The presidential debates: Religion? Anyone?

Marvin Joseph/The Post and Melina Mara/The Post President Barack attends a campaign event at Bowling Green State University in Bowling … Continued

Marvin Joseph/The Post and Melina Mara/The Post

President Barack attends a campaign event at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio on Sept. 26, 2012. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York on Sept. 25, 2012.

If the 2008 debates offer any clue as to how often faith and values themes will surface during Wednesday’s Obama/Romney showdown then we can expect this: near total silence about religious issues.

Save a passing aside about abortion during the third debate in 2008 (where then-Senator Barack Obama mentioned women consulting with “families, their doctors, [and] their religious advisers”) and Senator Joe Biden’s comment on gay marriage (which, you may recall, he then said he did not support ) faith angles were few and far between four years back.

Maybe news organizations in 2008 were, like, “been there, done that.” After all, megachurch pastor Rick Warren had already hosted a FaithandValuesapalozza just a few weeks prior. That controversial get-together may have slaked the nation’s (and the media’s) thirst for campaign God talk.

This past July, Warren made noises about staging another event. Neither campaign seemed too interested in taking him up on that offer. All of which draws attention to how relatively muted religious politicking has been in the 2012 presidential race.

View Photo Gallery: Moments when faith and politics intersect during the 2012 campaign.

It also reminds us how tremendously combustible this faith and values business can be. Romney has been perennially apprehensive about overemphasizing his Mormon faith. Obama, for his part, has had to fend off charges that he is an enemy of religious freedom in general and Catholicism in particular. For these and other reasons both have eased up on the God Talk.

But let’s say the candidates at Wednesday’s showdown in Denver do decide to open up a “religious front” and unleash their spiritual weapons of mass destruction. If their performance over the past year is a predictor, then what might we expect?

Since their convention in Charlotte the Democrats have espoused a “theology of togetherness.”

Along those lines, the president might sermonize that tough financial times demand that we take care of “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40 is the party’s go-to verse for questions of poverty). The same strategists who have made an issue of “economic patriotism”might conceivably try and stress “pious economics” which favor the vulnerable and needy.

In the primary debates, Romney showed himself to be a superb defensive debater. Yet currently trailing in swing states he needs to go into offensive mode where he is less skilled. If he does take the unusual step of making religion an issue in a presidential faceoff, it stands to reason that he might fall back on one of two existing lines of attack—neither of which has been particularly effective.

First, Republicans have tried to hang the dreaded “secular” label on the president. Romney, for example, has occasionally aired the complaint that his opponent advocates a “secular agenda.” Newt Gingrich, for his part, wrote a book about Obama’s “secular-socialist machine.” Insofar as most Americans don’t know what secularism is, or think it’s atheism, this hasn’t swayed hearts and minds.

Second, the GOP has achieved somewhat more traction by accusing Obama of imperiling religious freedom. This strategy has been effective in achieving what I call “base-whip-up.” As much as social conservatives may warm to the theme, anger about Obama’s HHS mandates (requiring religious employers to provide employees with access to contraception in their insurance coverage) has not spread beyond the whipped-up base. A recent Pew Forum poll, for example, demonstrates that Obama’s support among registered Catholics is at 54 percent, exactly where it was on Election Day 2008.

Herein lies the conundrum of the GOP in an age of “teavangelicals.” Republicans possess few policy initiatives that can appeal to the center their impassioned base so clearly distrusts.

Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor and director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and author of “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom .”

  • one nation

    All elected members of government in the USA must live up to their oath of office and keep their religion out of American government.


    A healthy respect for God and decent morals is a strength, not a weakeness!! Turn on the news if ya doubt-secularization of church and state is ruining the country, financially and socially! And they call it progressive (oxymoron)!

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Statements like this further convince me each day that there is no longer any such thing as political discourse in the United States.

    Depending on your convictions, fill in the blanks:

    ______ is the only hope for America’s future! If you doubt that ______ is ruining this country then just turn on the news! ______’s think they know what’s best for the country, but what all they’re really after is _____!

    This is how an infant makes sense of the world.

  • lufrank1

    I hope not!

  • ClarkKent1

    a healthy respect for WHICH god? By the way, moral pre-date any still existing religion.

  • ClarkKent1


  • lufrank1

    Who’s “God” ? Muslim’s, Christian’s, Jew’s, Hindu’s, YOURS?????

  • lufrank1

    “must” is wishful thinking……substitute “should” !

  • Secular1

    “A healthy respect for God and decent morals is a strength, not a weakeness!!” Strength of what? Strength of strong delusions.

    “Turn on the news if ya doubt-secularization of church and state is ruining the country, financially and socially!” This country is more moral than anytime before. At least we do not have people owning for the first 100 years and then the next hundred year we had people treating a whole cals of other people as chattle. You call that moral, not in my words.

    ” And they call it progressive (oxymoron)!” Yes pople not being owned by others, all being treated teh same is indeed PROGRESS.

  • Secular1

    It is a “MUST”. Perhaps wishful in practice. That is only because the elected do not live up to their oath.

  • pjohn3

    Wasn’t Jesus a liberal progressive?

