This presidential election cycle is supposed to be all about religion, right? The pundit mop-up of George Bush’s 2004 victory was all about “values voters,” and while the “God gap” apparently narrowed in the 2006 mid-term elections, we’ve still had any number of articles about how the Democrats are getting religion. (We are awaiting a book from journalist Amy Sullivan on this topic.) And of course religious talk has been much in evidence from the Democrats, including an entire debate devoted to the subject of faith.

Given this new hyper-focus on personal religious faith as a political plus, some of the findings of a survey released earlier this month by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life provide some puzzling material for pundits to chew over.

Consider these contrarian facts:

When asked what issues would be most important to them in terms of voting, all groups — Democrats and Republicans, evangelicals, Catholics and everyone else in between — rated domestic issues (like the economy, health care and education) and the war in Iraq as more important than social issues (like abortion and gay marriage.)

Note in the Pew table to the left, of course, there are some variations: 45% of Republicans mention social issues as “very important” compared with 36% of Democrats, and White evangelicals are most concerned with social issues (56% mentioning them as “very important,”) compared to mainline Protestants, who are the least concerned (28%.)

While some might argue that on a local level, these slight differences might make or break a president, it seems unlikely that the 2008 election will be all about the “values voters.”

Here’s another one: The two most popular candidates right now are not the candidates perceived as most religious. According to the Pew survey, Hillary Clinton is perceived as less religious than either Barack Obama or John Edwards, yet she is the current front-runner. Similarly on the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani leads in popularity, even though he is perceived as less religious than Fred Thompson, John McCain and Mitt Romney. (And ReligionWriter would like to meet the 14% of people who perceived Giuliani as “very religious.”)

If religion matters in 2008, then pundits are going to have to explain Giuliani’s popularity with Republicans — where did all the values voters go? Here too the Pew study may provide a clue: Could Giuliani be riding a wave of favorable ignorance? Nearly 60% of voters who say that social issues are “very important” don’t know what Giuliani’s position on abortion is (he says he “believes in a woman’s right to choose.”) In other words, more than half of the people one expects to reject Giuliani outright are unaware of his abortion stance — it seems that Giuliani might have a tough row to hoe if his lead continues and “values voters” become better informed about his social issue positions.

Some parting questions:

In talking faith and values, are Democrats fighting the last war?

Will the mini-industry of religion-and-politics pundits and reporters (ReligionWriter included) fairly report on the unimportance of religion in the campaign?

If religion is a non-decisive issue in 2008, will all the buzz over religion in public life fade away, to be replaced by another, yet-to-be discovered issue? (Readers, tell us what this might be!)


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4 Comments so far

  1. Why Religion May Not Matter Much in 2008 — 2008 president candidates on September 25, 2007 4:14 am

    […] yet she is the current front-runner. Similarly on the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani source: Why Religion May Not Matter Much in 2008, Religion […]

  2. Joshua Udell on September 25, 2007 11:06 am

    It is time to get a bit moderate in our voting process. If we want unity it will have to come from someone who understands both sides. We have to look at all views. We might not have family values as the key issue. This race is going to be about health care, global warming, terror, and protecting our nation’s borders.

    I believe this is going to be a liberal versus a moderate showdown. If the Christian conservatives don’t vote because there is not a so called ‘born again’ presidential candidate it could hurt the whole nation meaning we will have a person elected on the basis of believers setting the bench and doing noting.

    Giuliani is a moderate that will most likely win the Republican side who is a great leader, and Clinton’s record has always been quite liberal whom Bush is already saying will be the democratic candidate. Giuliani is not a strong pro-lifer as many Christians would like him to be, but he is leader who can unite a nation in a fresh way. I just don’t see Hillary uniting our country with all of the people who disfavor her policies.

    Think about it. Who yells and complains and who tries to be calm and protect? Who changes their mind and who stays firm? Look at the issues and consider for yourself.

  3. Chuck on September 25, 2007 5:02 pm

    Check out the hit piece on Fred Thompson, including a few things the media never talks about. To read it go to

  4. David on September 26, 2007 11:45 am

    What I see upstaging religion as a public issue will be a form of pragmatism that we will adopt out of sheer realistic necessity.

    The combination of prison overcrowding with ever better surveillance and crime prevention technology will, I believe, force us to downplay most social issues by requiring us to compare the relative importance of, say, marijuana use alongside gang violence. The necessity of fighting and containing the truly dangerous elements of society will displace the current perceived importance of “social issues” — and the Religious Right thrives on social issues and social issues alone.

    Religion in politics is exactly as important in the minds of Americans as is the importance of social issues — and with the de-emphasis of the latter will come the de-emphasis of the former.

    (I’d even say that “Reality TV” will play a similar role in re-ordering our priorities toward more pragmatic ends — there’s something viscerally revolting about watching thuggish police tactics being used against non-violent “offenses” like solicitation of prostitution or possession of marijuana.)

    Combined with That Issue Which Cannot Be Ignored Much Longer — affordable health care — we will be forced to re-evaluate how we allocate limited governmental resources — and that re-evaluation will lead, by necessity, from social issues, and therefore from the religious politicking that depends upon them.

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