The Top 10 Religion and Politics Stories of 2011

Four years ago, in 2007, we faith-and-values pundits were pondering Mitt Romney’s coupling of secularism and radical jihadism in a memorable December speech. We were trying to figure out why John McCain, of all people, was invoking “Christian nation” rhetoric.

We were assessing presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s many references to youthful Bible study and Sunday School taught by her mom. As for that junior senator, Barack Obama, we marveled at the newcomer’s God-talk skills. He was too green, obviously; maybe 2016 would be his time.

Nor were we really focused on those who would soon become faith-and-values Persons of Interest in 2008. Mike Huckabee only flitted across the radar late in 2007. Outside of the initiated, no one knew who the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was. And few, if any, on the religion beat had ever heard of Sarah Palin.

Which is my way of saying that that top-10 lists are loads of fun, but they often predict future political outcomes worse than the Ames Straw Poll (won by Mitt Romney in 2007 and Michele Bachmann in 2011, thank you). What follows, then, is a look back that tries to look forward. What were the biggest American politics and religion stories of 2011, and how might they play out in the presidential campaign of 2012?

10. Occupy Wall Street and the Religious Left: Missed Opportunity? Ever since the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s—or maybe since the unraveling of the civil-rights coalition in the 1960s—observers have been wondering when (or if) the Religious Left would ever re-mobilize as a political force to be reckoned with.

Occupy Wall Street did not start as a religious movement. Nor have the progressive faith communities that eventually joined its ranks come to play a pivotal role in its leadership or activism. Were they to do so, fairly obvious synergies would develop around issues such as poverty, corporate greed, the environment, and health care, to name just a few.

One might surmise that OWS could benefit from the organizational infrastructure, if not the respectability, of Blue churches, synagogues, and mosques, etc. As for progressives of faith, the OWS movement could provide them with something they have been sorely lacking for decades: masses of energized voters.

Whether an affinity develops in 2012 between the Occupy forces and the Religious Left, with crafty Obama operatives forging those bonds and reaping the rewards, remains to be seen.

9. The Persistence of Anti-Mormon Sentiment. Just when it seemed that anti-Mormon prejudice among evangelicals was on the wane, up jumped Pastor Robert Jeffress, who chimed in that Mormonism was a cult and Mitt Romney wasn’t a Christian.

Was this Rick Perry supporter “just being honest” and articulating the true feelings of his co-religionists? Hard to tell. Recall that Romney ran as an “evangelical Mormon” last time around. Many evangelicals backed him. They displayed an admirable willingness to put theological reservations aside and support a candidate who shared their political views.

Still, a mistrust of Mormons appears to be at least one of the factors explaining why some whit,e conservative evangelicals in Iowa have flirted with every candidate but Romney. They have careened from Michele Bachmann, to Rick Perry, to the Herminator, to, in the past few days, a surging (Catholic) Rick Santorum. It seems plausible to assume that some evangelicals, at least, just won’t vote for a Mormon.

In this light, Romney’s decision to tamp down, though not silence, religious themes on the stump was shrewd.

8. Islamophobia: What’s It Good For? The so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy of the summer of 2010 may have taught some strategists that playing the Muslim card could be useful for good, old-fashioned base-whipping-up.

Perhaps this is why 2011 brought us Donald Trump, who discerned “a very negative vibe” in the Koran. Herman Cain unleashed seasonal anti-Muslim outbursts.

Michele Bachmann, for her part, was recently tarred as an anti-Muslim bigot by Ron Paul (on the Tonight show no less!), and Rick Santorum is not unacquainted with the genre.

The practice of singling out one group of religious Americans for this type of derision is clearly odious. But does it work? Results from 2011 indicate that it does not. Purveyors of anti-Muslim rhetoric presently staff the backbench of the GOP pack. Those who do not aggressively play that card (e.g., Ron Paul, Mitt Romney) appear to be doing well in Iowa.

7. Bloomberg Holds His Ground. Much attention was paid to the controversy surrounding Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s refusal to permit clergy to speak at the 10th commemoration of 9/11 in downtown New York.

Less was said about the relevance of the challenge to Bloomberg’s “Sodom”(see below) and its unusual outcome. As for the latter, it sure is unusual that some leader in America, finally, stood up to the Religious Right. And lived to tell about it.

What we should bear in mind, however, is that only a politician like Bloomberg, who was: (1) financially reliant on no one, (2) not interested in re-election (as far as we can tell), and (3) on good terms with communities of faith in his city, could have ever dreamed of pushing back. Let there be no doubt: This was a victory for American secularism, albeit a rare one. Secularists should study the episode carefully if they want to prevail again.

