2012 a turning point for faith in politics

After going “all-in” for Mitt Romney, religious conservatives face some choices about their future role in the political square.

David Gushee

President Obama’s narrow re-election came despite fierce lobbying against him and on behalf of Mitt Romney by an array of conservative Catholic and evangelical leaders and groups. Those groups went “all in,” and they lost. Now they are licking their wounds.

Let’s recall a few of the high/low points of this religiously tinged effort:

-- Focus on the Family sent out a voter-guide flyer quoting a 2006 Obama speech to suggest that the president does not believe in or support a “Christian America.”

-- Former Baptist pastor and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said how Christians vote in this election will be “recorded for all eternity.”

-- Family Research Council leader Tony Perkins tweeted that Obamacare “seems aimed squarely at dismantling and/or silencing the family and the church.”

-- The U.S. Catholic bishops undertook a two-week “religious freedom” campaign to highlight their fight against the Obama administration’s contraception coverage requirements in health-care reform.

-- Two bishops in Illinois put out statements implying that politicians who support abortion rights reject Jesus, naming Obama as one such politician and urging Catholics to take heed.

-- Richard Land took to the pages of the Christian Post to tell Christians that they should vote for Mitt Romney in the interest of traditional Christian values.

-- Billy and Franklin Graham turned the efforts of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to warn that this might be “America’s last call” and recommended that Christians vote for the candidates opposed to gay marriage, abortion and their understanding of religious liberty.

These efforts may have had some effect:

-- White evangelicals returned to their customary voting patterns by supporting Romney at 78 percent to 21 percent over Obama. This may have helped swing Indiana and North Carolina back to the GOP side and made other state votes turn out closer than in 2008. However, Ralph Reed’s vaunted effort to increase the evangelical share of the vote seems to have failed.

-- Romney won the white Catholic vote 59 percent to 40 percent, a seven-point improvement over John McCain’s showing in 2008.

-- Those who attend religious services weekly or more often supported Romney over Obama 57 percent to 42 percent.

Obama cleaned up among Latinos, blacks, Asians, urban and Jewish voters and strongly outpolled Romney among women and younger voters. It is not too much to say that a coalition of those who have not had great social power in American history combined with a minority of those who have had such power to vote Obama a second term. Historians will be studying this transition in social power for a long time to come.

Conservative white Christians, whose strongest numbers are in the South and Midwest, now face some key choices. They can perhaps settle into a posture of bitter opposition to an America whose religious, ethical and political direction they fundamentally reject. They can ask whether their religious convictions might be able to correspond with some elements in America’s emerging future. Or they can find some way to protect their particular religious identity and practices while pulling back from apocalyptic rhetoric and fear.

It certainly appears that the majority of the pious, white church-going public simply does not find in Barack Obama’s policies and vision an America that they can accept. Fixing their gaze at the moment on abortion, the growing acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships and a perceived threat to their religious liberty, they see the Democratic/Obama vision as fundamentally ungodly and immoral. Their stated fears of divine judgment on America appear quite heartfelt.

Another way of looking at what is going on, though, can also be found within the Christian community. The growing diversity of America, together with the gradually increasing power of those who have not had power, can be seen as a positive development fitting with how Jesus always found a way to include outsiders at his table. Democratic views on a number of domestic and foreign policies sometimes are a better fit with Christian convictions than extant Republican alternatives.

The routine presence of abortion in American life is lamentable, but -- given deep patterns in our culture – it is uncertain that today's only relevant political issue is appointing Supreme Court justices who will change current law. And, regardless of where one ends up biblically on the issue, it may turn out that the growing legal and social sanctioning of gay and lesbian relationships is not a matter of apocalyptic national significance.

The president and his party have important work to do in relating to conservative faith communities deeply fearful about their future. If in fact they and their beliefs are gradually receding into a minority position, they need to know that their religious liberty will be offered robust protection. This must include congregations, institutions and parachurch organizations and reasonable workplace protections for individual believers.

Meanwhile, may all Christians return to the unifying and edifying daily work of worship, witness and service to God and neighbor.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.