Religion, Lack Thereof in 2012 Election
For the first time ever recorded, Protestant Christians no longer make up a majority in the U.S. with only 48 percent of Americans falling under that category, according to Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life.
Historically, religion has played a major role in presidential elections. How will this new statistic affect the 2012 election?
Gov. Al Smith of New York was the Democratic candidate in the 1928 presidential election. Prior to 1928, the South was a solid Democratic force, know by historians and political scientists as the “Solid South.” In order to win the election, Smith needed the South. Unfortunately, Smith was Catholic.
At the time the South was made up of Protestant Christians who unfortunately were not comfortable electing a Catholic to president. Smith lost in a landslide, only maintaining six of the 11 Southern states, the Deep South (Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.) This is likely partially due to his running mate, Arkansan Joseph Taylor Robinson. Robinson spent a year studying at UA, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.
This is the first time since 1876 that a significant number of Southern states voted for a Republican. Some political scientists even cite the 1928 election as the beginning of party realignment in the South. All of this is because of religion.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected as the first Catholic president and the only Catholic president to date, according to Pew Forum. In the election, Kennedy also won six Southern states, including Arkansas and two states that Smith did not win: Texas and North Carolina. Kennedy lost Mississippi and most of Alabama. However, Kennedy gained more popularity in the North and Midwest than Smith had.
By 1968, only one Southern state, Texas, voted for a Democrat in the presidential election, and the South has voted almost solidly Republican since.
There are other factors that play into presidential campaigns, but the fact that the South was virtually solidly Democratic in all elections between 1876 and 1964 except those in which a Catholic was running shows that historically, religion does matter.
How much importance will religion have in 2012?
In 2008, Republicans made a fuss over Barack Obama’s religion. There was speculation that he was Muslim despite his claims to belong to the United Church of Christ.
Because of the uproar over religion in 2008, I expected more controversy in 2012 over Mitt Romney’s religion. If elected, Romney will be the first Mormon president.
Is the lack of speculation over Romney’s religion due to the fall in percentage of Protestant Christians in the U.S.? Given the elections of 1928 and 1960, it seems like the decrease could work in favor of Romney.
However, when you take a closer look at the new study, it appears it might work in President Obama’s favor.
The drop in the percent of Protestant Christians is not because of a rise in the percent of Catholics or other religions, but because of a rise in religiously unaffiliated Americans.
Religion, it appears, is becoming less important to Americans, making it less important that Romney is Mormon. However, 23 percent of likely Obama supporters identified themselves as religiously unaffiliated in a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. Only 8 percent of likely Romney supporters are religiously unaffiliated according to the poll.
Overall, more religious groups identified themselves as Romney supporters. Fifty-six percent of likely Romney supporters are Protestant Christians, while Protestant Christians make up 24 percent of likely Obama supporters.
So, although religion is becoming less important, the religiously unaffiliated are more likely to support Obama, bending the drop in percentage of Protestant Christians in Obama’s favor.
It is still strange to me that Protestant Christians support Romney. The Mormon Church considers itself a sect of Christianity just like the Catholic church. I would expect Protestant Christians, particularly in the South, to oppose Romney just as they opposed Smith and Kennedy, but the South is expected to vote solidly for Romney.
It seems that religion has become less important, even to the religious. Protestant Christians, in general, have become more concerned with Republican party affiliation than with the religion of the candidate.
It may be unclear whether this change is good or bad, but it will certainly have a very interesting impact on this election and elections to follow.
Ruth Bradley is a staff columnist. She is a senior art and political science major.