Opinions columnist, 2007-2022

Religion in the 2012 presidential election is the topic that will launch a thousand PhD theses. The pre-Vatican II Catholic candidate, Rick Santorum, has risen largely on the support of evangelicals, who, before the Second Vatican Council, often regarded the pope as the Antichrist. The former Mormon bishop, Mitt Romney, won Ohio and Michigan (and thus probably the nomination) arguably because of Catholic support. Meanwhile, a significant portion of the Republican electorate regards a president who has affirmed “the resurrection of our savior Jesus Christ” as a closet Muslim.

In light of these developments, Americans have every right to be confused. But they hold one conviction about the role of religion in politics with increasing clarity: There is too much of it. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 38 percent of Americans believe there is “too much expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders.” This is up from 29 percent in 2010.

Though I haven’t noticed much aggressive public praying during this political cycle, Republican expressions of faith have been frequent and frequently crude. By every measure, the quality of evangelical social engagement has been in recent decline.

Candidates such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have practiced a kind of identity politics, urging evangelicals to support one of their own. Then they reduced the evangelical tradition to a pathetic caricature, defined by support for school prayer or (in Bachmann’s case) conspiratorial opposition to vaccines. Their view of Christian social ethics is strangely identical to the most uncompromising anti-government ideology — involving the systematic subordination of a rich tradition of social justice to a narrow and predictable political agenda. It is difficult to imagine Bachmann or Perry in the same political universe as evangelical abolitionists and social reformers William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury.

The problem is not, as some have alleged, a secret theocratic plot. It is the regression of evangelical politicians — and politicians appealing to evangelicals — to the worst habits of the religious right circa 1980. They jostle to claim a divine calling. They appear in the pulpit with pastors who talk ignorantly of America as a “Christian nation.” Some, when they lose, hint darkly of anti-religious persecution. This is the behavior of Jerry Falwell on a bad day. Americans are right to find it discrediting.

But the Pew survey does not reveal a suddenly anti-clerical nation. Americans may find the return of the religious right problematic, but religious beliefs still shape American politics in various ways.

The poll, for example, found that GOP voters who believe there is too much religion in politics are far more likely to support Romney. Consider this a moment. At least among Republicans, Romney’s Mormonism is viewed as a haven from an excessive emphasis on religion. Some of this is surely due to Romney’s more moderate demeanor. But it is also an accurate reading of the Mormon tradition, which is self-consciously nonpartisan. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes not only Romney but also Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat. Romney’s Mormonism may have limited his appeal among evangelicals in the Southern primaries. But he may get a subtle revenge. In the general election, his religious tradition may be viewed with less suspicion than would evangelicalism.

The Pew poll also serves as a reminder that the Democratic Party coalition remains diverse on religious issues. Concerns about excessive public religious expression are concentrated among Democrats. But a majority of African American Protestants still believes that churches should “express their views on day-to-day social and political questions.” Given the history of the civil rights movement, this sentiment is unsurprising. But it means that the Democratic Party, at least in its current form, cannot be a secular party.

The survey demonstrates the dangers to Democrats when they veer toward secularism. President Obama’s assault on the autonomy of Catholic religious institutions — part of a broader administration effort to eliminate or narrow the ministerial exception to federal laws — is beginning to take a toll. The percentage of white Catholics who believe that the Obama administration is hostile to religion has nearly doubled since 2009 — rising from 17 percent to 31 percent. Catholics, whatever their contraceptive practices, seem to care about the religious integrity of Catholic hospitals and charities.

So maybe the message of Americans on religion and politics isn’t that confusing after all. They don’t like sectarianism. But they also reject secularism. There is, fortunately, a distinctly American alternative: religious pluralism, humanized by tolerance.