x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Religion proves not to be issue in US presidential campaign

Everything - the economy, abortion and war - seems to be an issue in the 2012 US presidential campaign, except for religion.

WASHINGTON // Joyce Wilkins hasn't missed a Sunday service in more than 20 years.

The 68-year-old Methodist, a retired schoolteacher in Annandale, Virginia, said it was an indispensable part of her life, one that offers her "solace and spiritual guidance." Not, she noted emphatically, political guidance.

"I don't care what religion the president is. If he's a good man, and he presents a good programme, he gets my vote."

The US presidential election on November 6 will set two historical firsts: it is the first time the number of Protestants in US is below 50 per cent of the population and also the first time there is no white Protestant in the race.

John F Kennedy was the only non-Protestant US president. A Roman Catholic, Kennedy had to assure voters during the presidential campaign in 1960 that he would not "take orders from the Vatican".

Yet, in spite of the unusual religious configuration among those contesting the top four political posts in the country - a non-denominational Christian, a Mormon and two Roman Catholics - religion has hardly figured as an issue in an otherwise fractious election campaign. The election campaign has been dominated by the economy and more religiously fraught social issues, such as abortion or gay marriage, were barely raised in three presidential debates.

In part, this speaks to a changing US, one where the number of those who claim no religious affiliation is on the rise, reaching 20 per cent according to a recent Pew Research Poll.

Barack Obama, the incumbent president, and Mitt Romney, his Republican rival, have their own reasons for playing down the issue of religion, said John Green, professor of political science at the University of Akron in Ohio.

Mr Obama has seen his Christian faith questioned in the past. His connection to a controversial pastor at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, became an issue in the 2008 campaign. Mr Obama had to denounce the pastor for remarks suggesting the September 11, 2001 attacks had been America's "chickens coming home to roost."

The US president's middle name - Hussein - has led to a fringe among America's right and members of the Republican Party to conclude that he is a Muslim.

His support for issues such as same-sex marriage has also been controversial among churchgoing Christians.

Nevertheless, Mr Green said, citing polls, that "when faced with a choice between him and Governor Romney, they have rallied around the president."

Mr Romney has had to shore up his support among the Republican base of the so-called "Christian right."

His religion is controversial among Christian conservatives, some who still consider Mormonism a cult. Once Mr Romney clinched his party's nomination he immediately began reaching out to the Christian right.

Earlier this month, Mr Romney met and prayed with Billy Graham, the ageing superstar of the American evangelical movement.

The Billy Graham Evangelical Association has since taken out ads in newspapers urging Americans to vote for those who will "support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman, protect the sanctity of life, and defend our religious freedoms."

But the association also recently deleted an article on its website that labelled Mormonism a "cult."

"Many of these social conservatives particularly dislike Obama," said Mr Green. "So Romney was able to draw a contrast between himself and the president in a way that helped bring those people back into the campaign."

The lack of controversy around Mr Romney's faith should be seen as a sign of increasing tolerance in America, said the Very Reverend Gary Hall, dean of Washington's National Cathedral. There is "wider social acceptance" of Mormonism in the country, where not that long ago it was a "discriminated against" community.

Non-Christians might still find it difficult, Janice Olsen, 56, who volunteers with the Annandale United Methodist Church in Virginia, said she was "comfortable" with Christianity and Mormonism, but "I know too little about other religions to vote for them."

Something else is also happening, Rev Hall said. America is undergoing a long process of secularisation, making it more like western Europe.

Yet, Americans are not becoming atheists. The research poll that saw a rise in the number of people calling themselves unaffiliated, also found that 80 per cent said they "never doubt" the existence of God.

Rev Hall said Americans still expected their presidents to have a "connection to the divine," and reflect a sense that the US has "this errand into the wilderness that we are sort of going to show the world what a kind of holy nation can be."

"That's I think somewhere very deep in our unconscious sense of ourselves, even if we have a wide degree of toleration around how that gets expressed. We still want our leader to tap into that sense."

okamari@thenational.ae