Obama’s Christian and Romney’s Mormon problem

TIM SLOAN AFP/GETTY IMAGES Former Governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney. While President Barack Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt … Continued

TIM SLOAN

AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Former Governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

While President Barack Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney may have different religious backgrounds, they share a surprisingly similar religious dilemma: most Americans can’t correctly identify their religion, and more Americans than not say that each of these leader’s religious beliefs are different from their own.

Much ink has already been spilled about the challenge Mitt Romney may face because of negative public perceptions of his Mormon faith. But the new PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, shows that these concerns cannot be looming large at this point in the campaign-only four-in-10 Americans correctly identify Romney’s religion as Mormon. 10 percent identify him as either Protestant or Catholic, and 46 percent say they don’t know what his religious beliefs are.

Despite a very public falling out with his church pastor during the campaign and providing numerous testimonials of his Christian faith, President Obama faces a similar knowledge gap with the public. Only about four-in-ten (38 percent) correctly identify his religion as Christian, 18 percent continue to wrongly identify him as Muslim, and 40 percent say they do not know what his religious beliefs are.

JONATHAN ERNST

REUTERS

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) shakes hands with Rev. Luis Leon (R) after a Sunday morning worship service in Washington, July 17, 2011.

Beyond the religious identity challenge, both Obama and Romney also face a religious identification challenge with the public. Specifically, more Americans than not say that each of these leader’s religious beliefs are different from their own. Romney of course faces a hurdle here that Obama does not: 72 percent of Americans report that Mormons have religious beliefs that are somewhat or very different from their own. But any advantage that might accrue to Obama because of his more familiar Christian faith is not evident in the numbers. The number of Americans saying Obama has religious beliefs that are different from their own stands at 48 percent, a number that is slightly higher than the same measure for Mitt Romney (43 percent).

In order to measure the average distance between Americans’ own religious beliefs and their perceptions of political leaders’ religious beliefs, we created a scale that accounts for perceptions of both similarity and difference. On this scale, former President George W. Bush provides a helpful benchmark. Bush scores right at the mean of the scale (0.00), indicating that equal numbers say his religious beliefs are similar to their own and different from their own. On this measure, again, Obama’s score is nearly identical to Romney’s score (-0.40 and -0.43 respectively), indicating that for each, more Americans think these leaders’ religious beliefs are different than think they are similar.

Why does all this matter? Because most Americans are religious, and religion remains a lens through which many evaluate political candidates and measure their identification with them. The impact of perceived differences in religious beliefs is clearly evident in a question measuring a hypothetical vote for president.

If the vote were held today among all Americans, 44 percent of Americans report they would vote for President Obama, compared to 36 percent who say they would vote for Romney. However, among those who say Obama’s religious beliefs are somewhat or very different from their own, Romney wins over Obama 48 percent to 32 percent. Romney faces the same fate. Among those who say Romney’s religious beliefs are somewhat or very different from their own, Obama comes out strongly ahead 55 percent to 28 percent.

Much has been written about the challenges Romney may face because of his Mormon religious identity. But Obama’s continued religious identity and identification problems, which are, if different, as significant as Romney’s, have not been fully grasped. Should these perceptions hold throughout the 2012 campaign, they could have significant electoral repercussions at the ballot box.


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Discuss: ‘The Book of Mormon’ musical: Is faith funny?

The PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey was designed and conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service. Results of the survey were based on RDD telephone interviews conducted between July 14, 2011 and July 17, 2011 by professional interviewers under the direction of Opinion Research Corporation. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 1,012 adults 18 years of age or older living in private households in the continental United States. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3.0 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence.

Robert P. Jones
Written by

  • YEAL9

    If BO and Romney’s Jesus lived today, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    To wit:

    After all Jesus thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc..

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J’s gospels being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today’s followers (i.e. BO and MR et al) of Paul et al’s “magic-man” are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and “magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do they really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher man would do or say? Votes? Hmmm?

    But MR goes an additional step by believing all the hocus-pocus of Joseph Smith, one of the great con men who ever lived.

  • Carstonio

    Religious affiliation should be not be used as the basis for accepting or rejecting a candidate for political office. What matters are the candidate’s *stated* positions and views. While I don’t favor Romney’s current political position, I think it’s wrong that too many voters treat his Mormonism as a deal-breaker.

    And I’ve long suspected that the people who claim Obama is a “Muslim” are using that word as either a deliberate or inadvertent euphemism for his ethnicity and his father’s origins. In many cases, they seem to be automatically using words that mean things that are strange or threatening to them. It’s similar to how too many Westerners treat “Arab” and “Muslim” as the same thing, even though only a fifth of the world’s Muslims are Arabs.

