Obama and Romney shun confrontation on religion

Maybe the economy is a political black hole, sucking every other issue into an impossibly dense void.

Maybe Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are just private, cautious men by nature.

For whatever reason, neither President Obama nor his Republican challenger is talking much about religion these days — neither about his own faith nor that of his opponent, or the social issues that motivate religious voters.

It is a striking departure from the faith-based overtures heard in this year’s Republican primary and in some past presidential campaigns, and it serves to mask a central aspect of each man’s life story, in which faith plays an important role. But analysts on both sides of the political spectrum say religion is perceived as a no-win subject by both campaigns, and it is not likely to play a prominent role in the 2012 election.

“Put it this way,” said Republican pollster Whitfield Ayres. “There is more downside than upside right now for either candidate to spend a lot of time talking openly about their faith.”

Romney faces potential resistance to his Mormon faith, especially among the evangelical Christian voters who have been a foundation of support for every Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan. Some Christian conservatives also distrust him because of his past support — long repudiated — for abortion rights.

Obama has an even messier religion problem. Substantial numbers of voters — 16% in a recent poll — continue to believe that he is a Muslim, despite his decades of Christian observance. Others still fault him for his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the Chicago pastor whose videotaped sermons criticizing the United States nearly sank Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Moreover, the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church and many Christian conservatives have been unhappy with Obama over a policy mandating that private employers, including some religious organizations, offer contraceptive services in employee healthcare plans. (More liberal faith groups support the policy.)

In the past, Obama, more than Romney, has seemed comfortable talking about his faith. He’s not likely to be doing a lot of it this summer or fall.

“It’s a losing issue for both of them,” said Garry South, a veteran Democratic political consultant.

Romney partisans will point out that the Republican candidate delivered a speech recently at Liberty University, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, in which he spoke to evangelical Christian graduates about his “different” faith, and how they shared “moral convictions … stemming from a common worldview.”

Yet Romney never actually said in the Liberty speech what made his faith different. In fact, he never said he was a Mormon, avoiding that word and the formal name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Some political observers have said Romney should be more open about his faith, if only because it helps soften his stiff image. But Quin Monson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, said: “If he’s smart, there are two reasons to avoid it. One, it’s not the economy. And two, it has the chance to veer off into a discussion about Mormon theology.”

That wouldn’t be a profitable discussion for Romney, Monson said. “He seems to be doing OK without having to answer those questions,” he added.

Not long before Romney spoke at Liberty, Obama used the language of Christianity to explain why he had decided to support same-sex marriage. “When we think about our faith,” he said, “the thing … at root that we think about is not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know? Treat others the way you’d want to be treated.”

But Obama took a stand on same-sex marriage only after being effectively outed by Vice President Joe Biden, whose unexpected show of support for it put pressure on the president to follow suit.

Romney has hardly touched the issue, and neither candidate has been talking about abortion. When news broke recently about a conservative group preparing an independent ad campaign to batter Obama for his past associations with Wright, Romney instantly demanded that it be shelved.

Religion and religious social issues have not always been staples of American political debate.

When Romney’s father, George Romney, unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in 1968, his Mormon faith was scarcely mentioned — nor was the fact that his primary campaign opponent, Richard Nixon, was a Quaker. Romney would have been the first Mormon president, and Nixon did become the second Quaker (after Herbert Hoover), but voters didn’t seem to much care.

That may have been, at least in part, a result of John F. Kennedy’s election as the first Catholic president in 1960 and his speech to evangelical ministers promising to maintain a strict wall between church and state.

That speech “was so effective and so persuasive that it ushered in a period in American presidential politics of what I call the Kennedy paradigm of voter indifference to candidates’ faith,” said Randall Balmer, author of “God in the White House: How Faith Shapes the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.”

That changed with a couple of events. One was the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade in 1973, affirming a woman’s right to an abortion. That put abortion front and center in American politics.

The second was the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter, the first president to identify himself as a born-again Christian. “Carter introduces this language of faith and piety into presidential politics,” Balmer said. “Carter changes the equation.”

This year, the equation may have changed again, if only because the economy trumps all other issues.

In a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 52% of those surveyed said the economy was the single most important issue in the presidential race. Nothing else came close. Abortion was considered the most important issue by 1% of those surveyed. Same-sex marriage? Also 1%.

“It’s a big shoulder shrug to voters,” Republican consultant Rob Stutzman said of gay marriage. Stutzman, who once worked for Romney, said Obama should be more concerned about a slump in the Dow Jones industrial average.

Obama has acknowledged as much. After declaring his change of heart on marriage, he said: “But I’m not going to be spending most of my time talking about this, because frankly … my biggest priority is to make sure that we’re growing the economy, that we’re putting people back to work, that we’re managing the drawdown in Afghanistan effectively. Those are the things that I’m going to focus on.”

Ayres, the Republican pollster, said that in general, “Americans want their presidents to be men … of faith, but they don’t want them to wear their faith on their sleeve. … Their basic attitude today is, ‘I don’t care what your theology is, within limits. … How are you going to fix the economy?’ ”