The surprising religious makeup of the 2012 presidential race

For the first time in our country’s history the Republican party is set to nominate a presidential ticket that does not include a Protestant. Mitt Romney is a Mormon and his newly announced running mate Paul Ryan is a Catholic. This is not just a first for Republicans; this is the first time one of the major party tickets has not included a Protestant. And in a strange turn of events that is sure to have many WASPs scratching their heads, President Obama will be the only Protestant on either party’s ticket (Joe Biden is a Catholic). Yet this comes at a time when only 49 percent of the country is able to correctly identify President Obama as a Christian and as 17% of the country “persist(s) in the mistaken belief that the President is a Muslim.”

Here are my early thoughts, along with a few questions, about what this may mean.

1. Americans are becoming more accepting. I think this Republican ticket is a good thing because it tells me that the country is becoming much more comfortable with people in leadership that aren’t Protestant. Certainly JFK did a lot to help the nation’s view of Catholics and countless others have helped that cause as well, though even as recently as my childhood, I was taught that Catholics were not even Christians.

2. Romney’s Mormonism is still a problem. On the whole, voters seem comfortable with Romney being a Mormon. Where this comfort begins to wane, though, is with white evangelical voters (no surprise there). What is interesting here, from a political standpoint, is that even the 23 percent of white evangelical voters who are not comfortable with Romney being a Mormon “still support him over Obama by an overwhelming majority.” This support, though, is not as strong among this group as it is among others. According to Pew, “By comparison, Republican and Republican-leaning voters who are uncomfortable with his faith still prefer Romney over Obama – 93% say they will vote for him – but strong support drops to just 21%.” This decreased enthusiasm in support for Romney among white evangelical voters is tied to their overall view of Mormonism: “The greatest skepticism about whether Mormonism is a Christian faith is among white evangelicals (42% of whom say it is not).” This may not keep Republican white evangelical voters as a bloc from voting for the Romney/Ryan ticket in November, but it is likely to dampen voter turnout among this group at least some, and likely result in continued distrust, or at the least discomfort, with Mitt Romney.

3. What about Ayn Rand? Paul Ryan, a Catholic, has repeatedly expressed his praise for the atheist Russian philosopher who championed individualism, making her work required reading for his interns and crediting her as being the reason he got into politics: “But the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” Ayn Rand, of course, is a problematic figure for many Christians (not just conservative Republican Christians) who said in an interview that she was “the creator of a new code of morality, a morality not based on faith” (you can see her here in an attack ad against many Republicans’ support of Rand, cleverly titled “Ayn Rand & GOP vs. Jesus”). But it is precisely Rand’s moral code that would seem to be a sticking point for many Christians, yet Paul Ryan has said of her, “you can’t find another thinker or writer who did a better job of describing and laying out the moral case for capitalism than Ayn Rand.” Will Ryan’s support of Rand and praise for her moral case for capitalism hurt the Romney/Ryan ticket in November? That’s yet to be seen, but what does seem clear to me is that this potentially gives white evangelical voters yet another reason to be weary of the Romney/Ryan ticket. (I am not saying that they should be weary of the ticket for this reason, only that they may. Also, I am well aware that liking some aspect of a particular thinker’s ideas by no means compels one to subscribe to every part of the world view she espouses.)

P.S. Romney and Ryan both seem to have “Catholic problems” that aren’t just related to Ayn Rand.

4. But I thought religion didn’t matter in politics anymore? In a March study, the Pew Forum released numbers that say religion may not be as important a factor in politics as it once was, as more are now saying they see too much religious talk by politicians: “The number of people who say there has been too much religious talk by political leaders stands at an all-time high since the Pew Research Center began asking the question more than a decade ago.” That number is now at 38 percent. Further, as we dig deeper into this study we find that a majority (54 percent) of Americans think that “churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters.” This is a move in the right direction for those of us who support the (very Baptist) separation of church and state and organizations like the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

So, what does all of this mean? To be honest, I have no idea. I thoroughly think that more religious variety in our country’s leadership is a good thing, though I do think we have a long way to go to truly have no religious test for the office of the Presidency (a majority, 52 percent, still express reservations about voting for an atheist). I’m a political junky and I’m excited to watch the presidential race play out over the next three months for many reasons. But one of the facets of the campaigns that interests me most is this intersection of religion and politics.




Thomas Whitley

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Thomas Whitley holds a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Divinity from Gardner-Webb University. He is currently working on a PhD in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University. He regularly writes on religion, technology, and politics at

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  • advancedatheist

    I suspect that Rand really bothers the left because her influence shows the limits of progressive social engineering and indoctrination. She bypassed the left’s propaganda channels in education, academia and government by going straight to the market with her alternative humanism, and she found enthusiastic customers who bought and studied her works with discretionary income, when they clearly didn’t have to. The Rand phenomenon provides an example of a Hayekian spontaneous order: No central planner mandated the introduction of her philosophy into the culture. People responded to her message organically and voluntarily, and in defiance of what progressives want them to believe and do. 

    Progressives and many conservatives try to dismiss Rand, with some justification, as a kook, a sociopath and an ignoramus. But her success in culture-jamming progressivism while energizing a certain kind of conservatism shows that her world view must have some compelling things going for it, despite its deficiencies. What does it say about progressivism that her philosophy looks like a better deal to many Americans, even if they don’t buy the whole Randian package?