The Role of Religion in This Year's Election

A new survey suggests the complex role of faith in the race for the White House.

Sen. Barack Obama, closes his eyes as the pastors lead a prayer for him in New Orleans.

Sen. Barack Obama, closes his eyes as the pastors lead a prayer for him in New Orleans.

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Anybody who thought faith and the values voters wouldn't play a big role in the next presidential election might be having second thoughts by now. In the primaries alone, we saw a Baptist minister come out of nowhere to make a surprisingly strong showing, while a highly accomplished candidate and presumptive front-runner unexpectedly went down in flames, possibly in part because of his Mormon faith. Assorted "pastor eruptions" nearly derailed a Democratic candidate who had seemed eloquently at ease with his faith. And the Republicans ended up choosing a candidate who appeared to have difficulty even explaining what his religion was.

Yet while it's clearly a force, religion appears to be a more complicated variable than it was when evangelicals and other conservative Christians lined up behind George W. Bush in 2000 and even more solidly in 2004. A new survey of the American religious landscape by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life may help explain why. Undogmatic but serious about their faith, religiously inclined Americans are even more diverse and unpredictable than conventional wisdom suggests—and not only across different religious traditions. "Even within religious groups," says political scientist John Green, a senior fellow in religion and politics at Pew, "there are differences of opinion on the issues. This complexity creates political opportunities." And, one might add, pitfalls.

Consider John McCain. He came in last out of eight Republican hopefuls in a straw vote cast at the end of last October's Washington Values Voters Summit. (Mitt Romney finished first, with Mike Huckabee coming in a close second.) So does that suggest that the man who ultimately got the Republican nomination won't have the evangelicals behind him come November?

Possibly. But the summit was a magnet to activists and leaders of the aging religious right, who tend to have a narrower, more culture-focused agenda than do most rank-and-file evangelicals. To the old-guard evangelicals, including Focus on the Family's James Dobson, McCain still has not established his conservative credentials or even his religious earnestness (perhaps because he has never supported a federal constitutional marriage amendent). But McCain's evangelical challenges don't end there. Many commentators are saying that younger evangelicals are at least as concerned with issues such as the environment and poverty as with the hot-button culture issues. If so, McCain may need to say more about those concerns in addition to emphasizing his opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

For all that Obama has going for him on the religion front, particularly a biblical fluency that McCain seems to lack, he too faces serious challenges. In addition to the insidious rumor about his crypto-Muslim identity (which some 10 percent of Americans continue to believe), he will be haunted by the endless replaying of the anti-American rants of Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of the South Side Chicago church from which Obama finally felt forced to withdraw.

More substantively, Obama acknowledges that his support for legalized abortion hurts him with many values voters, and he too has been thumped by Dobson for "distorting" traditional understandings of the Bible. But Obama is still courting younger Christian conservatives, evangelical and Catholic, through his recently launched "Joshua Generation Project." That outreach effort is a clear sign that the presumptive Democratic candidate puts stock in the new consensus that younger conservative Christians want to expand the values agenda to include things like hunger in Africa and global warming.

Given what it may mean to the campaigns of both candidates, just how accurate is this perception of a growing gap between younger conservative Christians and their elders? The Pew data reveal a complicated reality. On one hand, explains Pew research fellow Gregory Smith, the under-30 cohort of evangelicals is much more accepting of homosexuality than any older groups of evangelicals though still distinctively less so than the general population. But a whopping 72 percent of under-30 Catholics express a tolerant view of homosexuality, compared with about 60 percent of the general population. On this issue, at least, the younger evangelicals are clearly breaking with the outlook of the old-guard leadership of the religious right. That may represent an opening for Obama, who supports repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military and gay civil unions, if not gay marriages.