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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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Outgoing Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Ind.) of Con­nec­ticut famously made his own accommodations so he could legislate while remaining an observant Jew. He explains that the Founders pointedly said it was "the Creator" – not Thomas Jefferson or a philosophy of enlightenment – who endowed Americans with their constitutional rights, and that they established the government specifically to ensure those rights. "I don't call my rabbi" to ask how to vote, he says, but his faith is one of the important life dimensions that he brings to lawmaking. Part of Genesis 2:15, "and the Lord placed Adam in the garden to tend and protect it...," directly piqued his interest in the environment, he says. He predicts that the courts will ultimately decide on the president's mandate. Legal challenges are already piling up.

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Ever since former President Jimmy Carter came on the scene in 1976, unabashedly speaking of his born-again Christianity, candidates have talked faith so much that voters almost expect it of them now, say experts. Democrats in particular have strategized in recent presidential elections to avoid conceding the faith vote entirely to the Republicans. Of course, such strategizing can benefit a candidate or it can backfire. Personal faith is complex and nuanced, laced with individual interpretations and formed by experience. Using Bible verses to sell policy – right or left – strikes some who think the authority of Scripture should be reserved for moments of greater gravity as either not very creative or flat-out manipulative.

The anti-Christian vote

For some, a liberal vote is a vote against religion, and particularly against evangelical Christians, whom they often see as unwelcome interlopers in the political conversation. But Evangelicals – of whom 68 to 78 percent voted Republican in the past three elections, and who make up 25 to 30 percent of the population – have long been politically active, says Barry Hankins, professor of history and church-state studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Evangelicals, he explains, come from the spectrum of denominations that hold a high view of the authority of the Bible. They tend to have had a conversion – or born-again – experience of some kind, and value activism in the culture.

Early in the 20th century – until liberal Protestantism took hold in the 1930s – Evangelicals actively championed such causes as prison reform, antislavery, and women's rights. When in 1976 Mr. Carter became the first president since Woodrow Wilson to be openly born-again, their hopes were raised, and then dashed, by his presidency. And 1980 saw the rise of the "religious right" and Ronald Reagan, as Evangelicals and observant Catholics – faiths once hostile to one another – came together on a number of issues, especially abortion.

"Progressive liberal culture came to believe that America had moved beyond [religion]," observes Professor Hankins. Its reemergence led to bigotry and hostile attacks on Evangelicals, he says.


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