The religious faith of the presidential candidates has played a smaller role to date in the 2012 campaign than in others in recent times, perhaps because of both camps’ focus on the country’s parlous economic recovery. But in answering identical questions from the magazine, Obama and Romney readily discussed their religions, using the interviews to address separation of church and state, public controversies around their own faiths and religion as a driving motivation for their political standpoints.
Though often cautious, the candidates’ differing responses to the same questions set out their ideas on faith in public life. One area where the tone of the two candidates differed markedly was on the separation of church and state.
Romney suggested that the role of faith in public life is perhaps under threat and relies on the judiciary to keep it in place.
“We should acknowledge the Creator, as did the Founders — in ceremony and word,” he said. “He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests.”
He went on to expand on this theme later in his interview:
“In recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God.
“Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. The Founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square.”
The positioning of the dividing line between church and state is an issue that resonates with parts of both the liberal and conservative bases of each candidate’s party. Of the two, Obama appeared keener than his rival to endorse the status quo.
“The constitutional principle of a separation between church and state has served our nation well since our founding — embraced by people of faith and those of no faith at all throughout our history — and it has been paramount in our work,” he said.
Obama cited as an example of this principle an executive order he signed in 2010 on federal funding for faith groups.
The order clarified that religious groups can provide services with federal funding without removing religious imagery or scripture, but it said beneficiaries of programs must be given referrals to alternative providers if they wish. And it stressed that explicit religious activity must be kept separate “in time and location” from any federally supported programs.