Religion Politics and Election 2012: Who Won, Who Lost and What It Means for Church-State Separation

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Religion Politics and Election 2012: Who Won, Who Lost and What It Means for Church-State Separation


Boston, Rob, Church & State


A few days before the Nov. 6 election, Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wisc., decided to offer his flock some advice. In a nutshell, it was this: Voting for Democrats could send you to hell.

Referring to the "intrinsically evil" practices of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and same-sex marriage, Ricken wrote, "Some candidates and one party have even chosen some of these as their party's or their personal political platform.

"To vote for someone in favor of these positions," he continued, "means that you could be morally 'complicit' with these choices which are intrinsically evil. This could put your own soul in jeopardy."

Ricken's missive also attacked federal regulations that make it easier for Americans to get access to birth control through health care plans, asserting that "these moves and others by the present government, will significantly alter and marginalize the role of religious institutions in our society."

Coming as it did in a battleground state, Ricken's letter was interpreted as a blindingly obvious attempt to push votes toward President Barack Obama's Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Ricken wasn't alone. In the battleground of Pennsylvania, the state's bishops joined forces to issue a letter commanding Catholics to base their votes on opposition to abortion, birth control and gay rights - an exhortation that would clearly benefit Romney.

Religion News Service reported that bishops in Peoria, Ill.; Juneau, Alaska; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Newark, N.J.; Springfield, Ill. and Brooklyn, N.Y., issued similar missives.

The tactic failed. Obama won the general election by a comfortable electoral margin and out-performed Romney with Catholic voters. One reason it may have flopped so badly is that most Catholics don't look to the bishops for voting advice. A poll issued shortly before the election showed that 86 percent of Catholics said they see no obligation to follow a cleric's instructions on how to vote.

The bishops' pro-Romney push was audacious and aggressive, and it had a counterpart across the theological divide: Religious Right groups--composed mostly of fundamentalist Protestants--went all out for the Republican candidate, mobilizing churches and issuing millions of biased "voter guides" that purported to compare the two candidates fairly but in reality promoted Romney.

In the end, it was not enough. Although national polls showed a tight race heading into the election, several crucial swing states could not be moved. Obama won in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado, Michigan and other states that Religious Right groups had targeted.

In addition, the Religious Right and its allies in the Catholic hierarchy lost a number of ballot referenda. In Florida, voters trounced Amendment 8, a measure that would have erased church-state safeguards from the state constitution. In Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Washington, voters supported marriage equality for same-sex couples. (See "Victory In Florida!," page 10.)

The Religious Right faced crushing defeats in several closely watched congressional races.

In Missouri, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, a long-time ally of the Religious Right, lost his attempt to unseat incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill after he told a St. Louis television station that women rarely get pregnant after being raped.

Republican leaders urged Akin to drop out of the race, but he refused. He retained support from several Religious Right groups, and Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association went so far as to insist that Akin's comments were "absolutely right."

McCaskill defeated Akin 54 percent to 39 percent.

Indiana Senate candidate and Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock lost to U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, 50 percent to 44 percent. Mourdock began sinking in the polls after he opposed abortion as an option for rape victims, saying God may have intended the pregnancy. …

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