  • SCAtheist

    Democrats and independents care a lot less about religion that the right-wingers. Therefore this is a problem for Romney, Obama not much.

    Not that it really matters of course.

  • spencer1

    Should we discriminate on the basis of religion? It seems clear that some forms of discrimination, however distasteful, are indeed justified and necessary. For example, many religious people believe, in the absolute absence of plausible evidence, in the existence of supernatural beings, and even allow their actions to be controlled by “messages” from these mythical beings. Such people can perform certain jobs, but are unsuited for jobs in which reason and intelligence are used in making decisions based on facts. Thus it is very dangerous to elect such people to political office, and the more important the office the greater the danger.

  • lufrank1

    Simple, UNFORTUNATE Truth.
    Religion IS Mankind’s BANE!

  • m-link

    I opposed the election of Kennedy back in 1960 because he was a Roman Catholic and I was against BHO also because of his suspect religious affiliations. Likewise, I also would not accept a Mormon as President.

  • arimathean

    A candidate’s “stated positions and views” are relevant only if you believe in the candidate’s honesty. Many people know that President Obama claims to be a Christian but don’t believe him. A few actually believe he is a Muslim, but I think most of the people who say he is a Muslim are wise guys who are just refusing to acknowledge his claim to be Christian.

  • Channah

    I do not care what religion a person follows, or if he follows any. It is the person-not the religion-that I care about. Too bad all people are not like this.

  • larryclyons

    religion should not matter. After all the Constitution is supposed to be the ruling document for this nation, not some 8th century BCE collection of tribal myths.

  • dennis_donaghey

    What do you expect when one network has made it policy to lie about the president? Obama is and has been a Christian. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. It really is that simple.

  • Rongoklunk

    I can only hope that one day soon people will realize there is no god, and they will laugh at the folks who still believe there is one – up in the clouds watching over us. The very idea is absurd. We can start by simply teaching our kids that as far as we know there is no god.

  • persiflage

    m-link, it appears you’ve made alot of bad decisions based on deeply held prejudices. But then, many people do that.

  • irae

    “Despite a very public falling out with his church pastor during the campaign and providing numerous testimonials of his Christian faith, President Obama faces a similar knowledge gap with the public. Only about four-in-ten (38 percent) correctly identify his religion as Christian, 18 percent continue to wrongly identify him as Muslim, and 40 percent say they do not know what his religious beliefs are.”

    So 38% possess correct, if completely irrelevant, information, 40% know the information is irrelevant and ignore it, and 18% belong to the TeaOhPee. STOP THE PRESSES!

  • irae

    I *do* exist! I *do*!!!

    -Odin

  • irae

    What flavor of Adult Imaginary Friend *do* you find appropriate for the President of the United States of America, missinglink? I’m going to hazard a guess that it’s the same one you have, which is the correct one out of the several thousand because it’s the one you picked. Does that about sum it up?

  • irae

    Equally so if the ‘voices’ emerge from an AM radio.

  • vigor

    Deliberate misinformation is at the root of calling Mr. Obama a Muslim.

    I think the Mormon’s call that “Lying for the Lord”

  • cwgmpls

    They should just take the safe, Michelle Bachmann approach, and just refuse to tell anyone what church they are a member of.

  • yvondupuis

    STop this nonsense, “by their actions they shall be known” should be the moto used not religious affiliation. Did we not learn that you can be a christian and still behave like a devil. Keep religion out of the election debate to do otherwise is bigotry pure and simple.

  • irae

    If you put a drop of raw sewage into a barrel of fine wine, you get a barrel of raw sewage.
    If you put a drop of fine wine into a barrel of raw sewage, you get a barrel of raw sewage.
    Get your Gawd delusion out of my politics, please!

  • m-link

    Well, I just believe that anyone who is President of this great nation should be a Fundamentalist Evangelical Protestant Christian, just like I am, and most of the Founding Fathers obviously were.

  • sideswiththekids

    I’m wondering why more comment hasn’t been made about both Bachmanns’ statements that “God told them” to marry each other. If one of them killed the other and claimed God had so instructed, it would be grounds for an insanity defense. Why is the content of the message more important than belief in the message itself?

  • wmpowellfan

    Funny how atheists rush to read and comment on Faith columns. (From my viewpoint as an Episcopalian.)

  • RickyGibson

    I suppose bloggers here would be calling for the author’s head for “liberal bias” if he had pointed out the fact that a great deal (if not most) of Obama’s religious perception problem is a result of DELIBERATE misinformation by the propaganda machine on the right.

    Given how easy it is to condemn a person for his religious beliefs, maybe a future column here ought to examine Genesis 1:26 where it states that God created man in His image.

    A lot of Americans are getting it backwards.