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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Today, believers left and right are worried about a lot more than abortion and gay marriage.Skip to next paragraph
Many are alarmed that the emerging challenge to religious autonomy has broader implications. For example, on a global scale, some think it may someday thwart their ability to manage church humanitarian efforts in compliance with their own reading of the Scriptures. If churches are pressed to violate their beliefs about gay marriage or abortion, for instance, the poor may have to wait while the churches defend their religion in court. Religious groups raise many billions of dollars annually from members and funnel it into virtually every corner of the globe, alleviating poverty, illuminating abuses like human trafficking, and treating disease, says Hertzke. Their style might well be the opposite of the government's – lean budgets, local expertise, working cooperatively and almost unnoticed.
"Especially on the international front, religious groups are important players. They are the largest global [relief] networks in some of the most impoverished places on earth," Hertzke says. "It will be unfortunate for religious liberties," he says, if in the current debate "churches are perceived as a little backward on gender issues.... It doesn't have the front page bite of abortion or gay marriage, but [this work is something] everyone can be in favor of."
Economic conditions will influence the vote for many this fall, as will deep concerns about the responsibility for – and what some believers would call the immorality of – the $16 trillion debt, which balloons to as high as $120 trillion with liabilities like Social Security. "Unfathomable," pollster Rasmussen calls it.
Ultimately, the big question is "Whom do you trust?" – or possibly, "Whom don't you trust?" – with your freedoms. Are you a "government which governs best governs least" sort? Or do you wonder where we'd be today without F.D.R.? Over the years, there have been conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans, but today each side's signature issues seem more firm, and the sides seem increasingly unable to work together. Politicians exploit the divisions, rhetoric escalates, and with candidates in constant campaign mode, voters can tend to see themselves in mortal combat with fellow citizens. The result, say observers: Long-term problems don't get addressed.
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Even as the administration works on new fixes to the health-care mandate, religious groups seem more opposed than ever to what they see as a slice-and-dice approach to religious liberties. Fearing that the next chapters of "Obamacare" could tinker with even more fiercely held religious beliefs – abortion, for example – they train their sights on securing the conscience rights of all believers, not just those of religious institutions. A coalition of religious and secular groups – mostly in the antiabortion camp – held religious freedom rallies around the country on March 23.
Rasmussen predicts that the president will attempt to "walk back" his stance on contraception before the presidential race is over, but that its memory will remain, second only to the economy in voter concern this fall.
But he calls this religiously tinged controversy "the key issue if the election is close."