After the release of our poll last week showing the impact of perceptions of religious differences on support for President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, I've been answering a lot of questions about why religion will matter in the 2012 elections. There is both a particular and a general answer to this question.
The 2012 presidential election is more than 15 months away, but Republican presidential hopefuls are already simultaneously burnishing their religious credentials and trying to address potentially problematic religious connections. Although only four-in-ten Americans currently know Mitt Romney is Mormon, as his campaign proceeds, he will need to negotiate negative perceptions of his Mormon faith, particularly among white evangelical Protestants who make up a sizeable portion of the Republican base. Michele Bachmann has faced criticisms that her former long-time church holds anti-Catholics views and that her husband's Christian counseling practice offers discredited ex-gay "reparative therapy." Texas Governor Rick Perry held an all-day Christian prayer event this weekend in Houston, an event that many see as a de facto presidential campaign launch. And on the Democratic side, President Obama continues to have his own problems with perceptions of his faith: only four-in-ten Americans correctly identify his religion as Christian, and 18 percent of Americans continue to wrongly believe he is Muslim.
In addition to the specifics of the 2012 horse race, there is a second, simpler answer to why religion will matter in the 2012 election: Americans are generally highly religious, and it is at least one important lens influencing Americans views of political candidates.
Sociologists have long noticed that Americans registered much higher levels of religiosity than most industrialized nations. G.K. Chesterton called America "the nation with the soul of a church," and Max Weber, de Tocqueville, and other prominent observers of America all saw the peculiarly strong religious character of American culture as a mark of its uniqueness.
These earlier observations stand up today in scientific surveys. Gallup found that Americans register higher religiosity scores -- as measured by self-reported worship attendance, salience of religion in their personal lives, and confidence in religious institutions -- than other residents of North America and every western European country except Ireland.
Consider these findings from the 2010 American Values Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute:
Moreover, religion is not only a personal matter for many Americans, but it is also something they see as important in evaluating political leaders.
While it is too soon to say for certain what will happen in 2012, understanding the religious forces in American culture will be sure to help make sense not only of the twists and turns of the campaigns but of the final tallies at the ballot box.
Follow Robert P. Jones, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/publicreligion