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Rallying voters in the name of God

This article first appeared in The Straits Times on Apr 1, 2012.

Published on Aug 20, 2012 11:38 AM
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and his wife Ann hurry through the rain as they arrive at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire Sept 2, 2012. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Heads bowed and hands clasped in preparation for prayer, the 400-strong crowd that packed the Heritage Christian Academy’s gymnasium fell silent when Pastor Paul Davis took to the lectern.

“Our heavenly father,” he said as he began his prayer. “We pray that you would give us a president who would stand in the face of adversity and evil... (and who) would defend the voiceless and the unborn.

“If you have found (Mr Rick Santorum) faithful, we pray that you would make him the next president of the United States.”

The crowd responded with a loud “Amen” and even louder cheers when Mr Santorum, one of the four Republican presidential hopefuls, made his entrance and gave a passionate speech about the rightful role of faith, family and values in American politics.

“You hear the Left with their constant drumbeat – separation of church and state, which by the way does not appear in the Constitution,” he said as he brandished a pocket-book version of the US Constitution.

“What does (appear) is the term ‘the free exercise of religion’... so religion is to be free from the dictates of government, but government is not to be free of the influence of faith and people of faith.”

The crowd roared its approval with cheers and loud applause.

Scenes like this, which took place in the Mid-western state of Michigan in late February, are becoming increasingly common in an election year which has seen dark horse candidates like Mr Santorum parlaying their faith-based appeal into unexpected political success in the Republican presidential primary.

Some of them have also used religion to attack President Barack Obama. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for instance, has repeatedly lambasted him for waging “war” on the Catholic Church and accused his administration of being the most “anti-religious in history”.

Yet the two men most likely to face off later this year – Mr Obama and Republican front runner Mitt Romney – prefer to keep an arm’s length from faith-based electioneering and focus instead on the economy and foreign policy issues.

But can they, given the past controversies over their religion? Or will God and faith carve an even deeper fault line in the political battles ahead?

Lazarus rising

Even before the first real contest for the Republican presidential nomination kicked off in January, pundits had already written off Mr Santorum’s campaign as “dead on arrival”. The former Pennsylvania senator had little name recognition or money, and was languishing at the bottom of most opinion polls.

Likewise, most analysts considered Mr Gingrich to be “finished” after he was hit by a tsunami of negative attack advertisements in Iowa and a crushing defeat in New Hampshire subsequently.

But both men have been able to prove their critics wrong more than once in the last three months, reviving their political fortunes by riding on a rising wave of support from evangelical Christians, who have turned out in record numbers this year.

An analysis of exit polling data by the evangelical political activist Ralph Reed suggests that these voters have accounted for about half of the overall Republican turnout so far, up from 44 per cent in 2008. Other recent opinion polls underscore the strength of religion as a potent force in American politics.

A recent chart by The Washington Post shows just how critical a role religious support has played in Mr Santorum’s and Mr Gingrich’s political revival: Seven major contests won by the two men – from South Carolina to Mississippi – have all taken place in states where evangelical or “born again” Christian voters made up more than half the electorate.

In states where such voters slipped below the 50 per cent mark, such as Florida or New Hampshire, both men lost to Mr Romney, a Mormon whose faith is viewed with some discomfort by many traditional Christians.

These early voting trends spell problems for Mr Romney in the primary and the general election.

Can he afford to lose the support of this large and highly motivated segment of his party? And if he tries to court them by shifting more to the right and adopting some of Mr Santorum’s rhetoric, would he instead turn off his own supporters and possibly alienate other independent and secular voters in the middle?

A new survey by the Pew Research Centre shows just how complicated it is for candidates navigating the terrain marked by faith.

According to the survey, the number of Americans who say there is too much religious talk from politicians is at an all-time high. Most Americans – and more strikingly, nearly six in 10 Republicans who favour Mr Romney – say churches and other religious organisations should stay out of politics.

What’s more, the “religious vote” is no monolithic bloc either. Despite winning a far larger share of support from evangelicals, Mr Santorum, a devout Catholic, has repeatedly lost the Catholic vote to Mr Romney.

Anecdotally, Republican voters insist that they are not swayed by religious rhetoric alone nor do they regard a candidate’s faith as a pressing issue in this election. Mr Greg Bloch, 48, an aerospace engineer, told The Sunday Times in Dayton, Ohio: “Religion is not an issue. For me, it’s all about the economy.”

