10/02/2012 06:55 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

What Are the Religious Issues to Watch for in the Debates?

On Meet the Press recently, Republican governor Chris Christie announced that the upcoming debates will change the course of the election in favor of Romney. While possible, that scenario is improbable; nevertheless the attention of the election will now shift to the debates that begin this week. And with that attention there is a renewed focus on issues and questions that are pertinent for each candidate. As a scholar of religion, I have been observing the trends of this election pattern with interest. The two candidates, Obama and Romney, both claim to be committed Christians, with Romney belonging to the LDS Church and Obama having a Protestant background. With Romney's Mormonism, observers of the election are wondering, "When will the Mormon card be played, or will it be played before November?"

Romney is not the first Mormon to make a run for the presidency (nor is he the first in his family to run for this office. His father ran in 1968, leading Richard Nixon for a period of time), but he now enjoys the highest profile of any Mormon candidate, and now as the Republican nominee, he is making the notion of a Mormon president closer to reality. But lost in Romney's Mormon background is the fact that both vice-presidential candidates (Biden and Ryan) are Catholics, and share very different ideologies. As a professor at Centre College, the site of the vice presidential debate on Oct. 11, my focus is on the latter debate, especially since I anticipate more religious issues raised in a Biden/Ryan debate rather than in a Romney/Obama tête-à-tête.

But the "Mormon" question regarding Romney is likely the most obvious "religious" issue that may be broached at these debates. And to answer the above question regarding when Romney's Mormonism will be on the forefront of the election news cycle, my answer is "It likely won't." At this point in the race I would be surprised if the Mormon issue comes front and center, especially in the context of a debate. With Romney lagging behind with decreased momentum, it seems his Mormon identity may be underplayed in order to appeal to undecided voters. A question about Romney's religious identity may very well come from a moderator in the debates, particularly about how his Mormonism would inform his presidency. But I can only imagine he would briefly address it and aggressively characterize himself as embodying Christian values in an effort to captivate voters. Obama's campaign has been in the position lately to let Romney trip over his own feet. Invoking Romney's Mormonism into the election spotlight could produce an undesired effect. If Romney's Mormonism comes up it will come from Romney.

Religious issues still will arise in the context of the debates aside from Mormonism. Perhaps the most important issue regarding religion involves foreign policy. A major example of recent note is the issue of Islamophobia with the "Innocence of Muslims" film and the backlash that film has fostered in different countries in the Middle East. Romney was severely condemned for attacking the administration's response after the Libya attacks, fitting into his larger criticism of Obama for constantly "apologizing" for America. Underlying Romney's critiques is a consistent trend of painting Islam with a broad brush, emphasizing Islam as extremist, radical and a religion of terrorism. The debates offer an opportunity to correct the unfortunate leap towards Islamophobia especially as it relates to foreign policy. The support of the state of Israel, especially as Netanyahu bangs the war drum with Iran, is also an area of religious interest as the debates draw near, and is a comparable occasion to correct the perception of Islam.

However, it seems the Catholicism of both vice presidential candidates will raise the most religious issues in the context of a debate. The vice presidential candidates share a common religious tie yet have different political positions. Both Biden and Ryan are committed Catholics. Ryan is a Catholic and an outspoken supporter of Ayn Rand. Rand was not only a notable atheist, but also her economic and social theories seemingly don't correspond with the large robust history of social justice in the Catholic Church. Catholics and Catholic leaders have expressed disdain for Randian thinkers that consistently disregard the poor. Ryan is an ardent supporter of Rand, and has said that her works were constructive to his political philosophy -- as a Catholic, that doesn't really measure up. The social justice issue would likely be raised by Biden as a counterpoint to any discussion of abortion by the pro-life Ryan. Both candidates have issues that push against their Catholic beliefs, and they will have to negotiate them in a debate format. That dynamic makes the vice-presidential debate the real hot ticket for viewers interested in religion and politics.