07/02/2012 03:43 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2012

Obama and Romney Should Run on Religion

Religion is a low priority among voters this year, especially when compared with the economy. Neither presidential campaign sees the advantage of a showdown on religion. But still, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney should find a way to run on religion, instead of running away from it.

Both are acting in ways that will make 2012 the most secular presidential campaign in years. Obama is doing very little religious outreach, and is pulling back from the Catholic bishops because of their religious liberty and contraception concerns. Romney is trying to reach evangelicals who are troubled by his Mormon faith, but is treading lightly around religious topics.

Still, the U.S. remains an overwhelmingly religious country, and voters care deeply about the personal faith of their presidents. Citizens want to see that their leaders have a moral compass and trust a power greater than themselves. To have a chance of winning this election, I think Obama and Romney should take the offensive, using plays from two historical movements: Social Gospel Christianity and the Mormon commitment to religious freedom.

With 16 percent of voters still believing that Obama is a Muslim, he should make his Christian faith clear by running on the Social Gospel. This movement, which peaked in the early 20th century, applied Christian ethics to social problems including poverty, crime, excessive wealth, racial reconciliation and education. Social Gospel ideas reappeared in the Civil Rights Movement and work of Martin Luther King Jr., and in the anti-apartheid movement and work of Desmond Tutu.

Larry Hygh, director of communications for the United Methodist Church's General Board of Global Ministries in New York City, says that Obama should "take his cue from modern day prophets like King and Tutu and call this country to a greater consciousness that lifts up people who are on the margins."

Without the Civil Rights Movement, which was supported by African American churches and other Christian groups, Hygh says he "would have attended segregated schools, drink from water fountains that read 'colored only,' and sit in, and board, the back of the bus I ride each day." This Social Gospel theology fits Obama's politics, so he might as well claim it -- while it won't convert evangelical Christians, it will certainly resonate with progressive Protestants and Catholics.

Romney has his own problem with evangelicals, one that won't be solved by trying to shoehorn his personal commitment to Jesus into their orthodox Trinitarian theology (not that there is anything wrong with understanding God to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as I do). When he recently spoke at Liberty University in Virginia, he talked about "shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview." While never identifying himself as a Mormon, he spoke of "people of different faiths, like yours and mine."

There is absolutely nothing wrong with different faiths in the U.S., and Romney should embrace his Mormon commitment to religious freedom, while linking it to American strength. He began to do this at Liberty, when he reminded his audience that "religious liberty is the first freedom in our Constitution." He should know that Protestant denominations already have numerous doctrinal differences that separate them, not to mention theological disagreements with Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Hindus. An old joke says that "Baptists multiply by division," as they should certainly be free to do.

Neither Obama nor Romney should be ashamed of their faith, but instead use it to their advantage. Of course, both face a downside when taking this path -- Obama being linked to his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, whose incendiary sermons caused such problems in 2008, and Romney attracting attention to Mormon beliefs and practices that strike many non-believers as odd.

"Clearly, anti-Mormon prejudice persists in this country," says Jana Riess, co-author of "Mormonism for Dummies." In June 2011, a Gallup poll revealed that 22 percent of Americans would not vote for a Mormon, even if the Mormon were the official candidate of the surveyed individual's party. Only 5 percent said they would not vote for an African American.

Both Obama and Romney are people of faith, and it is a sin of omission not to talk about it. This can be as simple as Obama saying that he supports same-sex marriage because of "the Golden Rule ... Treat others the way you'd want to be treated." Now that the Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act, Obama can connect it to the biblical work of healing. Voters need to hear more about how his faith shapes his actions in a positive way, and how the Social Gospel can make our world a better place.

Romney should speak of his commitment to religious liberty whenever he can, as he did in a 2007 speech when he said, "We do not insist on a single strain of religion -- rather, we welcome our nation's symphony of faith."

The fact that we do not demand "a single strain of religion" is one of our country's greatest strengths. But the failure of candidates to speak of their personal faith is going to be judged by many voters to be a weakness.