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WASHINGTON LETTER Nov-11-2011 (800 words) Backgrounder and analysis. With graphic. xxxn

Many Americans OK with religion in politics as long as it's their own

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The old adage that people should refrain from talking about religion and politics in public has long been thrown out the window.

But questions about the direction that this conversation is going remain unanswered. Voters are trying to figure out how much religion they want in a candidate and are also concerned about the potential impact this religion could have if the candidate is elected.

Two-thirds of Americans think it is important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs and one in five would prefer if these beliefs were similar to their own, according to a survey released Nov. 8.

The American Values Survey, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, found American voters have differing degrees of comfort picturing government leaders of a variety of faith traditions. Their degree of discomfort with an evangelical Christian president, for example, is 28 percent. This level of discomfort jumps to 64 percent for a Mormon leader and 67 percent for a Muslim president.

Although the Constitution forbids a specific religious test for office, a candidate's religious beliefs seem to go through a variety of hurdles each election season.

"Voters have been considering religious convictions and professions from the very beginning of the nation," said John Vile, professor of political science and dean of the University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University, who noted that during the 1800 election there were allegations that Thomas Jefferson was an atheist.

And Catholics specifically remember the anti-Catholic rhetoric in presidential elections, from the 1928 campaign of Al Smith through John F. Kennedy's 1960 race and the 2004 campaign of Sen. John Kerry.

This year's presidential campaign is no exception to the trend with some people focusing on the Mormon faith of Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. The other front-runners are Protestant, Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, Baptist and Catholic.

Targeting the Mormon faith should be off-limits in an election, a group of Catholic academics and diplomats said in a Nov. 2 statement responding to recent comments made at the Values Voter Summit in Washington describing Romney's religion as a cult.

The Public Religion Research Institute's study specifically sought people's views on Mormonism and found that two-thirds of voters view religious beliefs of Mormons as different from their own and half of registered voters think the Mormon faith is a Christian religion.

The study also found that despite a possible concern about the influence of the Mormon faith on a potential leader, this concern cannot be widespread since only about 42 percent of Americans even know Romney is Mormon.

The survey was conducted by phone Sept. 22-Oct. 2 with 1,505 respondents. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.

Kathleen Flake, an associate professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said the concern about politicians from different faiths could lessen as people realize that members of other faiths are "capable of holding their religious beliefs privately while acting publicly for common good."

She told Catholic News Service Nov. 10 that American voters want candidates to be "generally religious," but they also want that religion "to be held relatively privately." They want a president to be spiritual and moral but not exhibit an "overt sense of religious orthodoxy."

Joseph Valenzano III, assistant communications professor at the University of Dayton on Ohio, agreed. He said Americans like "generic Christian" presidents because they view the faith practice as "a really good barometer of a moral compass which people want to see in a leader."

That means non-Protestants typically have some explaining to do to assure the public their faith won't interfere with their work, as Kennedy did in 1960 when he said he was not the Catholic candidate for president, but the Democratic candidate who happened to be Catholic.

Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, said when most voters engage in politics, "they take their bearings from the micro-culture of their own everyday lives."

"If a voter is religious, then the voter prefers religiosity in the candidate. But, the preference that religious voters have for religious candidates breaks down and can even become a negative when a candidate's religion is perceived as too different or counter to their own."

He said the Smith and Kennedy presidential campaigns were "very careful about the candidates' Catholicism and instead emphasized assimilation and 'American-ness.'"

Schneck said Catholics still have to do this to some extent in some parts of the country and Mormon, Jewish and Muslim candidates face this as well.

Although this voter response can sometimes be categorized as religious bigotry, he said more often it is "the much subtler inclination of most of us to prefer candidates who fit our worldview."


Copyright (c) 2011 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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