Added Ms Mary McGirr, 62, a retired professor of public communications: “This country is founded on religious liberty and so it shouldn’t matter to us.”

But voting statistics show otherwise, suggesting that Mr Romney would have a tricky balancing act in the months ahead as he tries to court his party’s religious base.

Inflammatory rhetoric

In the run-up to the 10th anniversary of the Sept 11 attacks last year, many civic leaders in the Arab American community said they regarded the 2012 election as a potentially more worrying source of religious tension than the sensitive anniversary.

Their fears have been validated so far by the heated and often confrontational rhetoric on Islam and the Middle East coming from some of the Republican presidential candidates during television debates and on the campaign trail.

Mr Gingrich, for instance, repeatedly warns about the threat of “radical Islam” and syariah law taking root in the US. Mr Santorum has openly said he would be in favour of bombing Iran’s nuclear plants.

Experts say it is uncertain whether such inflammatory rhetoric will die down with the expected exit of these two candidates. “It could go either way,” said Assistant Professor Sally Howell, an expert on the Arab American community.

“Perhaps Mr Romney, because he is himself from a minority religious tradition, will be more outspoken in trying to de-legitimise this religious bigotry once he is the official nominee,” she added. “But he could remain silent on this precisely because he does not want to call attention to any religious differences before the election.”

Other observers suspect that the current rhetoric on religion might just be a prelude to uglier attacks on Mr Obama for being a “secret Muslim”. Mr Obama, a Christian, has been the subject of several conspiracy theories of this nature since 2004 when he first ran for the US Senate.

He has spoken out repeatedly about his Christian faith, but signs are that the false claims have stuck with a portion of the Republican electorate. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling found that about half the Republican voters in the two conservative southern states of Mississippi and Alabama still believe Mr Obama is a Muslim.

Some of Mr Obama’s rivals also continue to fan the controversy with innuendo. While campaigning in Louisiana late last month, Mr Gingrich said: “I have said publicly several times that I believe Mr Obama is a Christian... (but) why does the President behave the way that people would think that (he’s Muslim)?”

Mr Romney’s Mormon faith has been the subject of some controversy as well, though to a much lesser degree. Last year, a prominent pastor supporting Texas governor Rick Perry, who has since dropped out of the presidential race, called the Mormon Church a “cult”. Recent media reports have also suggested that some evangelical voters in the Deep South refused to vote for him on account of his faith.

Mormonism has a complex relationship with traditional Christianity. For instance, Mormons believe Joseph Smith, who founded the Church in the 19th century, to be a “prophet of God”, but no other Christian denomination recognises this.

Some argue that the prominence of Mr Romney’s presidential campaign might help usher Mormonism into the religious mainstream in the US. But for now, both the Mormon Church and Mr Romney prefer to steer clear of each other.

During the Michigan primary in February, for instance, Mr Romney was conspicuously absent from his hometown Mormon chapel in Bloomfield Hills despite spending time campaigning all across the Mid-western state. As his fellow Mormons arrived at the chapel for a packed Sunday service on Feb 26, two days before the critical vote in Michigan, the former Massachusetts governor went to Florida instead to attend the Daytona 500 car race.

Church leaders told The Sunday Times that there was no coordination between them and Mr Romney’s campaign. While the Mormon Church encouraged its members to be active citizens engaged with the political process, its longstanding policy of political neutrality would not change, they added.

But would such a position be sustainable if Mr Romney wins the White House and becomes one of the most powerful men in the world?

“Whatever (Mr Romney’s) role outside the church might be, his role inside is clear and has nothing to do with whether he is the president or not,” said Mr Greg Geiger, a councillor at the Mormon chapel in Bloomfield Hills.

With at least another seven months to go before the general election, experts say it is too early to predict the eventual role that religion would play in affecting the final outcome. But they expect the broader and more diverse electorate in November’s vote to dilute the biases of any one particular group.

“Once you get into the general election with a diverse public, you are really talking about a moral code,” said Ms Sally Steenland, director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Centre for American Progress.

“Religion is sometimes a placeholder used by voters who want their candidate to have a moral compass, to have a strong sense of right and wrong, and not to be just a political operative who would do or say anything.”