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Religion Front And Center On 2012 Campaign Trail


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. In Iowa, all the GOP presidential candidates continue to profess their faith in speeches and in broadcast ads, perhaps none more than Texas Governor Rick Perry.


GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian, but you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know that there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school. As president, I'll end Obama's war on religion, and I'll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage.

CONAN: Religion and politics have long intertwined in this country, and this year's contest for the Republican nomination raises more religious issues and controversies than most: Mormonism, dominionism and Catholicism, redemption, steadfastness and conversion all figure in a race where faith is cast as an expression of character values and of political priorities.

How does a candidate's religion affect your vote? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, we'll reconsider the calendar on the Opinion Page this week.

But first, politics and religion. NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty joins us here in Studio 3A. Happy New Year. Welcome back.


CONAN: Evangelicals in Iowa are seen as a key element of the GOP electorate. The caucuses, obviously, are scheduled for tomorrow. Are there differences in the ways the candidates are appealing to that? Why don't we go through one at a time?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Sure, sure, I mean, this is - there's - everyone wants the evangelical vote, and I think that's because of Mike Huckabee, actually. In 2008, when Huckabee walked away with the evangelical vote and got a lot of momentum for his ensuing candidacy, and so everyone wants that vote.

And so you are seeing different people - it's playing out in different ways. For example, OK, Mitt Romney...

CONAN: Frontrunner, according to most of the polls.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Absolutely. Now, he is basically trying to play down his faith. And why is that? It's because he's a Mormon. And evangelicals have a lot of skepticism, a lot of wariness about Mormons. Polls show that something like 53 percent of evangelicals say that Mormons are not Christians. Forty-seven percent say they'd be uncomfortable with a Mormon president.

And so what you're seeing is a lot of skepticism, and he is trying to kind of play down his faith. The only thing he's really said is I've been a member of my church my entire life, and I've been married for 42 years, kind of bringing up the family values issue.

CONAN: Also a contrast with one of his opponents, Newt Gingrich, who hasn't been married to the same woman for 42 years.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That's right.

CONAN: But as we see that's more of a factor in the Republican primary than it would be - according to the polls - in a general election.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Absolutely. That's absolutely right. I mean, it's interesting to watch what happens to evangelical voters if he becomes - if Romney becomes the nominee. Basically, 91 percent of evangelical voters say they would vote for Mitt Romney if he were opposing Barack Obama.

And basically, they just - they so dislike Barack Obama that they will vote for anyone who can oust him. So you will see people - he will get the evangelical vote - maybe not as fulsomely, maybe people will stay home. But he will get the vote.

CONAN: And that raises a question: This is not a wedge issue. There was, at some point, Rick Perry in particular when he was first in the race, some of his supporters said, wait a minute. We can't support a Mormon candidate. Mormonism is a cult.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That's right. That's right. A Dallas pastor called Mormonism a cult, and he was - I mean, he was actually talking about the technical definition of a cult. But at any rate, it created quite an outcry, because people felt that was hitting a little bit below the belt. And so even Rick Perry came - kind of came to Mitt Romney's defense and said, well, we don't really want to talk about that. We don't want to bring religion into this in this way.

CONAN: At least differences in religion - he's not been shy about bringing religion in. But we're going candidate by candidate, and number two in most of the polls is Ron Paul, the former Libertarian Party candidate.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Right, absolutely. Now, he was raised Lutheran. He now attends a Baptist church. He says that he sees his faith as a deeply private issue, and he doesn't want to talk about it because he doesn't want to kind of use it for political gain. But he says he has accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and savior.

So he has the kind of evangelical, or at least - he has the evangelical talk. We'll put it that way. He mainly talks about - when you think about his scripture, though, the Constitution comes to mind more than the Bible, in some ways. I mean, he talks a lot about how God created man to be free, with God-given rights and that the government is taking away our freedoms. So it's a sort of Libertarian, Tea Party faith.

