Roman Catholic Cardinal and Archbishop of New York His Eminence Timothy… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
What role will religion play in the 2012 elections? According to voters, not a big one. A recent Pew Research Center poll revealed that most Americans are comfortable with what they know about the candidates' faith and that their votes will have little to do with the nominees' religion. In fact, a majority of the electorate is significantly more interested in Mitt Romney's tax returns and gubernatorial record than in his beliefs.
Two-thirds of those surveyed said religion's influence on the way they vote is declining, which may explain how the Republican Party, whose platform in recent years has reflected white evangelical priorities, could have nominated a Mormon and a Roman Catholic to run for the White House. But is the Romney/Ryan ticket a sign that religion no longer matters or that religious identity — even on the right — is evolving along post-denominational lines? Not really.
Galvanized by a born-again Southern Baptist, a peanut farmer from rural Georgia, the white evangelical voting bloc emerged as a key factor in the 1976 election of Democrat Jimmy Carter. But when Carter proved too liberal for their tastes, many switched parties to support Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Reagan, unlike Carter, did not use the term "born again," but Christians understood that he was raised in a pious home and had a come-to-Jesus experience in the late 1960s. More important, and as his advisors made sure they knew, his social, economic and political positions squared with theirs and were justified along the same religious lines.
The Hollywood hero was a die-hard anti-communist and proponent of a free-market economy who believed those values reflected God's plan for America. Even as the religious right complained that Reagan wasn't doing enough to end abortion and return prayer to public schools, they applauded his tough stance against the Kremlin, unions and "welfare queens."
Reagan helped teach conservative evangelicals to look beyond outward trappings and plumb a politician's heart. Over the next 30 years, Republican candidates, whether Episcopalian, Methodist or Baptist, came to be judged more by whether their policies reflected faith-based principles than by where and when they went to church. They were expected to hold pro-life, pro-prayer and pro-heterosexual family positions. But more significant, given American foreign policy and domestic priorities, they were expected to support an international presence (once opposed to communism but now standing against "political Islam"), a diminished federal government and a vigorous free-market economy.
When he founded the Moral Majority more than 30 years ago, Jerry Falwell hoped to unite white evangelicals, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews around all these positions. But he began by focusing more narrowly on social issues, citing all three religions' shared antipathy for "abortion on demand," gay rights and other alleged threats to the nuclear family. His bold vision defied the long-standing mutual distrust among religions, and it was not clear in the beginning whether the approach could succeed. Could anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism be put aside? Could evangelical soul-saving take a back seat to disciplined vote-getting? Could a joint crusade to save "unborn life" trump decades of mutual suspicion?
As it turned out, the answer to those questions was yes. Falwell's scheme reinvigorated the Republican Party, and its subsequently successful presidential candidates have been Protestants whose religious commitments included conservative positions on domestic and foreign policy. In 2008, a distrust of Mormons on the part of some Republicans — many evangelicals do not consider Mormons to be Christian — helped derail Romney's candidacy. But this year, with no viable alternative, evangelicals seem to have plumbed the man's heart and made peace with what they found. As one Orange County pastor said to a reporter: "I'm for Romney. It's certainly not because of his religion. It's more in spite of his religion."
Many other evangelical voters will overlook Romney's religious label and focus on the practical applications of his faith. Like them, Romney opposes abortion, supports family values and embraces small government and low taxes. Similar to Jews, evangelicals vote against their class interests. Many well-to-do Jews, steeped in tikkun olam — the notion of repairing the world through justice and mercy — vote Democratic. They believe Democrats should promote social welfare even if it means higher taxes, curbs on business and stringent environmental policies. Middle-class evangelicals, by contrast, many of whose incomes have suffered under the ascendancy of free-market policy, support Republicans. They like the party that backs the American trinity: free men, free markets and the freedom for every citizen to have a personal relationship with Jesus.
So when polls and pundits pronounce that religion isn't a factor in the 2012 election, don't believe it. Religious labels may be passe, but the religious values that inform who's taxed, what's regulated, how jobs are created and when or where we help those in need are more important than ever.
Diane Winston teaches media and religion at USC's Annenberg School. She is the author of "Red Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army."