Sure, there was a swirl of debate about religious freedom, mostly about the Obama administration requiring Catholic institutions to provide contraceptive coverage. And Mitt Romney’s faith drew coverage, allowing Mormons to debut nationally the way evangelicals did with Jimmy Carter in 1976.
But religion largely wasn’t onstage like it has been in recent elections. There was little courting of high-profile pastors such as Rick Warren, Jim Wallis and John Hagee. Remember how Warren of California’s Saddleback Church actually hosted a John McCain/Barack Obama forum in 2008?
And issues such as gay marriage, abortion and Islamic extremism didn’t drive the debate. At least not like how the 2004 Bush campaign used gay marriage to win voters in swing states like Ohio. Or how Obama courted young evangelicals in 2008, hoping to winnow down the margin of evangelicals voting Republican.
This shift is a good thing since some voters are getting worn out with all the God talk.
In March, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a survey that showed nearly 40 percent of Americans thought this year’s White House hopefuls were talking too much about God. That was the highest percentage in a decade, up from only 12 percent who thought the candidates were invoking God too much in 2001.
Taking a step back from so much talk about God and politics actually could help voters sort out the natural relationship that exists between religion and politics. These forces always will intersect. They each are about values such as compassion, stewardship and freedom. And policymakers can’t afford to ignore the role religion plays in the world.
Diplomats in the Mideast, Africa and Latin America especially must stay informed about how religious beliefs shape their host countries. Religion influences the culture of those regions, whether through the interplay of the three Abrahamic faiths or the explosive growth of one or more faiths.
But, as that Pew survey revealed, the God talk has gotten a bit much. So has the manipulation of the religious marketplace by U.S. politicians and their strategists. Candidates’ religious values get trotted out to rev up voters, all while denying that’s the aim. Rick Perry’s Houston prayer rally as he kicked off his presidential bid exemplified the blurring of the religious and political.
Even some believers have grown weary of seeing their brethren closely align their tradition with a party. Jim Denison, a Southern Baptist minister who heads the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture, reflected this when he wrote last week on the Dallas Morning News’ Texas Faith blog: “If conservative churches would tell our culture what God’s word says about our moral issues, leaving the Republican Party to deal with political challenges through political means, both would be better served.”
Some evangelicals have even started rethinking whether they’ve confused biblical absolutes and political principles. Robert Jeffress, pastor of Dallas’ First Baptist Church, recently wrote: “We must differentiate between biblical absolutes and political preferences. … Breaking a pledge to Grover Norquist and embracing higher taxes for even higher cuts in expenditures is not tantamount to denouncing Christ. Acknowledging the need for governmental health care reform does not necessarily pave the way for the rule of the Antichrist.”
To be sure, candidates in 2016 and beyond will speak of their faith. Part of this is to relate to Americans, for whom religion remains important. “There is no indication that there has been a continuous drop in the personal aspect of religion in recent years,” Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor-in-chief, writes of Americans in the “Future of Religion in America: God Is Alive and Well.”
But maybe this rethinking will help religion and politics. They belong together, but candidates especially need to reconsider how they talk about the intersection.
William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him at the Dallas Morning News, Communications Center, Dallas, Texas 75265; email: email@example.com.