09/12/2012 01:41 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2012

Presidential Election Provides Great Opportunity to Talk About Religious, Secular Identity

After years of campaigning, countless debates and an onslaught of advertisements, Election Day is drawing closer. Across the country for the next several weeks, we are likely to see myriad conversations about important political issues ranging from the economy to immigration. What makes this election particularly unique is the opportunity it provides for conversations centered on religion and spirituality to happen at dinner tables, diners, churches, college campuses and other settings throughout the country.

The faith traditions of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been hot topics for conversation throughout this campaign cycle. A recent Gallup Poll revealed that 18 percent of Republicans think President Obama is a Muslim, while 44 percent claim to not know his faith tradition. Another Gallup Poll reported that 24 percent of Democrats, 18 percent of Independents and 10 percent of Republicans would not vote for Mitt Romney based solely on the fact that he is a Mormon.

Data points like this can potentially initiate conversation about faith in the public square. Why do 18 percent of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim? Even though Obama and his supporters have continuously identified him as a Christian, why should being a follower of Islam be a problem in the first place? Why does the country continue to discriminate against Mormons? Will this election be an opportunity to overcome the long-standing bias against Mormons?

It was not too long ago that Catholics faced similar discrimination in the United States. John F. Kennedy faced such obstacles when he ran for president. People all over the country questioned the influence his faith would have on his politics if he were elected. Today, both vice presidential candidates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, identify as Catholic. Yet the faith traditions of Ryan and Biden are rarely brought up in public discourse. Why is the public now more comfortable with Catholics running for high political offices than it was 50 years ago? Something must have happened along the way to change opinions on Catholics; electing a Catholic became an acceptable social norm.

These questions could be interesting conversation starters for people of many backgrounds to consider between now and early November. The collective faith journeys of Obama, Romney, Biden and Ryan can be utilized to initiate a variety of discussions. Catholics are welcome to serve in public office without their faith being scrutinized, what will it take for Mormons and Muslims to have the same experience? Many people in the United States can find similar threads in their story to the faith stories of Romney and Obama. It could be an opportune time for those who have suffered from unfortunate incidents of religious bigotry to join together in solidarity to showcase beautiful aspects of various traditions in the public limelight.

As our country continues to become more ethnically and religiously diverse, these are conversations we will need to have at some point. Why not have these conversations in an enriching and positive way in the coming weeks? This presidential election provides a unique chance to educate, raise awareness, and overcome old stereotypes and religious discrimination. We need to take this up as a country before it becomes a missed opportunity.