And he really doesn't talk very much about faith at all. The one area, though, that evangelicals really like about Ron Paul is his stand on abortion. When he was a country doctor, he delivered 4,000 babies, he said, and he never saw a case where abortion was necessary. So he's really, really pro-life.

And, in fact, he won the Values Voters Summit last fall. So, obviously, evangelicals like him to a certain extent.

CONAN: Then let's go to number three, at least in the most recent polls, the candidate who is said to be surging, that is Rick Santorum, the former Republican senator from the state of Pennsylvania.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That's right. He's Catholic. He's billed himself very much as the family values candidate. His wife Karen has homeschooled all seven of their children. He's surging in the polls because he's been very, very conservative on these issues. By the way, I should say that - Catholics and Protestants - evangelicals no longer have a problem with Catholics. That went away back in the 1990s or so, and something like 82 percent of evangelicals have favorable views of Catholics. So that's not a stumbling block for him.

And he is very - he - you check the mark on the boxes on all of their big issues. He's very pro-life. He supports a federal marriage amendment. He says he'd work to limit birth control, to ban stem cell research, to reinstate the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. He wants to pass a workplace religious freedom act, allow prayer at school events, including graduation, football games, that kind of thing.

So he is really playing to evangelicals, here.

CONAN: Newt Gingrich is fourth in most of the polls. Previous, a month ago, we would have put him somewhere different, but at this moment fourth, and in some ways the most interesting. He has converted to Catholicism.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That's right. His is a very interesting spiritual journey. He was born Lutheran. He converted to Southern Baptist in graduate school. And then in 2009, he converted to Catholicism. Now, the person who was central to that was his third wife, Callista. She's a very devout Catholic. She sings, actually, in the professional choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine here in Washington, D.C.

And what would happen - they got married in 2000, and he began going to Mass with her every week to watch her perform. And he says it just kind of seeped in, this Catholicism seeped into his psyche, so to speak.

Now one - many people would see a little bit of irony to the fact that Callista was the one who really led him to Catholicism, because he was having an affair with Callista for six years before he divorced his second wife. And so there is a little bit of irony in that, and I think a lot of people feel there is baggage there.

You know, and I should say that a lot of people do think that he's changed, that he's a kinder, gentler, more mellow Newt. They don't know if it's because of his Catholicism, or because he's now a 68-year-old grandfather, but people do believe he has baggage and he would be vulnerable, I think.

CONAN: Let's take two candidates together, that would be Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. And both seem to be cut - at least superficially - from the same stripe.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yeah, that's right. They're kind of straight evangelicals. They're pro-life, anti-gay marriage. They just - they're very mainstream evangelicals. They also - and they've both very much been, you know, playing to the evangelical voter in Iowa and South Carolina. I mean, this has been their strong point.

They both have a little bit of an interesting footnote. If either of them becomes the nominee, it will be very interesting to cover this other religion story that we haven't been able to cover, which is this issue of dominionism.

CONAN: Now, what is dominionism?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Well, dominionism - and by the way, the folks who subscribe to what's called the New Apostolic Movement, that's - other people call them dominionists. They don't like the term, but these folks who subscribe to this movement are charismatic Christians.

They've been very supportive of Rick Perry. If you'll remember the big prayer meeting he had in Reliance Stadium, they were some of the major supporters. And what they believe is that we are in a kind of spiritual battle for America's soul.

And dominionists, or these New Apostolic Movement folks, they believe that Christians should take back the seven mountains of influence. That's what they call it. And those seven mountains are government, business, media, arts and entertainment, education, the family and religion.

They say that America is losing these, that Christians need to really take these back, and that unless we do, this country - well, we're in the middle of a spiritual battle, they believe, and that this country's soul will be lost unless they can do this.

