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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
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