President Barack Obama waves to supporters as he arrives at the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte on Sept. 5, 2012.
For the casual viewer of the major party political conventions, the ritual presence of religious leaders (who open and close each night’s events with prayer) may be lost. But the candidates and leadership of both parties are aware of the importance of invoking religion at political conventions: two-thirds (67 percent) of voters – including 66 percent of Democrats, 58 percent of independents, and 78 percent of Republicans – say that it’s important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs.
Last week, former Mass. governor Mitt Romney and the Republican National Convention largely embraced Romney’s Mormon faith, following a well-worn civil religion approach that made general references to God and faith while avoiding the potentially controversial specifics of Mormon theology that clash with his evangelical voter base. This week, as President Obama takes the stage at the Democratic National Convention, he faces a different, but also serious, challenge about how to address his faith while he makes his case for another four years as president.
Like Romney, Obama has faced some challenges on the faith front. As Daniel Cox and I noted in a recent chapter on Obama’s faith in “Religion and the American Presidency,” Obama made his entrance to the national stage with a speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention that was full of religious language, such as traditional biblical allusions (“It is that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper — that makes this country work”) and references to contemporary Christian music (“we worship an awesome God in the blue states”). This speech was also remarkable because it broke through at a time when the “values voters” movement was on the rise and Democrats were being lambasted for being perceived as unfriendly to religion.
As a senator in 2006, Obama also delivered a stirring, personal speech about the role of faith in both his private and his public life at a Sojourners/Call to Renewal conference.Commentators rapidly seized on the historic nature of the speech. In a column titled “Obama’s Eloquent Faith,” E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post called it “the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech.”And during the 2008 campaign, the Wall Street Journal noted that the race was shaping up to be an unusual one “in which the presumptive Democratic nominee is talking more openly about his Christian beliefs than the Republican candidate.”
But in the home stretch of the 2008 campaign and as president, Obama has had the somewhat strange challenge of managing both the aftermath of a very public falling out with his Christian pastor and persistent false rumors that he is Muslim rather than Christian.
As president, Obama has mostly limited references to his faith to official occasions such as the National Prayer Breakfast, Easter or Christmas. On these occasions, he has delivered genuine and theologically specific remarks about his belief in Jesus Christ, the power of prayer, and even the significance of the agony of the crucifixion. Earlier this spring, the president also cited the Golden Rule as part of his evolution toward endorsing same-sex marriage. But the data suggests that, despite the genuineness of his faith and the eloquence with which he can express it, President Obama is not convincingly connecting with a significant number of Americans on the issue of his religious faith.
After nearly a full term in office, fewer than half (49 percent) of voters correctly identify Obama as Christian. Around 1-in-5 (17 percent) voters continue to incorrectly say that Obama is a Muslim, up from 12 percent in 2008 (12 percent). Most strikingly, about 3-in-10 (31 percent) voters say they are unsure of his religious beliefs. Other questions confirm this identification problem: only 38 percent of voters report that Obama’s religious beliefs are similar to their own, despite his membership in the United Church of Christ, one of America’s oldest Christian denominations.
This dearth of knowledge about Obama’s faith could have an impact on his ability to sway the nearly 6-in-10 (58 percent) independent voters who care about presidential candidates’ religious beliefs.
Perceiving Obama’s religious beliefs to be different from one’s own is a significant independent predictor of holding unfavorably views of Obama, even holding other relevant characteristics constant. Americans who say Obama holds somewhat or very different religious beliefs than their own have, on average, a 72 percent probability of viewing the President unfavorably, while those who said his religious beliefs were somewhat or very similar had on average just a 13 percent probability of viewing the President unfavorably.
Obama’s campaign speech is, in this sense, an opportunity to clearly spell out his deep connection to his Christian faith. But his challenge is, in many ways, greater than Romney’s. While Romney needed to connect his Mormon faith primarily to an evangelical constituency, Obama must talk about his faith in a way that connects with a wide swath of religious groups that constitute the Democratic Party base – mainline, black, and evangelical Protestants; Catholics; Jews; Muslims; Buddhists; Hindus; and others – along with the religiously unaffiliated, an increasingly politically important group. But he’s successfully threaded that needle before. He could borrow a page from his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, where, he used theological concepts and language to conjure a national vision that included religion as a unifying, rather than divisive, force.
This week, Obama has the opportunity to remind Americans, once again, of his strong religious faith. He has little to lose by choosing to weave the rhetoric of civil religion into his acceptance of the Democratic nomination. And if he can remind the substantial minority of American voters who are not aware of his faith that he is, in fact, Christian, he will have much to gain.