CONAN: Which raises a question - we want to get to calls in just a minute - but why is it that religious conservatives feel so strongly about Barack Obama, about the opponent, that they would vote for anyone in the Republican Party, as opposed to - other than on political issues?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Well, I think a lot of it does have to do with this policy when it comes to, you know, abortion, when it comes to gay rights, things like that. I think they don't like the health care policy. But I just have to say - and I'd be interested to know what others believe about this - I think there's just this visceral dislike for Barack Obama that I haven't seen in many, many years - maybe Bill Clinton. But there is a visceral dislike.

And I think - I mean, they talk about him wanting to make America godless. So I think there's this kind of visceral dislike that is at their core that has more to do with - more than - it's not just about policy. It's this kind of sentiment they have toward him.

CONAN: We want to hear how a candidate's religion affects your vote. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: We'll start with Patrick, Patrick calling us from Jacksonville.

PATRICK: Hey, how are you? I'm a teacher, high school and college history teacher. And when I get to politics and religion, I mention to my students that John F. Kennedy in 1960 had to speak in front of a group of Protestants and pretty much guarantee them that he was not going to allow his Catholicism to interfere with his ability to be president.

So that was like, you know, almost 50 years ago that we have somebody having to tone down his religion. And now if you don't pump your religion up, you can't get, you know, beyond vote number one. And I think there's just an irony of that.

And I find it that, you know, the more a candidate talks about their religion, the less likely I am to vote for them because I think it's just kind of a little overboard.

CONAN: But - thank you, Patrick, for that. But he's absolutely right. John Kennedy said, wait a minute. Yes, I'm a Catholic, but the pope does not dictate my policies. Today, we have candidates saying my religion does dictate my policies.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yes, that's right, but it's not...

CONAN: Even some that say God told me to run.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That's right. And I guess a certain type of religion is acceptable. For example, Mitt Romney ran into this issue. He gave, essentially, what he tried to make a Kennedy-esque speech back in 2008, where he said the same thing, that my faith, I'll be - my faith will not dictate my policies.

So if you have the right type of religion, I guess you're allowed to talk about it. But if you're, say, a Mormon, you're not.

CONAN: We're talking with Barbara Bradley Hagerty about how candidates express their faith in their campaigns. Tell us: How does a candidate's religion affect your vote? 800-989-8255. Email us: Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. This election year, it feels as if we know at least as much about a candidate's religion as we do about his or her position on national security, education or health care - not always the case.

In years past, it may have been enough for a politician running for high office to simply state I'm a Catholic or an Episcopalian. Now candidates make statements about their faith to distinguish themselves from the field. How does a candidate's religion affect your vote? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also weigh in on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We'd especially be interested to hear from those of you with whom it is an important factor. Again, 800-989-8255. Email: Our guest is Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR's religion correspondent. And let's go next to - this is Joel, Joel with us from Johnson City in Tennessee.

JOEL: Well, Happy New Year.

CONAN: Happy New Year.

JOEL: And your discussion couldn't be more apropos for me. I was doing research on an article on religion and elections. And what I was doing, it was on the sixth - Article Six of the body of the Constitution. And that says that no religious test shall be required to hold or obtain office - or something similar to that - in the United States.

And there were lots of discussion of this in the Federal Convention in 1787, and they put the issue to rest. And they discussed the intransigence of religion, and the fact that religion would have a disunifying or an un-unifying effect, rather than creating a national unity. And these were religious people, but they also expressed the fact that religion, in the past, historically, had caused dissention among people in the country.

And just when they thought it was resolved, both very strongly in Massachusetts, ratifying convention in Virginia, it was raised again. And some of the members of the convention just stated, and they said I thought this issue was resolved, and now you bring it up again.

It was mainly the preachers, interestingly enough, because they feared that even if they wanted a religious person, they didn't want a particular sect to take hold. And that eventually became the First Amendment, where they didn't want a national religion. It was the religion of the - you know, the flavor of the month.

And they thought their religion may be strong now, it may not be strong in the future.

