Obama flays the religion card

REUTERS President Obama answers a question from an audience member in front of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the … Continued

REUTERS

President Obama answers a question from an audience member in front of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the second presidential debate in Hempstead, N.Y. on Oct. 16, 2012.

The second presidential debate made this much clear: President Obama’s handlers in 2012 are convinced that faith and values politicking offers them nowhere near the electoral benefits it provided back in 2008.

As such, the president went light on the God talk. When former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney–for the second straight debate–spoke of us all being “children of the same God,”and mentioned his background as a pastor and a missionary, a generally feisty Obama did not return holy fire.

What accounts for Obama’s spiritual silence last night and over the past few months? One theory floated around of late is that the president has his eye on the so-called “nones.” These would be the religiously unaffiliated voters that a recent Pew Forum study indicates comprise nearly twenty percent of the electorate.


View Photo Gallery: A far more aggressive President Obama showed up for his second debate with Mitt Romney, and at moments their town-hall-style engagement felt more like a shouting match than a presidential debate.

According to the report, the religiously unaffiliated dislike faith-y-ness in politics. Too, nearly 60 percent of this cohort is situated on the Democratic side of the ledger. Might that account for a lack of winged and prayerful words from the president? After all, why antagonize a key component of the base?

That’s plausible, but a more likely explanation is that the Democrats no longer see the same targets of opportunity they did four years ago. In 2008, party strategists believed that there might be some Obama-curious “values voters”(mostly white conservative evangelicals) who were ripe for the picking. The surmise was that some in this constituency, which voted enthusiastically Republican in 2004, might either give the soulful Democratic newcomer their vote or–just as good!–sit out the election altogether.

If you ever wondered why Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren spoke at Obama’s inauguration, chalk it up to the party’s realization that it was expedient to maintain correct and cordial relations with the nation’s evangelicals (who, incidentally, comprise roughly a quarter of the nation’s electorate).

Well, the Pastor Rick Warren Experiment is probably over and this has a lot to do with the Democrats’ collision with the “religious freedom” lobby. To Obama’s great chagrin the always-formidable union of conservative Catholics and Protestants coalesced this winter in opposition to the administration’s HHS contraception mandates (requiring Catholic employers to provide access to contraception in their employees’ insurance plans).

Next, to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy, this was the biggest faith and values debacle the president ever faced. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops accused Obama of tyrannizing religious liberty and drew a line in the sand. The administration’s efforts at compromise were rebuffed. The ranks of Obama-curious conservative religious voters dwindled to statistical insignificance. The president, in turn, became Quaker-quiet on faith and values issues.

On Tuesday, in fact, Obama tried to pivot himself out of his “religious freedom” problem by recasting it as “a pocketbook issue.” Although he had been asked a question about gender-based income inequality he intentionally steered the conversation to a subject he would have been reluctant to discuss just a few months back: contraception.

Going on a risky offensive he proclaimed: “When Governor Romney says that we should eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, there are millions of women all across the country, who rely on Planned Parenthood for, not just contraceptive care, they rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings. That’s a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country.” The president continued: “In my health care bill, I said insurance companies need to provide contraceptive coverage to everybody who is insured. Because this is not just a–a health issue, it’s an economic issue for women.”

What Obama did not mention is that for the last nine months the question of contraception has been framed as a religious issue. Strangely, Romney in his follow-up didn’t mention that either. In so doing, the governor may have blundered by not pressing his advantage on a topic that always whips up his base into a frenzy.

As for Obama, his strategy seems clear: lay low of the religion stuff and wherever possible reframe the hazardous “religious freedom” debate as one about economics and women’s health.

Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor and director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and author of “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom
.”

Related content on On Faith:

Chat transcript: Brad Hirschfield on the debate

Romney proves his trustworthiness on social conservatives’ issues

Why we need feminist theology: Romney and ‘binders full of women’

Obama flays the religion card

On debates, Los Angeles rabbi: ‘Each statistic makes my spirit sink’

  • cricket44

    Since there was no “religious freedom” issue, Obama doesn’t need to pivot out of anything. It was made-up outrage because discrimination wasn’t easy anymore.

  • DRJJJ

    A healthy respect for God and decent morals is what’s need now! Most of our financial and social problems are because of poor morals & ethics!

  • postPoster10

    ONE MINOR PROBLEM WITH ROMNEY’S STORY… THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PASTOR IN THE MORMON CHURCH… HELLLLOOOOOOOO Can you say spin doctor???

  • hebaber

    Ugh. First the Obama team came up with the patronizing lable “People of Faith” for us theists and, assuming that we were all Evangelicals clinging to guns and religion, and annointed the detestable Rick Warren, hoping to appeal to us. Now he’s written us off. Once again, being a liberal Democrat, I’ll vote for him–yes, believe it or not some of us religious believers are actually liberals! I’m just sick and tired of the condescension and contempt of the political left secular elite.

  • PhilyJimi

    As a None, I cringe every time I hear a canidate blab on about god and their faith. It just reeks pandering to the low hanging fruit of the evangelicals.

  • JDale_123

    “… the nation’s evangelicals (who, incidentally, comprise roughly a quarter of the nation’s electorate)”

    Or only 3% of the electorate if measured by aggregate IQ.

  • lifelongdemocrat

    The draft-dodging, tax-dodging cult bishop is a liar.

  • TCash

    It never ceases to amaze me that one of the most technologically advanced nations on this planet still has such a huge majority population professing to believe in an invisible sky-daddy that is apparently responsible for everything around us – even in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary. How did it become so intertwined with politics?

    A ploitician here would see it as a suicide move – as Tony Bliar recognised during his presidential reign.

    I cincerely hope Romney divebombs in the important vote.

  • TCash

    What utter rubbish. You show an unhealthy disregard for the truth.

  • shanti2

    Am I missing something in your post? Tony Bliar, is presumably Tony Blair, ex Prime Minister of the UK. I can’t remember him ever running for president. Their system is very much different from ours, so any comparison of how they run is just not valid.

  • dcrswm

    I believe it’s “bishop”, so does he not know his own religion?

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