6. The Swashbuckling Evangelicals. The Manhattan controversy brought something else to light: the word-and-thought-defying boldness and dynamism of the Christian Right. After all, the evangelical protesters conducted this in-your-face operation in the most secular city in the nation. How brazen was that?

More diverse (and less centralized) than some are led to think, the Religious Right is everywhere. In 2011, for example, Gothamites learned not only about the 9/11 project, but “church planting” initiatives in New York City. Then they found out about attempts to transform public schools into Christian worship spaces on Sundays.

Looking beyond the Hudson, there was the reign of the “Personhood Amendments,” which were only rebuffed after frantic mobilization and great effort.

The point is that the Christian Right is political dynamism personified. It never stops, never relents, never thinks small, and is afraid of nothing. I would add that it usually also conducts its activities within the law.

5. Catholics and Evangelicals Don’t Always Lock Arms. Yet the Christian Right is far less juggernautlike when Catholics don’t come along for the ride. On at least two occasions in 2011, the nearly unstoppable political duo of conservative evangelicals and Catholics showed signs of fracturing. The Catholic Church did not sign on to the aforementioned Personhood Amendments, nor to the 9/11 controversy. The lesson going forward is clear: Without massive Catholic buy-in, the Christian Right has a hard time achieving its goals.

4. Values Voters Are Less Interested in Values. It was the 2004 presidential election that gave us the highly controversial term “values voters.” This referred to white conservative evangelicals and, to a lesser degree, traditionalist Catholics who putatively cast their ballot on the basis of their religious values.

Some commentators suggest that these voters scrutinize the personal morality of the candidates. But 2011 belied that assertion. Conservative Christian voters have been lukewarm at best to ethically unbesmirched candidates such as Romney, Huntsman, and Santorum (not to mention unbesmirched incumbent Barack Obama). Conversely, they were willing to get galvanized by besmirched ones, be they Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and so forth.

“Values voters” was always a problematic term. Perhaps it is imprecise enough to be discarded.

3. Justice Kagan’s Dissent in Arizona School Tuition Organization v. Winn, et al. In her first dissent—and a crackling one at that—Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan lamented how difficult it had become for citizens to bring establishment-clause cases to the Court’s attention.

She warned that the decision “offers a roadmap—more truly, just a one-step instruction—to any government that wishes to insulate its financing of religious activity from legal challenge. … No taxpayer will have standing to object. However blatantly the government may violate the Establishment Clause, taxpayers cannot gain access to the federal courts.”

Still, Kagan’s demurral reminds us that 2011 was not a good year for those opposed to the blurring of lines between church and state.

2. President Obama: Innoculated. No news is sometimes good news, and the degree to which the Obama administration didn’t get into scraps about religion in 2011 is very good news for the Democrats.

Sure, there were moments of manufactured hysteria, such as the recent noise about Obama’s godless Internet Thanksgiving salutation.

Yet for the most part, neither the president’s personal faith nor his policy initiatives have created difficulties for him with mainstream religious Americans. Obama has been ostentatiously prayerful, thus preempting critique from the Religious Right. His Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships has laid low, avoiding the scandals and divisiveness that characterized George W. Bush’s mock-up, the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

In terms of not being vulnerable to the charge of being “anti-religious,” 2011 was a happy success for Obama. Secularists, needless to say, were less happy.

1. The Evangelical Vote: Fractured, Then Formidable. Pundits in 2007 were  flummoxed by the fact that not one of the early GOP frontrunners (i.e., Mitt Romney, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani) was an evangelical. Then things (momentarily) started making sense: Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who conservative Christians initially ignored, emerged from the B-List to upset Mitt Romney in Iowa.

Eager to avoid a repeat of that scenario, the GOP in 2011 offered a diverse array of menu options for conservative Christians to consider. These ranged from prayerful souls like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, to Catholics like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who speak fluent Evangelical. At present it seems unlikely that social conservatives in Iowa will coalesce around any one of them.

The lesson of 2007 and 2011 is that white conservative evangelicals are fractured in the primaries. The lesson of 2004 and 2008 is that when the ticket takes shape, they are a formidable Republican bloc. So long as someone like George W. Bush or Sarah Palin is there to inspire them, they offer between 74 percent and 80 percent of their vote to the GOP. If Mitt Romney does in fact win his party’s nomination, he will need to bear this in mind as he chooses a running mate.

Xposted at “On Faith,”


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