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The relative absence of religious friction in the campaign is, in many ways, a welcome development, a signal that this particular front in the culture wars has lost its strategic value when the entire electorate must be considered. This political assessment mirrors what we know about the public’s more fluid attitudes toward religion: a growing tolerance based on personal experience. It’s harder to hate all (pick one: Jews, Mormons, atheists) when one is married to your sister or uncle and will be joining you for Thanksgiving dinner.
But the fact that faith is a bit player in this year’s campaign theater is also leading to important missed opportunities. As the first Mormon to be chosen as his party’s nominee for president, Mitt Romney regrettably has allowed us only a quick glance at his faith and its implications for governance. At the GOP convention, we heard from those at the receiving end of his personal ministry, but nothing about how his Mormonism animates his view of government and its responsibility to those in need. And nothing about his attitudes toward his church’s more controversial stands on women, race and dissent.
Of even greater concern is that the social teachings of the candidates’s various faith traditions have barely been referenced on the campaign trail. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a lot to say about the prevalence of poverty afflicting 46 million people, one out of six Americans, and government’s responsibility to help “the least of these.” But we haven’t heard much from the two Catholic vice presidential candidates on this issue, have we?
There are powerful faith teachings that can be applied to the pressing issues of immigration, education, the environment, caring for the elderly and infirm, and nourishing the hungry. Bringing faith into the public arena is not simply a vehicle for charged arguments about contraceptive coverage and whether every courthouse in America can post a copy of the Ten Commandments (both matters are mentioned in the GOP party platform this year.) What about the premier question facing any moral society: How does it care for its neediest citizens?
Who is talking about that?
It’s as if such faith talk had to be scrubbed from the script for fear of being too controversial or revealing. But most Americans understand the complexities and even the contradictions inherent in attempting to align their religious values with their politics. Even the unaffiliated are a nuanced bunch: The Pew poll showed that two-thirds say they believe in God and one-in-five says he or she prays every day. Only a fraction identify as atheists or agnostics.
So despite answering “none in particular” when asked to state their religion, the unaffiliated might be far more amenable to a discussion of how to bring ethical and moral values into the public square if the language used was authentic, inclusive and concrete. As the Pew findings state, “Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”
There is an opening here to bring religious values to bear not on “politics” but on policies, thereby elevating the national discourse. The absence of religious friction among the candidates in the 2012 presidential campaign is welcome, but their silence on issues of moral concern leaves the race, and the nation, diminished.