How will social and religious issues factor into 2012 election?

Religion has mostly hovered in the background of this presidential campaign, largely in the form of questions.

Will Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith hurt him among evangelical (or other) voters? Will President Obama lose support among Catholics, a key voting bloc, because of his positions on abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage? In short, will social and religious issues play a significant role in this election, as they have in the past?

Two polls released Thursday suggest an answer: Not so much.

One poll, by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, looks at voter attitudes toward Romney’s and Obama’s faith traditions. The other, by the Public Religion Research Institute, looks at how religion shapes the political views of African Americans and Latinos.


If the findings of the two polls could be summed up in a sentence, it might be this: Faith is important to many Americans, but it doesn’t necessarily dictate how they will vote.

So while a majority of Americans say they consider Romney’s faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be “very different” from their own religion, it’s not having much influence on their vote, according to the Pew poll. Even among the small minority of Republican voters who say they are “uncomfortable” with Romney’s Mormonism, 93% say they will vote for him anyway.

This suggests, once again, that concerns among some Republicans that conservative evangelical voters would turn away from Romney because of faith differences are simply not panning out. The one note of concern for Romney’s campaign is that Republicans who are uneasy with his faith are far less likely to describe their support for him as “strong,” which could translate into a lower turnout than he would like on election day. There aren’t that many of them, but in a close race it could make a difference.

(Pew also finds, once again, that significant numbers of Republicans say they believe that President Obama is a Muslim, despite his frequent declarations of Christian faith. Since most of the people who hold this view were never likely to vote for Obama anyway, it’s hard to say whether it matters politically. But even among Democrats -- in fact, even among Obama supporters -- there is some residue of belief that he is a Muslim, suggesting that the president continues to have something of an identity problem, religion-wise.)

Another example of how politics can trump dogma: Overwhelming majorities of both Latinos and African Americans say they are told by clergy that homosexuality is morally wrong. But exactly half of Latinos and a slim majority of blacks in the Public Religion poll said they support same-sex marriage. An even higher percentage -- roughly two-thirds of both groups -- support President Obama’s support of same-sex marriage.

The bottom line in both polls is that voter attitudes are complicated and hard to reduce to bumper-sticker slogans. Voters are difficult to pigeonhole, “in terms of circumstances, in terms of morality, in terms of labels that people identify with,” said Robert Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute.

Another case: Sizable percentages of both blacks and Latinos describe their position on abortion as both “pro-life” and pro-choice. Most polls in the past have asked voters whether they are one or the other, but Public Religion asked each position separately. In a poll last year among the general public, it found that 37% held both views. In the new poll, it found that 52% of African Americans and 47% of Latinos hold both views.

How can that be? The poll found that, while majorities of both groups believe abortion is morally wrong, the two most important values that people relied on to make up their mind on abortion policy were “not judging other people” and “showing compassion for women in difficult circumstances.” Well down the list was “protecting the sanctity of life.”

That was in keeping with another finding of the poll. Among both African Americans and Latinos, majorities believe that it is possible to disagree with one’s church on abortion, homosexuality and birth control and still be a member in good standing of that church. The percentage holding that view about birth control was over 80%.

That raises a question for the Catholic Church, which has waged a high-profile campaign against an Obama administration rule that will require many religiously affiliated employers, such as schools and hospitals, to provide free contraceptive services to their employees. Is the message getting through to parishioners, especially Latinos, who comprise a large and growing percentage of American Catholics?

In the poll, a majority of Latinos and African Americans of all faiths said they supported the rule requiring schools and hospitals to provide free contraceptive coverage. But a majority of only one group -- Latino Catholics -- went further and said that even churches and other places of worship should be required to provide contraception to their employees. That sort of policy would be absolutely abhorrent to the Catholic hierarchy, and goes well beyond what the Obama administration has required.

It is worth noting that the poll was conducted from June 14-23, meaning that most of it was done before the Catholic Church held its “Fortnight for Freedom,” which placed a heavy emphasis on educating parishioners about the church’s opposition to the contraception mandate.

Overall, according to the Public Religion survey, 58% of Latino voters and 87% of African American voters say they support Obama in the election. Romney gets support from 32% of Latinos and just 3% of African Americans. While meager, that is a better showing for Romney among Latinos than in an NBC/Telemundo-Wall Street Journal poll released earlier this week.

The Public Religion poll makes clear, as pretty much every poll all year has shown, that the top issue in this election is the economy, followed by the economy, followed by the economy.

Social issues? Not really on the charts.

The Public Religion poll was conducted among 810 non-Latino African American adults and 813 Latino adults. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.1 percentage points for African Americans and 4.7 percentage points for Latinos.

The Pew poll was conducted among 2,973 adults from June 28-July 9, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points.