ANNAPOLIS – The 2012 presidential candidates are discussing their religiosity like never before, and an increasing number of voters don’t seem to like it.
Religion is not new in American elections.
Jimmy Carter ran as a born-again Christian in 1976, and Republicans have used religion as a political tool at least since the rise of Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority.
But perhaps not since the election of 1800, when Francophile Thomas Jefferson was labeled ungodly and immoral by Federalist opponents, has so much attention been paid to religious issues, said Mark Silk, a professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
The Republican candidates in particular have emphasized the influence of religion on their political positions.
“At least in modern times, there’s never been as much attention to religious issues,” Silk said.
But as Maryland prepares for its Tuesday primary, a recently released poll shows candidates’ religious appeals are making American voters increasingly uneasy.
Approximately 38 percent of Americans feel there has been too much expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders this election, according to a Pew Research Center study released earlier this month.
Thirty percent said there has been too little and 25 percent the right amount, but the percentage of those saying there has been too much has increased to an all-time high across party lines, says the report.
It’s not just voters who are concerned.
Recently, a coalition of 14 national religious organizations released an “Interfaith Statement of Principles,” urging candidates to avoid sowing religious discord this election cycle.
Drafted by the Anti-Defamation League, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and Interfaith Alliance, the statement goes on to say that candidates should feel free to explain their religious convictions without placing overt emphasis on them.
“I think that religion is playing a role in this election cycle unlike any in recent history,” said Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance. “Religion has entered the Republican primary as a topic of conversation.”
Gaddy is particularly concerned with Newt Gingrich’s insinuation that there is a war on religion, and Rick Santorum’s assurances he’ll translate his beliefs into public policy, as well as the fear of Muslims he says the two candidates have perpetuated throughout the GOP presidential race.
During the Florida Republican presidential debate on Jan. 26, Gingrich said a president should go to God for guidance when making decisions.
“One of the reasons I’m running, is there has been an increasingly aggressive war against religion, and in particular Christianity, in this country — largely by a secular elite and the academic news media and judicial areas,” Gingrich said. “And I frankly believe it’s important to have some leadership that stands up and says, ‘Enough, we are truly guaranteed the right of religious freedom, not religious suppression from the state.'”
More recently, Gingrich argued that President Barack Obama should be bothered by the fact that many voters perceive him to be Muslim because of his actions.
While speaking at the College of St. Mary Magdalen, in Warner, N.H., in October, Santorum raised eyebrows when he said he almost threw up upon reading John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech defending the absolute separation of church and state.
“That is not the founders’ vision. That is not the America that made the greatest country in the history of the world,” Santorum said, defending his reaction on Meet the Press. “The idea that people of faith should not be permitted in the public square to influence public policy is antithetical to the First Amendment, which says, ‘the free exercise of religion.'”
While Kennedy gave the speech at a time when Catholics and Protestants were waging political war, Santorum’s statement is indicative of the new battle between candidates advocating traditional or progressive theology this election, said John Green, a University of Akron political science professor.
“If you go back before 1980, religious appeals were almost always based on affiliation,” Green said. “What we’ve seen these days is it’s much more about you’re religiosity.”
Other candidates remain removed from this battle.
Mitt Romney, a Mormon whose religion has been questioned by some Evangelicals, has done the best job of abstaining from using religion as anything more than a point of identification, and, aside from a few comments, Obama hasn’t used his Christianity as a justification for policy, Gaddy said.
The dilemma Republican candidates face is religious appeals made to conservative Evangelicals during primary season tend to scare off independents during the national election — a threat to Santorum’s presidential hopes, in particular, because he’s most closely associated with conservative religion.
This isn’t an uncommon problem for Republican candidates transitioning to the national election, but the religious rhetoric could pose a considerable challenge to their presidential hopes, Green said.
“Religion cuts both ways,” he said. “It can mobilize people, but it can also create a backlash.”
In the Republican race, the pattern has been pretty consistent: While Romney has the support of Catholics and mainline Protestants, who are more numerous in the northeast and west, Santorum has secured the southern Evangelical vote.
None of the Republican candidates have put together the religious coalition the nominee will need to compete with Obama in the national election as of yet — even the frontrunner Romney, Green said.
“There’s a real possibility that Gov. Romney will have a real problem engaging Evangelical voters,” Green said. “But their dislike for Obama could outweigh it.”
While Republican candidates scramble to achieve this coalition, the Obama campaign largely remains above the fray.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who also serves as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, has defended Obama by attempting to move the debate away from religion.
O’Malley jabbed at Republicans for making religion a divisive issue on the campaign trail during a Politico-sponsored debate with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in February.
“President Obama is not running against The Almighty,” O’Malley said. “He is running against alternatives, who want to take us back to the failed policies that brought us record job losses and the debt that you proclaim to be so adamantly against right now, Gov. McDonnell.”