Most of the conversation surrounding religion and the presidential election has been around Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. The Church of Latter-Day Saints is still a mystery to many Americans, and there were fears that Romney’s Mormonism would hurt him with voters unfamiliar with the religion. But the latest survey from the Pew Forum for Religion and Public life suggests that Romney has nothing to worry about — of the voters who know that Romney is a Mormon (60 percent), the vast majority say they are either comfortable with his faith (60 percent) or that it doesn’t matter at all (21 percent).
If you divide this along religious lines, the only people uncomfortable with Romney’s Mormonism are white evangelicals, black Protestants, atheists, and agnostics — only 43 percent of the former, for example, do not think that Mormonism is a Christian religion. Even still, more than half of white evangelicals are comfortable with Mormonism, and they overwhelmingly back Romney for the presidential election, showing the degree to which partisanship is a powerful force in elections.
Indeed, of the two candidates, religion actually seems to be a bigger factor for President Obama. Only 49 percent of voters know that Obama is a Christian, and 17 percent continue to say that he’s a Muslim. Among conservatives, 30 say that he is a Muslim; among the most conservative voters that jumps to 34 percent. When Pew first surveyed this question, in 2008, only 16 percent of conservatives believed that Obama was a Muslim. Put another way, as conservatives grew more familiar with Obama, their view of his religious beliefs moved deeper into fantasy.
In all likelihood, this is a product of partisanship. Among the most conservative Americans, beliefs about his citizenship and religious affiliation may have emerged as tribal identifiers — symbolic ideas that tie believers into a broader community.
My guess is that if Obama is elected to a second term, the number of conservatives who believe that he is a Muslim will continue to increase. As with liberals and George W. Bush, Obama’s standing with conservatives will only drop further as time goes on. Moreover, there’s little indication that Republican elites will challenge conservative beliefs about Obama’s religion or citizenship — in fact, they’re more likely to encourage them. Simply put, for as long as he’s around, a large portion of conservatives will continue to believe that Obama is fundamentally foreign.