Religion and the 2012 election: framing the Vice-Presidential debate

Thursday night’s vice-presidential debate for many served to make up for less than stellar performance by both parties in the first of three debates between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. But I think the real star of the night was moderator Martha Raddatz, who wasn’t afraid to call out Vice-President Joe Biden or Representative Paul Ryan for vagueness and outright lies, or to ask tough questions, like the last question of the night, on religion and abortion. Rather than ask about each campaign’s official positions on reproductive rights, she asked the candidates to speak from their hearts:

“This debate is, indeed, historic. We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And, please, this is such an emotional issue for so many people in this country. Please talk personally about this, if you could.”

Whether we’d like to admit it or not, religion has played a huge role in this election cycle in issues reaching much farther than access to abortion. Gov. Romney, a member of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, is the first Mormon in United States history to be nominated for President by a major political party. Interestingly, a February 2012 study by David T. Smith found that the numbers of both liberal voters and non-religious people who reported they were less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate increased significantly between 2007 and 2012, likely due to Mitt Romney’s candidacy and the church’s positions on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ* rights. This aversion seems more political than prejudice-based in nature, but I do think Romney’s Mormonism is silly as a sole reason to vote against him.

Pres. Obama, too, has come under fire for his religion, or the public’s perception thereof. In 2010, more than 20% of American voters were found to believe that Barack Obama was a Muslim. While this belief seems obviously untrue (author and vlogger John Green has a hilarious video deconstructing the claim that Obama practices Islam), its significance is in its success as a campaign to otherize both Pres. Obama and actual American Muslims. The criticisms of the Obama presidency based on the claim that Obama is a Muslim are not offensive in their factual inaccuracy – anyone with very basic research skills and an internet connection can find Pres. Obama’s statements on his personal belief in Christianity – but rather because of the base assumption upon which they rely:  the assumption that a Muslim is unfit to be President of the United States.

While Biden’s and Ryan’s Catholicism has, most often, come up  relative to personal values and views on hot issues, when President John F. Kennedy was running for office, serious concern was expressed that he, the first Catholic president, would be too directly influenced by the Pope’s authority to govern the United States safely and effectively. Yet despite the anti-Catholic naysayers, Pres. Kennedy continues to be one of America’s most fondly remembered.

So the question is begged: does a candidate’s religion affect his ability to govern? It seems quite apparent that religion is a huge factor in anyone’s position on certain political issues. Policies regarding civil rights for LGBTQ* people and treatment of the sick and poor are often discussed in the context of the religion of an individual candidate or lawmaker and their party’s interpretation of religious liberty as a whole. Then there are issues related directly to religion, like the effect of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance stipulations on religious employers who do not want to cover birth control for their employees, or public funding of private religious schools.

But I think religion has even more influence on politics and government than that limited to certain issues. One’s religion guides and informs hir entire value system and world view, and has even become a source of hegemonic and structural power for some groups, making it easier for group members to gain political clout and office. Values we learn from our religion or lack thereof about community, social propriety, personal responsibility, acceptance, and even family and love  can easily translate to our personal political philosophy. We saw those values come to fruition in the vice-presidential debate; both VP Biden and Rep. Ryan gave frank answers regarding their and the Catholic church’s position on abortion during their debate.

There was one significant difference between the candidates’ answers, though. While Paul Ryan described his position that is both personally and politically pro-life, Joe Biden’s position was more my style. As a woman who may one day need safe access to abortion, and as an advocate for religious liberty, Biden’s answer hit home for me, when he said:

Life begins at conception in the [Catholic] church’s judgement. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others…  I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people – women – that they can’t control their body.

Personally, I would like religion to have less influence in our political system, or at least a more equitable influence. With Christianity as a pervading force in the United States, and political debate sometimes getting hung up on contrived issues like whether or not we are a Christian nation, I personally feel completely alienated from the, albeit relatively few, candidates so forcefully and passionately advocating policies that come directly from a religious doctrine I do not hold. I imagine other non-Christians and Nones do so as well.  While the distinction between a personal, ethical decision and one to criminalize or legalize an action can sometimes be hard to make, I think it will ultimately be for the good of the country if we can go ahead and make it.

So what does this all mean? I’m not completely sure. Religion is undeniably a force in today’s electoral and policy-centric politics. But I think we sometimes give far too much consideration to personal religious beliefs, rather than the similarities, values, and secular philosophies that unite us all. This is why interfaith work is so important. Like I said, I think Joe Biden got it right Thursday night; his personal beliefs are incredibly important to him as an individual, yet his focus on the perspectives and needs of those with whom he personally disagrees was admirable.

Does religion influence who you will vote for or support in an election? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!


4 responses to “Religion and the 2012 election: framing the Vice-Presidential debate

  1. I agree with your take on the impact of religion on our politics. It would be very refreshing for a candidate to take the position that he/she will refuse to answer questions about her/his personal religious beliefs and insist on speaking only to the issues (on the grounds that there may be no religious test for candidates).

    • I would like that, too. I especially don’t like the focus on a candidate’s personal religious beliefs when it seems apparent that only a narrow few are accepted – a candidate expressing sincere conviction of anything other than mainstream American Judeo-Christian religiosity would not be met with many kind words.

  2. Thanks for starting the conversation on this topic. I feel like the candidates should have also been asked to specifically define what freedom of religion means to them….b/c that would have also highlighted the start difference of both of their sides.

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