CONAN: Well, we, of course, remember that the - early United States, a much more homogenous place, but a place with very vigorous and very, well, fractious divisions among the different sects of Protestantism, largely - of course there were Catholics and others in the country, but their numbers were relatively small. But the differences among those other groups were, as you suggest, profound, Joel. And this is something that has animated the discussion of the constitutional issues going back to freedom of religion, as you mentioned in the First Amendment, right from the very beginning.

JOEL: Well, it precedes the First Amendment, because the First Amendment was raised, the issue was raised. I think Pinckney, he made several propositions. But basically, many of his propositions became the First, Second, Third and Fourth Amendments. But his motion to add to affirm, you know, either affirm or - either swear or affirm the - to the following the Constitution, his addition of no religious test was accepted immediately.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. All right.

JOEL: Yeah, so basically, I couldn't vote for somebody - I have friends who are - I'm not a God-believer, but I have friends who are Catholic, friends who are Protestant, people who are evangelical. They've run for office locally. I have no problem in voting for them. But the more somebody professes his religion, as they said back in the conventions, possibly he's just a charlatan and he's pandering for votes, and he'll say anything that would get him elected. I trust him less.

CONAN: Joel, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JOEL: Have a great day.

CONAN: Let's bring John Green into the conversation, he's at member station WKSU in Kent, Ohio, where he's director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and distinguished professor of political science at the University of Akron. And nice to have you with us today.

JOHN GREEN: Oh, it's great to be with you, too.

CONAN: And Happy New Year.

GREEN: Yes, sir.

CONAN: And we - despite those fractious sects that we talk about, everybody elected president of the United States was a Protestant of one form or another until John Kennedy.

GREEN: Yeah, that's right. It was interesting. We had different kinds of Protestantism, but the Catholic population, which was growing steadily over time, really didn't have an opportunity to win a presidential election until 1960. And interestingly enough, John F. Kennedy's been the only Catholic ever elected to the presidency.

CONAN: There was one Catholic nominee beforehand, Al Smith, back in the 1920s, but anti-Catholicism a much more virulent issue in those days.

GREEN: Yes, it was. In fact, through a lot of the late 19th century and up through the middle of the 20th century, it was a very serious division. Part of that reflected religious differences that had come from Europe. But part of it reflected ethnic differences, the United States being, you know, the veritable salad bowl of different ethnicities, some of them Protestant, some of them Catholic.

And that all sort of came together in 1960, and the whole issue of religion was very, very prominent in that campaign. And then Kennedy was elected, and as your previous caller remarked, partly because he made an effort to distance himself from the Vatican directly.

You know, he still professed to be a serious person of faith, but he argued that he would be a Catholic who happened to be the president of the United States, rather than a Catholic president of the United States. And that sort of put an end to the Catholic-Protestant arguments, at least at that intense level. And then, in the succeeding decades, that's largely diminished.

CONAN: Have you in your recollection observed a race where profession of religious belief, that so many candidates have said my faith will dictate my policies, that that's been such a big issue?

GREEN: You know, I think this year's Republican nomination contest, particularly in the Iowa caucuses, has been especially intense in that regard. I can't think of another race where we had quite as much attention to the candidates' faith, both by the candidates themselves and by other people who are participating in the contests.

But there have been some other examples. If you go back to the election in 2000, when George W. Bush became the nominee of the Republican Party, we did have a bit of an argument about faith in the Republican caucuses, and we've also seen some similar discussions on the Democratic side, for instance, if we go back to 1976 and Jimmy Carter, who, of course, was elected president that year.

So what we see this year is not entirely new, but the level of intensity seems to be particularly high.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Ed, and Ed's with us from Tuckerman in Arkansas.

ED: How you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

ED: This is a very interesting conversation. I listen to it in my field, where I work, constantly, day by day, all levels of political beliefs. And like I was telling the gentleman a minute ago, I think what people are striving to ascertain here is whether or not we have a morality level.

