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The faith factor: Religion's new prominence in campaign 2012

Whose beliefs matter? From birth control to taxes, religion is playing an unprecedented role in campaign 2012.

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Churches have responded, some fiercely, to the contraceptive insurance mandate, warning that such a state encroachment on fundamental liberties sets a bad precedent: Swing at Catholics today, your own beliefs may be teed up tomorrow. And they wonder what is to be gained. While the left struggles to reframe the issue as one of women's rights, the right points out that birth control products are available easily and relatively cheaply without anyone's conscience rights being impinged.

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Southern Baptists disagree with the Catholic Church on birth control but support the conscience concerns about religious liberties.

"It's [a matter of] religious liberty, not contraception," says Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He considers the free birth control the administration offered employees of Catholic institutions in response to the firestorm of opposition insulting. "As one leading Catholic bishop said to me, 'How do we trust [the president] after this? He's taken off his mask.' "

"Religious freedom is a big deal for a lot of religions right now," says Jessica Moody, spokeswoman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a January statement, her church warned that the recent developments in health care and gay rights threaten the freedom of conscience churches once took for granted in managing their institutions without reprimand or coercion. It quoted founder Joseph Smith on the topic: "I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a [Presbyterian], a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination."

Does Washington 'get' religion?

Obama's challenge to churches suggests that the White House decided to sacrifice some moderate religious voters in hope of making it up among the women's health contingent.

"The fact that Obama miscalculated so badly may signify the declining influence of the Catholic Church," says Father Byron, and indeed, of other religions, say observers. But any such gamble would have pitfalls as well as potential: Though people's real-world consciences may sometimes supplant a certain religious belief – say, about birth control – it hardly means they want to abandon those beliefs, and the values those beliefs symbolize, altogether.

The legislative branch seems to "get" religion more, and there was widespread alarm there at the president's birth control mandate. House Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy, thinks that "members of Congress may be more religiously intentional than the population at large" because of the nature of their work and its consequences.

The Rev. Barry Black, chaplain of the Senate, reports that 42 of the 100 senators – from both sides of the aisle – take the time weekly to attend Bible study or prayer breakfasts. He warns that when a government imposes a standard that blocks be-lievers from practicing their faith "you have a problem. You have to be very, very cautious. That's a slippery slope."


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