Considering that 2012 saw the first presidential contest in which there was no white mainline Protestant anywhere on the presidential ticket, religion played a surprisingly subtle role in the election cycle. But even if religion played more of a supporting than a leading role in the election, the religion factor was nonetheless alive and well this year.
Here are the 10 most important ways religion influenced politics and culture in 2012, trimmed out with findings from 16 surveys and over 22,000 interviews conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute research team in 2012.
1) The Mormon question is finally laid to rest
We, too, thought the speculation would never end, but the "Mormon question" was essentially answered by May, when white evangelicals fell in line behind Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee. This answer was confirmed at the ballot box in November, when white evangelical Protestants, who made up nearly one-quarter (23%) of all voters in 2012, turned out at a rate comparable to 2004 and supported Romney (79%) over Obama (20%) by nearly 60 points.
The bottom line: partisanship and antipathy toward Obama ultimately trumped theological concerns about the Mormon faith among white evangelical Protestants.
2) The end of a white Christian majority
Obama's decisive victory in 2012 was largely the result of his strong support among the growing number of non-Christian, nonwhite Christian, and religiously unaffiliated voters. While white Christians made up the vast majority (81%) of Romney's vote, they comprised only 39% of Obama's coalition. Over the past few decades, Democratic presidential candidates have relied less and less on white Christian voters (e.g., white Christians were 60% of Bill Clinton's 1992 coalition), while Republican presidential voting coalitions have continued to rely on coalitions that are approximately 8-in-10 white Christian.
The bottom line: In presidential election years, there simply are no longer enough white Christian votes to overcome deficits among other demographics for Republican presidential candidates.
3) The religiously unaffiliated are not all 'nones'
Americans who identify with no particular religion now represent nearly 1 in 5 (19%) Americans, but they are not all "nones" or nonbelievers. Although more than one-third (36%) of the religiously unaffiliated are atheist or agnostic, roughly 4-in-10 (39%) of the unaffiliated identify as secular, and nearly one-quarter (23%) belong to a newly identified category of "unattached believers."
These groups differ significantly not only in their level of religious commitment and belief - most secular Americans believe in some type of God and unattached believers overwhelmingly believe in a personal God and pray with some regularity - but in who they are.
Unattached believers are more likely to be Hispanic and African-American, while the vast majority of seculars and atheists and agnostics are white. As a whole, however, religiously unaffiliated voters are fairly unengaged, politically. They strongly supported Obama (70%) over Romney (26%) in 2012, but despite representing nearly 1 in 5 Americans, they made up only 12% of voters in 2012.
The bottom line: The growth of the religiously unaffiliated is changing the American religious landscape, but it has only partially been felt at the ballot box due to lower turnout rates.
4) Jewish voters unswayed by rhetoric on Israel
Despite strenuous efforts by Republican leaders and strategists to convince Jewish voters to abandon Obama because of his record on Israel, only 4% of Jewish voters reported that Israel was the single most important factor in their vote this year.
A majority of Jewish voters reported that the economy was the most important issue in determining how they would vote. The proof was in the pudding on Election Day: Obama won 69% of the Jewish vote, a result that was lower than his support among Jewish Americans in 2008 (78%), but only slightly lower than John Kerry's level of support in 2004 (74%).
The bottom line: GOP leaders will have to expand their outreach strategy beyond the topic of Israel to reach into the American Jewish community; this will present a challenge on the domestic policy front, since American Jews strongly favor economic justice and are among the strongest supporters of rights for women, immigrants, and gay and lesbian Americans.
5) Failure to launch: Contraception mandate as religious liberty violation
Bishops sought to raise Catholics' ire against the "contraception mandate," a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires religiously affiliated organizations to provide no-cost birth control to their employees through health insurance plans. Yet, throughout the year, most Americans (55%) and a majority of Catholics (52%) agreed that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to comply with this requirement.
White Catholics were more divided, but white evangelical Protestants are notably the only religious group that remains staunchly opposed (66%) to the mandate.
The bottom line: Rank and file Catholics strongly support the principles of religious liberty, but most do not have moral objections to contraception and failed to see the religious liberty threat in the ACA.
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Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox