Religion Playing Bigger Role in Election Than Was Expected; Meetings of the Missouri Baptist Convention, Church of God in Christ Will Be Downtown.; ELECTION 2012 - Religion and Politics

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As the presidential candidates move into the final week before Election Day, representatives of two groups that pollsters like to classify into religious voting blocs will descend on St. Louis.

Annual meetings of the Missouri Baptist Convention (largely white evangelicals) and the Church of God in Christ (largely black Protestants) will take place in downtown St. Louis in the next two weeks.

While, officially, politics will exist only in the background at both meetings, as worship services and church business matters take precedence, it's not a surprise to church leaders that the looming date of Nov. 6 will be the elephant and donkey in the room at both meetings.

Many political experts expected worries about the economy to drive the debate this election year. And they have.

Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research group, said the election has been "overwhelmingly" about the economy and health care, and yet "religion is playing a supporting actor role this year, and not lead role."

But religion also has reared its head this political season more than many had expected. Supporting actors are important to a film, and several religious issues have tried to steal the show this year:

In the spring and summer, Catholic bishops staged prayer rallies, marches, worship services and lectures in a campaign for "religious liberty," hoping to galvanize opposition to a rule announced in January by President Barack Obama's administration that said religiously affiliated institutions, such as universities and hospitals, must soon include free birth control coverage in their employee health insurance.

Early indications from evangelicals that many would resist Mitt Romney as a candidate because of his Mormon faith faded during the general election campaign. Nevertheless, a national conversation about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began, leading to what many have called a "Mormon Moment."

A report this month from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Americans claiming no religious affiliation had become the largest voting bloc in the Democratic Party.

Comments about rape from Christian conservative Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate - Missouri's Todd Akin and Indiana's Richard Mourdock - have roiled their own candidacies and focused a spotlight on the relationship between the Republican Party and American women.

DIFFERING GROUPS

The two religious conventions being held in St. Louis in many ways represent the bookends of political partisanship and religious affiliation. The Missouri Baptist Convention leans right, and the Church of God in Christ leans left.

Indeed, according to Pew, white evangelical voters at 73 percent, according to the most recent numbers, are Romney's largest base of support. At 21 percent, they are the least likely to vote for Obama.

Black Protestant voters are even more unified - 87 percent told Pew they would vote for Obama, while only 5 percent said they intended to vote for Romney.

But at both of the upcoming religious conventions in St. Louis, political discussion will likely remain in the background.

"We do not have any items on the agenda related specifically to the election," said Rob Phillips, a spokesman for the Missouri Baptist Convention. But, he said, there's "no doubt, the election will come up in informal discussions and private conversations."

The Missouri Baptist Convention's annual meeting will bring more than 1,000 people or "messengers" representing the state's 525,000 Southern Baptists, to the Millennium Hotel today through Wednesday.

The organization is a fellowship of nearly 2,000 congregations that cooperate with the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. …