Presidential candidates put faith in non-religious issues
The race for the White House is getting personal, but there is one issue that has so far remained off-limits: religion.
In a country where 92 per cent of would-be voters profess a belief in God, politicians in America are usually quick to play up their church credentials. But for president Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney, it is an area fraught with potential hazards – so much so that both have shied away from attempts to score points among America’s influential evangelical community at the others’ expense.
The Republican Party should be on strong ground on the issue of faith. The Obama administration’s programme has put it at odds with conservative Christians in the country – the president’s recent conversion to backing same-sex unions caps a social programme that has seen America take a liberal trajectory since the 2008 election, a move which has met fierce resistance amongst the religious right.
But his rival for the White House has been hesitant on trying to score points on gay marriage. America is evolving on the issue, with some surveys suggesting a majority of voters are now in favour of same-sex unions.
In May, former Bush pollster and key Republican strategist Jan van Lohuizen warned that the party could get trapped on the wrong side of the debate, urging instead that activists put forward a conservative defence of gay marriage, in terms of encouraging commitment.
It is also an issue that Mr Romney may wish to tiptoe around because as a former governor for Massachusetts he supported gay marriage. In the mid-1990s, he wrote to members of the Log Cabin Republicans – a gay and lesbian grassroots organisation – saying that he supported “full equality for America’s gay and lesbian citizens”.
Having been dragged to the political right during the primary campaign, Mr Romney is now trying to manoeuvre himself more towards the centre, which means avoiding pushing buttons that would appeal to the party’s conservative religious wing but alienate moderates.
But faith is also a tricky subject for the Republican candidate. As a Mormon, he is eyed with suspicion by many mainstream Christians, especially those of an evangelical bent.
“People are sort of afraid to bring the subject up, and tiptoeing around the Mormon issue with Mitt Romney,” Republican pollster Dan Judy said.
Aware of the potential impact, Mr Romney has been at pains to not talk up his religious beliefs. That has lead both camps to seemingly enter a gentlemen’s agreement not to go on the attack on personal faith.
Criticism of Mr Romney’s Mormonism is “not fair game”, Mr Obama’s campaign adviser David Axelrod said recently. Similarly, a proposed campaign ad playing on Mr Obama’s links to controversial pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright was pulled and condemned by Mr Romney.
It appears to be the one area off-limits in a campaign which is turning more personal. In recent weeks, the Democrats have turned the spotlight on Mr Romney’s business record and tax arrangements – they appear content to adhere to the hands-off religion agreement as they are finding enough flesh elsewhere to stick the knife in.
Likewise, Republican strategists are keen to kick faith-based issues into the long grass, noting that the November ballot will be won or lost on the economy – an area of presumed weakness for Mr Obama, given the stagnant employment figures.
Mr Judy said his research has seen respondents overwhelmingly list budgetary concerns and jobs ahead of social issues when it came to areas that would influence their vote. This differs from past elections, where social issues were more to the fore.
“If a voter is out of work, they won’t really care where their president does or doesn’t worship. If the economy was doing well, however, it could be a different matter,” Mr Judy said.
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