Different religions from all over the world are competing here in the United States, different morality levels of politicians, ethics, morals, the beliefs that make up our country. And that's what people are fighting over right now. They're trying to decide at what morality level this country needs to exist.

And they say that they don't want to include this in the conversation, but basically, in this country, that seems to be the conversation.

CONAN: So would you see an important distinction between the morals of just a generic Episcopalian or a generic Catholic or a generic Calvinist?

ED: Well, those are doctrine differences, and doctrine and morals are totally separate, although a lot of doctrine is based on the differentiation of moral behavior and the belief in different moral behavior. So from a layman's point of view, people that don't want to participate in morality seem to be what everybody is considering to be liberals, and people that want to participate in morality seem to be the people that want to be considered as conservative, and that seems to be where the split is in the United States right now...

CONAN: That's interesting.

ED: ...from my perspective.

CONAN: Yeah, no, I hear you, Ed. Barbara Bradley Hagerty?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: It just seems to me that one of the things that's going on is people are making religion a - almost a proxy for morality. I mean, what you look at it, it's pretty consistent over the years. You look at polls, and you see that more than half of Americans - and polls range from 56 percent to 72 percent - say that it is important for presidential candidates to have strong religious beliefs.

And so - and the - it seems like the only type of person who can't be elected president is an atheist. I mean, that's what polls show. And so - at least at this point. And so there does seem to be this kind of conflation of morality and religion. And...

CONAN: I wonder, did the test include Muslims in that category?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yes, Muslims are on the next-lowest rank. So they're right above atheists. But everyone else, you know, the - I mean, you know, that's - I think that Christians, it's Christians and then Jews - John Green could help me with this. And then I think - I don't know where Mormons are, but basically, Muslims and atheists have the hardest time with possibly getting elected.

CONAN: John Green?

GREEN: Barbara's got the ranking just about right. Catholics and Protestants- evangelical Protestants tend to have a favorable view in the public, and people say, at least in the abstract, that they'd be willing to vote for someone of that faith for president. Mormons, a little bit lower, still on the positive side. But non-Christian faiths other than Judaism tend to be lower. Jews rank somewhere ahead of Mormons and a little bit below evangelicals. So Americans are not as conscious of religious affiliation as they were back in the days of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. But some religious affiliations - or the lack thereof - still matter to a lot of voters.

CONAN: And is Ed, our caller, correct to say that most people associate liberals, Democrats - we're drawing a broad brush, there - but with lack of morality and conservatives with morality, and the stronger religious beliefs with morality?

GREEN: Well, an awful lot of people do see religion of one kind or another as being the basis of morality. Now, we can argue with that, but that's a view that a lot of people have. And so for a lot of voters, a shorthand of whether their candidate has good morality, good values, commitment to transcendent beliefs is a level of religiosity. And to a lot of voters, the level of faith, the level of religiosity is actually more important these days than the particular religious community they might be part of.

Of course, there's also a big argument about what we mean by morality. To many traditionally religious people, morality means sexual morality, traditional family values, those sorts of things. Of course, to a lot of other religious people, it means social justice or protecting the environment or not discriminating against members of minority groups. So it's not just an argument about the extent of morality. It's also an argument about what do we mean by morality.

CONAN: Ed, thanks very much for the call.

ED: Which is all theology, when you get right down to it.


CONAN: It certainly is.


CONAN: Appreciate it.

ED: Have a good day. Happy New Year, everybody.

CONAN: And Happy New Year to you, too. We're talking about politics and religion, how that's playing out in the 2012 elections. We're talking with Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR's religion correspondent. Also with us, John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and distinguished professor of political science at the University of Akron, as well. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And here's an email from Allen: I wonder how many voters react negatively to public professions of religion and appeal to Christian extremists. Clearly, the calculus is that God talk does a candidate more good than harm, but by how much? And, Barbara, we were talking earlier about some of Rick Perry's supporters describing Mormonism as a cult, and he decided to back off that.


