Armed with my little blue notebook, I ventured out into Upper Sproul last week with the intention of talking to people about how the religious beliefs of our two main presidential candidates factor into the election. I was shocked to discover that I should have been asking a much more basic question: Do Mitt Romney or Barack Obama’s religious convictions even affect voters’ choices?
My investigative misstep stemmed from my own personal opinion that Romney’s Mormonism is going to be a crucial issue in this election, given that Americans have never elected a non-Protestant president, with the exception of the Catholic John F. Kennedy.
But Mormonism did not come up at all. Not at CalDems’ table, not at the Berkeley College Republicans’ table and strangely not at the Catholic Students at Cal tent either.
However, what I did learn was that religion is still part of the political discourse, a fact which is particularly evident in debates about abortion and gay marriage. Even on Sproul, I was perplexed that I spent 20 minutes debating abortion at the Catholics at Cal tent when I had intended to speak about the presidential candidates’ religions. But then I realized — religious explanations for or against abortion rights are trying to justify legal policy. These spheres intersect, and voting for a president means voting for the candidate that defends one’s moral — and therefore political — beliefs.
For John Ng, a graduate student at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology and a practicing Catholic, “personal (religious) convictions” cannot be separated from one’s “dealings in politics.” Religious voters do not seem to be interested in compartmentalizing their religious and political opinions. UC Berkeley undergraduate student Jacob Wells, a volunteer at the tent for Catholics at Cal, very clearly stated that he is more likely to vote for Romney because “(Romney) holds positions that are more like (those of) the Catholic Church.”
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association just recently “unculted” Mormonism. Nonetheless, Mormonism does not seem to be cause for concern in voters when considering Romney’s ability to be president.
The absence of this issue genuinely surprised me. Mormonism does not veer too far away from the cultural norm. It shares a scriptural basis with Christianity, and Graham himself has urged voters to “vote for biblical values” such as those opposing abortion and supporting heterosexual marriage, thus distancing “biblical” voters from President Obama and his policies.
For Obama, who is a self-proclaimed Christian, religion has been a more complicated part of his presidential identity. He has put legislation in place that does diverge from the conservative Christian agenda, such as defending pro-abortion rights groups and making contraception more attainable for women through Obamacare.
But this is not the only difficulty that Obama faces from a religious standpoint. A small church in Texas recently posted the statement “Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim! The Capitalist, not the Communist!” on its marquee. Obama is not, and has never been, a Muslim. Yet this dangerous misconception continues to float around America and misinform voters.
In an interview with me last Monday, my UC Berkeley professor Hatem Bazian, who teaches the course “Muslims in America,” explained the power behind this common misconception of Obama being a Muslim. According to Bazian, in our current political climate, Islam is often perceived as “un-American.” By projecting a Muslim identity on the president, critics are simultaneously advancing the notion that Obama is not devoted to the “American narrative.”
With this falsehood intact, the mischaracterization has the potential to influence the election outcome. According to a Gallup poll conducted in June, 11 percent of all Americans still believe that Obama is a Muslim, while 18 percent of Republicans hold this same belief. And belief translates into action.
An unpublished study by a professor at Indiana University conducted earlier this year showed that once in the voting booth, the American public is 49.37 percent less likely to vote for a Muslim candidate for any office simply because of the religion. “Obama the Muslim” is therefore not just sticks and stones – this false rumor could have a real impact on the election.
I have thus come face to face with a paradox: Religion may not emerge in the political dialogue around our presidential candidates outright, but it is employed as a mitigating and desecrating force to inform a voting public. It’s up to voters to decide whether or not we want to let religious beliefs determine who our next president is. And while I fear that religion and hot-button religio-moral issues may take precedence in deciding who to vote for, I hope that all voters consider their candidates as comprehensively as possible. We are a nation of Christians, Catholics, Muslims and more who must share one leader that represents us all.