  • Rongoklunk

    When I think of religion I think of 9/11, the most devoutly religious act I ever witnessed – when nineteen brave holymen sacrificed their young lives for Allah, and took 3000 heretics along as burnt-offerings. Allah must have been impressed with such unselfishness and hundred percent faith in him. Seventy two virgins each for everyone involved was more than generous. They must be having a helluva good time up there in Paradise. I can almost hear them from here – laughing and drinking and listening to hymns.
    Wouldn’t it be awful if they were lied to about the virgins? Wouldn’t it be awful if they were lied to about life-after-death? Wouldn’t it be awful if they were lied to about Allah? You don’t have to be crazy to believe this rubbish remember? Just religious.

  • crabstu

    Mitt Romney’s beliefs would allow for him to one day become a “god.”

    Obama believes he is God.

  • Rongoklunk

    It’s not a weakness – it’s a delusion. One has to have it installed in the brain when as young as possible before the development of commonsense. No adult brain could possibly accept it.

  • Rongoklunk

    Obama is too intelligent and educated beyond superstition, to believe in a God. But he knows only too well – that one HAS to pander to the indoctrinated to get anywhere in America today. The majority can’t handle the truth – that gods are mythical by definition. So people have to lie and pretend to believe. I wish they wouldn’t. I wish they’d just speak out about how outrageously infantile it is.

  • Cossackathon

    Will they discuss faith? God, I hope not.

  • LMW6

    Nice how the writer completely leaves out the fact that the Democratic Platform left out God and then overruled the obvious tie in the floor vote to add Him back.

  • Fabrisse

    I’d like a promise that neither of them will let their religion inform their decisions, but I know it won’t happen.

  • wireman65

    I would find an election season free of religious nonsense to be quite refreshing.

  • abrooklynite

    I hope not. Why does faith have to be discussed by politicians? They have to make decisions based on reality and evidence. Why do we want them to waste time discussing fanciful matters when there is the economy and foreign policy to talk about. Politics is the worst forum ever to talk about religion. Keep it on the personal and community level.

  • EW88

    I’m not expecting much new information from these debates, but at least we’ll be seeing and judging the two candidates themselves rather than getting information filtered by the media. The debates are, however, moderated by people as liberal as the media who ignore Obama’s failures in office while aggrandizing any failures of Romney.

    The press doesn’t cover a lot of things. They fail to report that independents are swinging to Romney. They reference polls weighted unrealistically towards Democrats – above even 2008 levels. And how many anti-Obama headlines have you seen compared to anti-Romney ones? It doesn’t say as much about the two men as it does about the bias of those who write about them. Why didn’t the media report Al Qaida’s involvement in Libya when the information was available withint 24 hours (and reported by conservative media at that time)? Why do they focus on a 47%remark taken ridiculously out of context? It smells of desperation to me. If the GOP and Romney were really as bad as they make out then they wouldn’t be a threat, now would they?

    Read both sides for balanced coverage because it doesn’t exist in one place and both sides leave stuff out. How can you make an informed opinion on any topic if you consider only one point of view? You can’t. Thanks for listening.

  • KentL1

    The Republicans have shut up about religion because Romney’s Mormon. But pale skin beats religious heresy.. Duh.

    For the first time in many elections we’re not being treated to the heretofore vital poll questions about which candidate voters would rather have a beer with.
    Mormons don’t drink. It would be impolite, dissing his religion as well as being as dumb a question as ever.
    So the oh-so-vital drinking buddy question of yore suddenly has no importance at all.

    The right-wing white supremacist wing is fanatically determined to oust Obama, yet can’t tout Romney’s Christianity because of his Mormonity, so they have to ignore it. They can’t attack Obama too much on Christianity values because there’s too much in Mormonity that directly conflicts with their Christianity, the one they brag about having the monopoly on.

    Just another case of the news being dragged around by its bruised and rotting nose by the zealot right and the hypocritical pols that play them like a fiddle. Tne least rational element in political thought, or any thought is drowning in ink and sucking up air time — “reality-based thinking”, “facts”, science, other rational thought is publicly despised by regular guests given audience in newsrooms. Every day.

    Far-right nuts, drunks, and drug abusers appear daily on TV and in the news, invited to express crazy theories, defend creligion, “creationism”, as science, any idiotic, fact-free, anti-book-larnin’, paranoic fancy that falls from their lips.
    Rush Limbaugh is reported on as if he were sane, but I have missed the stories and interviews with those who have been abducted by aliens..
    The press repeats the right-wing ravers, never balanced by those who think the government has Martians locked up in New Mexico despite both ideas lacking a shred of credible evidence.

    I find alien abductions easier to believe than Obama being a Muslim, but which delusion is splattered all over the news?

    From the press, those with access to candidates, there has been com

  • KentL1

    Because freedom of religion is also freedom from religion.

    And did the Republican platform acknowledge”Jesus” by name?

    Why not?

    Why not?

    Why not?

  • lufrank1

    tuned . . . . . Fact is neither YOU nor any other human being actually knows squat about Who, What or If about any God or Gods!

    That is a FACT!


    I’m an Independent and I’m not swinging toward Romney. The man is repulsive.

  • epespinoza43

    So for all you folks from Brooklyn, when was the last time you did anything, anything, that didn’t have faith imbued all over it?

  • OldUncleTom

    I think that this election, more than any other, will avoid religious battles on any front. We had enough “Black Liberation Theology”, and “Magic Underwear” 4 years ago to last a generation.

    Since that is apparently the depth of the America capacity for discussion of religious issues, it is probably best we leave it alone.

    The author does make a good point in that the only religious freedom that is possible requires a secular state.

  • KentL1


    You put a lot of faith in facts. Religion isn’t about knowing, it’s about believing. I think.