CONAN: We've had concern lately about some who profess support for Ron Paul and their extremist views on various issues. And does this play into it? You can't always control what your supporters are...


CONAN: favor of.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Right. You can't. I think people do - I think we're going to learn a little bit more about this as the primary season goes on. I think in the early - what we're hearing in the early primaries is we've got in Iowa and South Carolina, and then Super Tuesday, we've got a lot of Southern states. And so we hear a lot of God talk. What I'll be interested to see is whether there's a certain backlash as we get to those states that maybe are not so religiously oriented, or the Republican Party's not so dominated by evangelicals, for example.

And I'd like to see if there's a little bit of pushback by people. Now, maybe that those people are just - the ones who don't like the God talk are Democrats, and they're going to vote for Mr. Obama anyway. I don't know. So I think this is a question that - and maybe John has some polling numbers about it, but I think this is something that has yet to play out.

CONAN: Well, it's thought, John, to be less of a factor in places like New Hampshire, which is, of course, coming up next week.

GREEN: Yes. That's true. The religious composition of the states vary enormously. Out in Iowa, there are a lot of religious conservatives of one kind or another, and, of course, it's a caucus state. So the intensity has a lot to do with turnout and participation. And in other Midwestern states and in the South, there are large traditionally religious populations. New Hampshire not as much, more Catholics and mainline Protestants there. The religious conservatives have never had quite the factor - been quite the factor in New Hampshire.

And when you get to larger states, like, say, the state of Florida, there will be a lot more diversity. There are certainly some religious conservatives there, but there's a large Jewish population. There's a large Hispanic population, a large Catholic population. And in more diverse states, candidates have to be more careful about how they use religious language.

CONAN: And, of course, between now and then, we will see voting in the state of South Carolina, where, again, religious conservatives are thought to be, well, a major element of the Republican electorate. But here's an email we have from Susan: Why do apostolics and evangelicals detest Obama so much? Going back to a question we were talking about with Barbara Bradley Hagerty a few minutes ago. The answer is obvious, she writes. It is racism. Do black evangelicals hate Obama? And, Barbara, I wonder - I suspect not.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: I suspect not, too, but I bet John has the stats on that. I have - I believe that black Protestants and black evangelicals are much more favorably inclined towards President Obama. John?

GREEN: Well, that's absolutely true. Some of President Obama's strongest supporters in 2008 and down to today are black Protestants, black evangelicals, other minority groups, including Hispanic Catholics. A lot of it, of course, has to do with race in a positive sense, but also with many of the policies that President Obama has pursued.

CONAN: And that said, is it fair to label his critics who are conservative, white evangelicals as racists?

GREEN: I think I'd be very cautious about that. There probably is some racial antagonism. After all, race has been a major issue in the United States for a long time and particularly among some of the older generations. Some of those tensions still linger. And so I'm sure it's part of the process, but I think there are some other factors there, as well. One is the fact that President Obama has very liberal policies - from the point of view of conservative Christians - on social issues, like abortion and gay rights. Also, he's presided over an enlargement in the size of government - from their point of view - with his health care law and so forth.

And many conservative Christians are skeptical on both counts. And then, of course, there's been a lot of discussion about President Obama's own faith. A large number of Americans don't actually know what his religion is, and a small minority think that he may be a Muslim. Others who do know about his faith wonder about his association with controversial preachers and some of the black ministers in the past. So there's a lot of factors that play into the dislike of conservative Christians for President Obama.

CONAN: And getting back to the Republican field, it's interesting that the Mormon who has campaigned broadly on faith, but not his particular faith, and the libertarian who's been perhaps the vaguest of them all are one, two in the polls in Iowa at the moment. And it goes to show that neither the most religious nor the most conservative emerges from the Republican field. We'll have to see what happens. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, John Green, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.