When Politicians Want It Both Ways
Personal questions about faith should be off-limits, but questions about how faith informs policy shouldn’t, representatives of the Obama and Romney campaigns told reporters at the Religion Newswriters Assocation annual meeting in Bethesda, Maryland, October 5.
Speaking as an unpaid senior adviser to the Romney campaign, Mark DeMoss said he concluded six years ago that Romney, with whom he shares “common values” but “different doctrinal or theological backgrounds,” is “uniquely qualified and competent to be the president.” The fact that Romney (a Mormon) is “a man of faith” is a “bonus,” said the evangelical DeMoss.
“I feel strongly that no one should vote for any candidate at any level because of their faith. … That mindset, in my view, is similar to a Christian yellow-pages mentality … where you would just patronize Christian-owned businesses,” DeMoss explained. People generally look for quality and competence in daily life decisions, he said. “If the selected competent choice happens to be a person of faith, that might be seen as a bonus. If they happen to be a person of similar faith, maybe that’s a double bonus.”
DeMoss alone represented the Romney campaign at the discussion moderated by CNN Belief Blog editor Dan Gilgoff. Two representatives spoke for the Obama campaign: senior Obama campaign adviser and head of Catholic outreach Broderick Johnson and national faith coordinator Michael Wear.
“It’s fundamentally important that we can’t tell reporters what to ask and we can’t control those factors, but from our campaign … and Governor Romney’s campaign, personal faith is off-limits,” said Wear.
“Barack Obama has been more willing than many Democratic candidates to talk about how his faith informs him,” said Johnson. But, he said, neither candidate talks about how they practice their faith. Johnson seemed to contradict himself when he later said, “How they practice their faith and their values does matter and gives people an important set of barometers to make decisions about who they’re going to vote for.”
Wear also referred journalists to President Obama’s convention speech as evidence that his faith informs his decisions. In that speech, Obama quoted Abraham Lincoln’s statement about the pressures of the presidency sending him to his knees. “That wasn’t an off-hand gesture; it was actually a reference he made in his [National] Prayer Breakfast speech. … So this is something that he’s talked about, but he talks about it on his own terms,” said Wear.
After the panel discussion UrbanFaith asked Wear if the Obama campaign’s tone has changed from 2008 when then-Senator Obama spoke eloquently and personally about his faith during a Saddleback Church discussion with the Rev. Rick Warren and Senator John McCain in Lake Forest, California.
“I’d say our priority on the faith vote is in talking about the choice that people of faith have in this election,” said Wear. “The president doesn’t think that it’s his job to go out and convince folks about his faith. …It’s something very personal to him and it’s something that he’s not going to be tried about. He’s not going to manufacture things.” The best “on-the-record statement” about the president’s faith can be found in his recent interview with the National Cathedral magazine, Wear said.
Asked why President Obama was so forthcoming four years ago at Saddleback, Wear said the president didn’t bring the subject up and was “introducing himself to the American people.” “[They] wanted to know who he was,” said Wear.
Coincidentally, the Pew Research Center distributed a quiz to RNA journalists in Bethesda that included a question about whether more or less Americans question President Obama’s faith identity in 2012 than did in 2008. The organization reported earlier this year that in 2008, 55% of survey respondents identified the president as a Christian, while only 49% do so now. Four years ago, 12% thought the president was a Muslim. That figure has risen to 17%.
All three campaign surrogates advocated a broader range of issues that are informed by faith than so-called “culture war” concerns like abortion and same-sex marriage. Among those mentioned were the economy, tax policy, immigration, and heath-care reform. Wear said that if faith is a daily part of politicians’ lives, “they’re going to be looking through that lens on all their decisions.”
What do you think?
Should questions about the candidates’ faith be off-limits?