If the 2008 debates offer any clue as to how often faith and values themes will surface during Wednesday’s Obama/Romney showdown then we can expect this: near total silence about religious issues.
Save a passing aside about abortion during the third debate in 2008 (where then-Senator Barack Obama mentioned women consulting with “families, their doctors, [and] their religious advisers”) and Senator Joe Biden’s comment on gay marriage (which, you may recall, he then said he did not support ) faith angles were few and far between four years back.
Maybe news organizations in 2008 were, like, “been there, done that.” After all, megachurch pastor Rick Warren had already hosted a FaithandValuesapalozza just a few weeks prior. That controversial get-together may have slaked the nation’s (and the media’s) thirst for campaign God talk.
This past July, Warren made noises about staging another event. Neither campaign seemed too interested in taking him up on that offer. All of which draws attention to how relatively muted religious politicking has been in the 2012 presidential race.
It also reminds us how tremendously combustible this faith and values business can be. Romney has been perennially apprehensive about overemphasizing his Mormon faith. Obama, for his part, has had to fend off charges that he is an enemy of religious freedom in general and Catholicism in particular. For these and other reasons both have eased up on the God Talk.
But let’s say the candidates at Wednesday’s showdown in Denver do decide to open up a “religious front” and unleash their spiritual weapons of mass destruction. If their performance over the past year is a predictor, then what might we expect?
Since their convention in Charlotte the Democrats have espoused a “theology of togetherness.”
Along those lines, the president might sermonize that tough financial times demand that we take care of “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40 is the party’s go-to verse for questions of poverty). The same strategists who have made an issue of “economic patriotism”might conceivably try and stress “pious economics” which favor the vulnerable and needy.
In the primary debates, Romney showed himself to be a superb defensive debater. Yet currently trailing in swing states he needs to go into offensive mode where he is less skilled. If he does take the unusual step of making religion an issue in a presidential faceoff, it stands to reason that he might fall back on one of two existing lines of attack—neither of which has been particularly effective.
First, Republicans have tried to hang the dreaded “secular” label on the president. Romney, for example, has occasionally aired the complaint that his opponent advocates a “secular agenda.” Newt Gingrich, for his part, wrote a book about Obama’s “secular-socialist machine.” Insofar as most Americans don’t know what secularism is, or think it’s atheism, this hasn’t swayed hearts and minds.
Second, the GOP has achieved somewhat more traction by accusing Obama of imperiling religious freedom. This strategy has been effective in achieving what I call “base-whip-up.” As much as social conservatives may warm to the theme, anger about Obama’s HHS mandates (requiring religious employers to provide employees with access to contraception in their insurance coverage) has not spread beyond the whipped-up base. A recent Pew Forum poll, for example, demonstrates that Obama’s support among registered Catholics is at 54 percent, exactly where it was on Election Day 2008.
Herein lies the conundrum of the GOP in an age of “teavangelicals.” Republicans possess few policy initiatives that can appeal to the center their impassioned base so clearly distrusts.Embed code:
Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor and director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and author of “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom .”