil rights for African-Americans radically altered many of the long-standing voting tendencies of different groups.
While many of these shifts were due to issues of race and not religion, the impact still held great significance. Additionally, the religious undertones of the movement itself helped to catapult many religious figures, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jar. , into the scope of the public. Political figures, including Democratic Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, also kook a stance on the issue of civil rights. The support given to the movement from Kennedy and Johnson helped to realign many of the traditional voting blocs.
Southern blacks Joined their northern counterparts to become one of the largest constituencies for the Democrats. Southern whites, who had at one time been predominantly Democratic, realigned themselves with the Republican Party because they were “disaffected by their party’s increasing tie to black aspirations. “14 These shifts of partisan allegiance transformed the political climate of the United States. The changes are especially significant because most of the new party loyalties formed in this period are still prevalent today.
As the evangelical movement continued into the sass, the Christian Right began to take shape. It was not until the rise of this movement that religion began to take on the highly visible role it plays in the elections of today. The Christian Right has since become a household term, capturing media attention of elections since 1980. Its rapid rise to prominence began as the evangelical movement was blossoming. Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peal had laid the framework for an evangelical event capable of tremendous political influence.
Both men had influenced elections in the past, but not to the extent that would be seen after the late sass. In a 1979 sermon, charismatic evangelical preacher Jerry Falafel asked followers, “did you know that the largest single minority block in the United States that has never been capitalized on by anybody is the fundamentalist movement? “15 This question marked the beginning of the Moral Majority movement, which would soon throw its support behind Ronald Reagan, the eventual winner of the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections.
But how important was this support to Reggae’s victory? According to research by Jeff Anza and Clue Brooks, the reality is that the Christian Right had a negligible impact on elections through 1992. This may prove shocking in light of the apparent strength of the movement. However, their study finds no evidence of a political realignment or increased manipulation among denominationally conservative Protestants, those individuals typically assumed to constitute the Christian Right. 6 While traditionally a Republican stronghold, ironically the only visible trend in the manipulation of conservative evangelical voters moms in favor of born-again Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter in the 1976 and 1980 elections. In subsequent electoral cycles evangelical Protestants have had some of the lowest voter turnout of any major group. This is exemplary of religious groups’ tendency to vote favorably for a candidate who is a member of their own religion. Just as Catholics embroiled for Kennedy in 1960, so too did many evangelicals for Carter in 1976.
It may seem as though religion swung the election in favor of both candidates, Just as Kennedy lost votes because of his Catholic beliefs, so too did Carter for his born-again” evangelicalism. The 1980 presidential election marks the contemporary starting point to identify voting trends in the modern era because it represents the first election in which the Christian Right constituted a legitimate political movement, receiving major media attention the way it does today.
Essentially, since 1980 the most visible religious voting trends have been as follows: (1) Conservative and moderate Protestants have been more likely to vote Republican than Democratic, with evangelicals representing the most strongly Republican subgroup (2) liberal Protestants have been slowly paving away from the GOP and towards the Democratic Party (3) Catholics have represented one of the largest swing groups, with a slight shift from Democratic to Republican and (4) Jews tend to vote Democratically. The first trend is, fundamentally, emblematic of the influence of the Christian Right.
Conservative and moderate Protestants represent those individuals most likely to be considered part of the movement, because they share many of the same beliefs and values. The Christian Right originated with conservative Protestant evangelical preachers, and as such, it is unsurprising that their congregations represent the arrest support base for the conservative-religious movement. The second trend is representative of a movement by liberal Protestants away from the Republican Party and toward the Democratic Party. This shift can also be attributed to the growth of the evangelical movement amongst more conservative Protestants.
Those members of the faith who hold a more liberal ideology have been alienated by the strong rhetoric of the more conservative Protestants. These individuals have been pushed toward the Democratic Party as a result with their more liberal values and tenets being better represented by the Democrats now than y the more strongly conservative GOP. While liberal Protestants were once the most supportive of Republican candidates of any religious group, they now give the least support to Republican candidates among the three Protestant groups. 7 This represents one of the most significant shifts because the size of the voting bloc has proven significantly large. Trend three, the slight shift of Catholics from Democratic to Republican, can largely be explained by socio-economic factors as opposed to religious changes. According to Anza and Brooks, “this shift is largely explained by the growing economic affluence of Catholics. 18 Over time, historic animosity between Protestants and Catholics has largely disappeared. Catholics have made significant inroads into business and politics, consequently becoming much more affluent members of society in a greater abundance.
