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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Question: What does the current field of presidential contenders have in common with the Supreme Court bench? Answer: It is disproportionately Catholic.

Using the handily compiled religious biographies of the presidential candidates (which number 16, if undeclared Fred Thompson is included) from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, ReligionWriter discovered these interesting tidbits.

Six out of 16 presidential candidates, or 38%, are Catholic (and five out of nine, or 56%, Supreme Court justices are Catholic.) Nationwide, Catholics make up an estimated 24.5% of the U.S. population, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey. (That percentage may be lower now, since it declined by 2.3% between 1990 and 2001, and because an increasing number of American Hispanics are leaving Catholicism for other — or no- religions, according to a recent Pew Forum study.)

The six Catholic candidates are: Joe Biden, Sam Brownback, Christopher Dodd, Rudy Giuliani, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson.

The candidate roster also reflects what scholars call the vibrancy of the American “religious marketplace,” in which individuals often choose new religious identities. (ReligionWriter covered this trend in her Feb. 2007 Religion News Service article, “For Many Americans, Religious Identity is No Longer a Given.”) Five Six candidates now practice faiths different from the ones they grew up with:

  • Democrat Mike Gravel grew up as a Roman Catholic, attending Catholic schools, and now belongs to the Unitarian Church. (Gravel’s profile is not yet posted on the Pew Forum’s website.)
  • Republican Ron Paul grew up it the Lutheran faith, married and baptized his five children in the Episcopal Church, and now describes himself as a Baptist. (Paul’s profile is not yet posted at the Pew Forum.)
  • Republican Sam Brownback grew up attending United Methodist and other mainline Protestant churches. He later attended a nondenominational evangelical church and, in 2002, converted to Catholicism.
  • Democrat John Edwards was raised a Southern Baptist, “drifted away” from his faith as a young man. After the tragic death of his son in 1996, he became more religious, and he is now a United Methodist.
  • Democrat Barack Obama grew up in a largely non-religious environment, the son of an absentee Muslim-turned-atheist father and a non-practicing Protestant mother. He now belongs to the United Church of Christ.
  • Winning honorable mention in this category is Democrat Christopher Dodd, who, while adhering the Catholicism of his childhood, is married to a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church.) The couple’s children are being raised in both faiths.
  • UPDATE 8/21: Tom Tancredo is also a convert. Born a Roman Catholic of Italian heritage, Tancredo converted to evangelical Presbyterianism.

For those interested crunching their own numbers, here are the religious affiliations of the remaining candidates:

Hillary Clinton: United Methodist

Mike Huckabee: Southern Baptist

Duncan Hunter: Southern Baptist

John McCain: Episcopal

Mitt Romney: Mormon

Fred Thompson: Church of Christ

Re: Fred Thompson, here’s a question best answered by the citizen journalists of McLean, Va., where Fred Thompson now lives: Is the former Senator from Tennessee currently a member of a local Church of Christ? Although Thompson grew up in this largely conservative denomination, he married his second wife, Jeri Kehn, in a United Church of Christ, a more liberal denomination. If Thompson belongs to a church, of any denomination, in Northern Virginia, that has not yet been reported.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, ReligionWriter notes that she regularly contributes to the Pew Forum and compiled several of the candidate profiles mentioned here.)

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