8 Reasons Religion Will Help Define the Path to the White House

The summer months of a presidential election year rarely hint at the "total war" the fall will bring. Publicly, the two campaigns move like panting dogs on an Alabama blacktop in mid-July. Each is content to sniff the other from a safe distance. There are occasional growls, but only such as honor requires. When the two do feel the need to engage, they employ as much mock ferocity as possible in hopes that sheer bluster will win the day.

It is hot, after all. Let us not do too much.

The campaigns save themselves, of course, for the conventions. Then, after these exhausting bits of theater, there is the required post-convention "Inevitable Victory Tour," which often takes the form of an "express" of some kind or another. This field exercise is followed by the perpetual bombardments of the six weeks leading up to Election Day. Mercifully, none of this seems imminent during the judgment-of-God-heat of mid-summer, traditionally the doldrums of the political cycle.

So it is even more difficult to imagine from this lazy, hazy vantage what surprising controversies might descend upon the contests to come. They always do, though: the unexpected assumes the national stage during every presidential campaign season. Sometimes it takes the form of a political storm that merely clouds matters for a while and moves on. Sometimes it comes like a sky full of black helicopters intent upon carrying the national stage away entirely. Rarely, but occasionally, these outliers can be detected in advance. In 2012, one of them -- much to the surprise of many Americans -- will be the controversy of religion.

It might seem that all that could be said has already been said on this subject. Mitt Romney is a Mormon and Barack Obama is some kind of Christian and a large portion of Americans suspect the former and doubt the latter, and so it goes in what G. K. Chesterton called "the nation with the soul of a church." Surely we need speak no more of these disturbing themes and can allow the people to decide such matters -- privately -- on their own.

It will not be so, and here are eight reasons why.

1. As sophisticated and postmodern as Americans believe themselves to be, a Gallop poll in 2011 revealed that 20 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats will not vote for a Mormon. These numbers are too large to ignore. Mitt Romney cannot win without decreasing that 20 percent. The Obama campaign -- though careful not to appear bigoted -- will be required by the press of a tight race to push the other way. It will move religion center stage.

2. These indicators of distrust have not changed substantially since Gallop began asking about Mormons in politics in 1967. Only gays and atheists have worse numbers. It is a revealing legacy that is sure to make this election, in part, a referendum on Mormonism itself.

3. This same Gallop poll revealed that Democrats are 50 percent more hostile to Mormons than Republicans. It is naïve, then, to think that Romney's Mormonism will not be targeted, particularly should the political left feel the election at any point slipping away. Stay tuned to Bill Maher on this score.

4. Then there is Romney himself. If New York Magazine's Jason Zengerle was correct in his May GQ article, "Mitt Romney's Dark Knight," Romney's senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom wants his candidate to go silent on religion. Fehrnstrom apparently believes that part of Romney's problem in 2008 was talking about his Mormonism too much. If this is true, it may explain why Romney flubbed George Stephanopoulos's questions about Mormon doctrine in an interview earlier this year. As a Latter-day Saint bishop, Romney surely knew the answers. Perhaps he was determined to sidestep a grilling about religion and was clumsily in the attempt. It left the impression he was lying. If he continues on this course, he will only create a vacuum that will have to be filled. Critics, anti-Mormons and political enemies will be happy to step in.

5. There is also Barack Obama. The testimony of those near him is that the president has undergone a religious change while in office. No longer under the influence of Jeremiah Wright as he entered the presidency, Obama began being mentored by men like T. D. Jakes, Dr. Joel Hunter, Rev. Otis Moss III -- men more theologically conservative than Wright. This may account for Obama's evangelical-sounding speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in February of this year, in which he mentioned "finding Christ," his "Christian walk" and having been "overcome by the grace of God." This was far removed from his often-uncertain utterances about religion in 2008. If candidate Obama continues to sound like the Obama of the National Prayer Breakfast, this will also force religion to the fore in the upcoming race.

6. Remember, too, that we still live in a world in which 20 percent of America believes President Obama is a Muslim. Of late, that number has been rising. The question for this segment of American society will be which candidate to choose: "the Muslim or the Mormon?" This cannot but fuel religious controversy between now and November.

7. Roughly a third of all Americans are evangelicals. Most of them believe that Mormonism is a dangerous cult that subverts every cardinal belief of traditional, creedal Christianity. There is going to be a heated debate among this one third of the country during the upcoming election season -- between those evangelicals who believe Mormonism is wrongheaded but that Romney is the only alternative to the far worse evil of Barack Obama and those evangelicals who will not vote for a Mormon no matter the alternative. It is a debate that will spill over into the country as a whole.

8. Finally, while the central issue in this election season is, in James Carville's immortal phrase, "the economy, stupid," some of the attending issues are faith-based in the eyes of many Americans. The obligations of the rich, society's responsibility to the poor, gay rights, health care, immigration, and, of course, the relationship between church and state -- all are religiously-charged for millions of voters. Mr. Obama has long framed these issues in terms of his faith-based social vision. Mr. Romney has not, but he and his advisors will realize that they cannot yield the religious high ground on these issues. This, too, will force religion onto center stage.

There are other matters that may drive religion to the forefront of the 2012 presidential election. We cannot be certain of all of them now. What Americans ought to know by this time in their history, though, is that religion is seldom far from their politics, seldom much removed from American culture as a whole. The 2012 campaign is likely to illustrate this as much as any presidential election in the nation's history.

It all may make the remaining months of summer, even with the heat, a welcome haven from the looming crusades.

More on this in Part III of "Religion and the 2012 Presidential Race."