This transformation of Catholics from an immigrant population to one generally accepted within society has also played a role in transforming the group’s voting habits. It was not a matter of religion, but the economic policy of the Republican Party that made it more attractive to the many, newly affluent Catholic voters. Ultimately, Catholics remain relatively neutral and thus present one of the biggest swing-blocs capable of voting depending largely on their economic stability.
The fourth and final trend focused on in this text is the most consistent: Jewish This is explained, in part, by a tendency of Jewish voters to favor liberal causes and the historical legacy of voting for the Democratic Party. In the past few electoral cycles the Republican Party has attempted to sway Jewish voters by emphasizing its support for Israel, but has been met with little success. In much the same way that conservative Protestants have varied little from voting Republican, Jewish voters have aired little from voting Democratic.
These trends help to explain how members of different religious groups are likely to vote and, as a result, shed some insight into the methodology behind presidential campaigning. Specific groups respond to different signals, and political advisors are remarkably astute at tailoring every aspect of candidates’ public appearances to appeal to particular voters. Dome and CEO point out that while many of these signals are conspicuous, “other times they are implemented in targeted ways, as veritable ‘dog whistles’ that only distinct segments of the population fully receive. “19
The so-called “God strategy,” utilizing voters’ religious inclinations as a way of motivating them to support a particular candidate, was first seen in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, which has, in turn, explained why 1980 has become a universal starting point in documenting these trends. Whereas John F. Kennedy had sought to remove his own religious beliefs from the election process, Ronald Reagan did the opposite. Announcing his candidacy in the days after the start of the Iranian hostage crisis, Reagan declared the United States to be a “city upon a hill,” invoking Puritan John Winthrop and Jesus’ Sermon on the
Mount in a combination of religion and politics that had, up to this point, been unseen. While attending the Religious Roundtable first National Affairs Briefing in Dallas, Reagan announced to 15,000 conservative evangelicals that, “l know this is a nonpartisan gathering, and so I know you can’t endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing. “20 The crowd was enamored with his declaration, marking the beginning of conservative evangelical support for Reggae’s presidential bid, while at the same time signaling the end of its support for the incumbent President Carter.
At the Republican National Convention Reagan would accept the presidential nomination by again invoking religion, leading the crowd in a moment of silent prayer, before concluding with a blessing. Invocations of faith in public addresses skyrocketed during Reggae’s presidency. As one author deduced, “put simply, Reggae’s presidency was unprecedented in its public religiosity. “21 Further, in examining utilized research by Dome and CEO, the data reveals massive increases in the level of religious rhetoric used by presidents since 1980 in every type of public address.
Since 1981 invocations of faith in presidential addresses to the nation have increased by 60% while invocations of God have increased by more than 100%. 22 Levels of religious rhetoric have increased across all types of public addresses since 1980, particularly among members of the Republican Party, as the political climate becomes more religiously polarize. The Republicans, however, are not alone in their employment of the so-called “God strategy’. Bill Clinton famously declared his “new covenant” at the 1992 Democratic Convention, invoking plenty of religious rhetoric and imagery, including 49 separate invocations of faith. 3 Barack Obama also emphasized his own religious background religiously charged speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in which he declared, “we worship an awesome God in the blue states,” before ending with a blessing. Beam’s declaration gained him significant media attention, as most religious statements in the political theater tend to do. 24 Since Reagan opened the rhetorical floodgates in 1980, there has been a continuous outpouring of religious rhetoric in politics. The fact remains, however, that religion is not a significant determinant of the outcome of presidential elections.
In the 1980 election, for example, Reagan certainly appealed to many evangelical Christians, but his two competitors were evangelicals as well. Reagan won the election because he appeared strong in a period of national crisis. He promised reform for a country struggling economically in the wake of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Reagan was also extremely vocal in his opposition of communism, seeing it as his personal mission to eradicate it. The issues that mattered to the people most remained those most pertinent to economics and national security, and ultimately decided the outcome. The same holds true for Presidents Clinton and Obama.
