There are seismic shifts occuring in the American religious landscape that could have profound effects on the way that faith intersects with public life, but you’d never know it from the language and behavior of the two presidential candidates. That’s both a great relief and a cause for despair.
The shifts were underscored by the results of the latest survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, released October 9, showing that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religious group continues to grow. Five years ago, 15% of the American public claimed no religious affiliation; now 20% claims none, the highest percentage ever in Pew Research Center polling, and since that includes one-third of adults under 30, this trend is likely to become even more pronounced.
With the rising numbers, Pew notes, the unaffiliated are an increasingly important part of the electorate. They lean liberal, and are more likely to identify as Democrats or vote that way. Solid majorities support abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
Meantime, the number of Americans who identify themselves as Protestants dropped to a record low of 48%, and that includes a small but steady decrease in white evangelicals, who now measure about 19% of the population. So consider this: The unaffiliated are about as numerous as white evangelicals, but you don’t hear candidates speaking to them.
This population shift is reflected in the nation’s highest institutions. There are no longer any Protestants on the U.S. Supreme Court. And the only Protestant running on a presidential ticket from either party is Barack Obama (even though an astonishing 17% of Americans continue to insist, contrary to all evidence, that he’s a Muslim).
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.