11/05/2012 10:34 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Can Religion and Politics Mix? Religious Candidates, Voters, and Religion in the 2012 Campaign

As part of the "Blog Blog Project" I began last semester, students in my fall semester Politics and Technology class at the University of Delaware are writing blogs on current issues surrounding the campaign. A recent class looked at how minority candidates are using technology to get out the vote. This entry, written by University of Delaware sophomore Jonathan Miller, examines the role of religion in the 2012 campaign.

Religion and politics are two topics you're supposed to stay away from during family gatherings and other social events. But we still see and hear about them everywhere, especially in the waning days of this campaign. And Americans place high importance on religion, with 56 percent reporting religion is "very important in their lives," a fairly high number for a country that prides itself on its religious diversity and the separation of church and state. Religion plays a huge role in politics -- from influencing how some politicians will vote on certain issues to swaying voters to vote for one candidate or another. America does seem to be making strides to increase religious diversity, especially in the political field, yet the issue remains polarizing. So does religion still play a role in presidential elections?

A Gallup poll from June of this year asked; "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person who happened to be _________, would you vote for that person?" The results of the polls show how clearly religious prejudices run in American politics. For example, only 58 percent of Americans would vote for a Muslim and only 54 percent would vote for an atheist. This comes at the same time as a recent study suggests atheism is on the rise: The number of Americans who say they are "religious" dropped to 60 percent in 2012, while atheists rose to 5 percent. But what remains the same, essentially since Gallup began asking the question, is potentially bad news for the Romney campaign: Only one in five Americans say they would vote for a Mormon candidate, meaning there are potentially millions of Americans that would not vote for Romney simply due to the fact that he is a Mormon. Romney's faith hasn't appeared much during these last phases of the campaign, but a recently a video surfaced from 2007 and is making waves on YouTube. Current election polls, which have Romney and Obama in a tie for the popular vote, do not seem to show evidence that Romney's religion will influence voters, but Tuesday's election may very well demonstrate if priming voters on religion will affect how they vote.

We are also seeing the most religiously diverse Congress we have ever seen. The 112th Congress has three Buddhists, two Muslims, and 15 Mormons. Nonetheless, Protestants and Catholics still make up around 86 percent of congressional members. But for Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim man to ever be elected to Congress, religion can't be ignored. So far he has raised over $1.4 million from small and large individual donations during this election cycle. On his website, he has banners and ads asking supporters to donate, sign pledges, and join his campaign. Ellison uses Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and YouTube to promote his appearances on "Meet the Press," "Anderson Cooper 360," and "The Colbert Report." This use of technology is no different from other candidates. Yet Ellison has to face challenges many other members of Congress don't. Simply Googling searching "Keith Ellison Muslim" provides all kinds of stories claiming Ellison has links to the Muslim Brotherhood and wants to impose Sharia Law. These accusations stem from many Americans' unfavorable view of Islam. But they are also questions Ellison's opponent, Chris Fields, a retired U.S. Marine, does not have to face.

We know that microtargeting is playing a huge role in this election. And religion has become an increasingly popular way to garner support among voters. Mitt Romney has invested 10 to 12 million dollars into targeting Evangelical voters. And organizations like the Jewish Republican Coalition are focusing on personal stories from Jewish voters who support Romney even though they voted for Obama in 2008.

With increasing religious diversity alongside ever more sophisticated microtargeting, we are seeing religion play an influential role in 2012. This new religious and political landscape may mean that it won't be long before we see other religious minorities entering the political fray.