Both men won the election because of their stance on the issues that people value most during an election, which are not issues of religion. In short, matters of faith do not determine the outcome of presidential elections, but they do influence the candidates contesting them. A few months ago, Americans cast their ballots for who would be the next leader of our nation. It was clear that both President Obama and Governor Rooney sought to downplay the importance of religion to some degree, principally because it had proven to be a controversial issue in each of their respective campaigns. Roomers
Mormon beliefs were, if anything, a threat to his campaign. Similarly, Obama is familiar with the controversy that can arise when religion and politics interact too closely: a lesson learned in the aftermath of remarks made by the President’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. At its core, examining the beliefs publicly expressed by both candidates did shed insight on how religion may or may not come into play in elections and campaign methodology yet to come. Although there were some threats to his potential candidacy, Mitt Rooney had long appeared to be the man most likely to challenge Obama in November of last year.
However, many potential voters were incredibly critical of his Mormon beliefs. Rooney remained largely quiet about the specifics of his Mornings, preferring to deflect questions back to his beliefs in God and Jesus Christ as the savior of the world: beliefs he shares with other more traditional Christian denominations. However, many voters remained unconvinced. According to the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2011 American Values Survey, more than a third of all voters (36%) did not view Mornings as a Christian religion. A majority of voters surveyed (53%) stated that they would be uncomfortable with a Mormon serving as president.
And yet, Rooney prevailed as the candidate perceived to be the most likely to defeat Obama. What is more interesting is that only 42% of Americans could properly identify his faith as Mormon, providing the slim possibility that his religious beliefs would not negatively impact his candidacy. 25 However, enough had been made of his Mornings that he felt the need to address it directly on two occasions. The first was which he emphasized the importance of freely practicing religion, while simultaneously ensuring voters his religious perspective would not deter him from addressing issues of dire importance.
The second took place during the announcement address at Liberty University, wherein Rooney referenced God nine times, reiterating the shared belief in Christ that his Mormon faith has in common with Protestantism. In the eyes of many, these two public addresses were blunders, which possibly contributed to his electoral shortcomings. In many respects, however, President Obama and Mitt Rooney were in the same position prior to the ballot casting in that only a minority of Americans could correctly identify their personal religious beliefs.
Just as there were many Americans who were unaware of Roomer’s Mormon beliefs, there were also many who did not know Obama is a Christian. In fact, even after over four years as president, one-in-six Americans still believe that Obama is a Muslim. 26 This further substantiates the fact that religion does not directly impact presidential elections, because not all voters can correctly identify the individual candidates’ religious beliefs. This did not mean, however, that there would be any less religious rhetoric in the build up to the most recent Election Day.
If anything it encouraged President Obama to call on his Christian faith more, as a way of educating more Americans of his belief in Christianity as opposed to Islam. Perhaps in consideration of this fact, President Obama noticeably increased his use of religious terminology during his campaign for reelection. John Green highlighted that before November of last year, “Obama didn’t talk much about faith during his first two years in office and this has left 40% of Americans wondering Just what, exactly, is his faith commitment. Now he is ramping up this kind of language and using it in the right kind of context. 27 As Obama sought reelection, he participated in more religiously rooted campaign stops, requiring him to invoke his that more frequently than he did during the previous years of his presidency. In a February 2, 2012 speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, Obama spoke about the impact of a visit with Reverend Billy Graham stating, “l have fallen on my knees with great regularity since that moment asking God for guidance not Just in my personal life and my Christian walk, but in the life of this nation and in the values that hold us together and keep us strong. 28 David Dome stipulates that Obama chose not to speak in this manner when he held the majority of public approval. It appears that Obama was, perhaps, trying to reconnect with spiritual voters ahead of the election in order to solidify his appeal to religiously inclined voters in much the same manner as Mitt Rooney. The campaign rhetoric of both major political parties was only becoming more religiously charged as Election Day drew nearer and candidates sought voters through any meaner possible.
As is clear from America’s rich religious heritage: appeals soundly based in faith reach a majority of voters. However, despite certain indications of late, issues of religion are not indicative of the outcome of residential elections, as we have seen from concrete statistical data. Recent history has demonstrated a surge in the level of religious rhetoric in presidential politics. And yet, the trends examined within dif