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Political Experts Discuss the Role of Religion in the Presidential Race at Robbins-Wilf Program

While religion has sharply divided voters in recent elections over issues related to same-sex marriage, abortion and separation of Church and State, and despite a Mormon heading the ticket of a major political party for the first time, religion appears less likely to affect the upcoming presidential election between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. That was the consensus among three veteran political and religious analysts who came together on Yeshiva University’s Beren Campus to discuss the impact of religion on the 2012 presidential race as part of Stern College for Women’s Dr. Marcia Robbins-Wilf Scholar-in-Residence Program on April 30.

Prof. Bryan Daves, Jeff Greenfield, Anna Greenberg and Dr. Peter Steinfels discuss the impact of religion on the presidential election at the YU Robbins-Wilf Scholar-in-Residence Program.

The event, which took place at the Schottenstein Cultural Center, addressed the role religion has played historically in presidential politics and the way that role has evolved in recent years. The panel included Jeff Greenfield, anchor of PBS’ “Need to Know”; Anna Greenberg, leading pollster and senior vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research; and Dr. Peter Steinfels, co-director of the Center for Religion and Culture at Fordham University and a former religion columnist for The New York Times.

According to the panel, two factors seemed to explain the diminished impact of religion on this election: the struggling economy and the public’s tiring of religion’s role in previous elections. The group also discussed media coverage of religion in politics, with a focus on Romney’s candidacy as the first Mormon to run for president. “Mass media’s coverage of religion is not necessarily to be celebrated,” said Greenfield. “It’s very simplistic. Anyone who has a set of religious beliefs which is not familiar to most Americans is in for a tough time.” However, he felt Romney’s faith would ultimately make little difference to Americans at the voting booths. “The economy so overhangs everything else,” said Greenfield. “People will vote for Romney thinking, ‘He’s going to get the economy going, he knows how to put people to work,’ or Obama thinking, ‘He’s going to protect the middle class from those crazy Republicans.’ ”

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Greenberg agreed that religion would play a diminished role, but warned the audience to look for its influence at the margins. She referenced recent controversy about the Obama administration’s proposal to include birth control coverage in health insurance policies. “In this kind of election, some of these seemingly random issues can play an important part in shifting a small number of people in critical ways,” said Greenberg.

Speakers also noted that the way in which religion affects voter choice has changed.  Today, it is not denomination but rather religiosity that influences how Americans vote. The more religious a voter is the more likely they are to vote Republican, the less religious the more likely to vote democratic. “Religion has always been an important factor in presidential elections,” said Steinfels. “What has changed is that religious practice has become an identifier. Once upon a time, if you were a Catholic, you were more apt to vote Democratic, and it didn’t make a difference if you were a regular church-goer or not… now it does.”

“This year is poised to be a very close election with the electorate sharply divided on their choice for president,” said Professor Bryan Daves, director of the Robbins-Wilf program, a member of the political science department at YU, and the event’s moderator. “In recent elections, matters of faith and social issues have played an important role in determining the outcome. Yeshiva University, with its dual mission of Torah U’madda, is a perfect venue to host a discussion with three prominent experts on religion and politics.”

“The topic was so relevant because many students are voting in their first presidential election and this is no doubt going to be a defining election in American history,” said journalism major and political science minor Yaelle Lasson, a Stern College sophomore. “Hearing from Anna Greenberg, a revered and prominent woman making a difference in the public sphere, was especially meaningful for me. I find her social media research fascinating and hope to implement social media use in advocacy law after college.”

Though panelists shared a sense of surprise that religious issues didn’t seem to be a focus in the 2012 election, they didn’t all feel that was necessarily bad.

“This is a country where not so long ago, religious differences were not just profound but debilitating,” said Greenfield. “They served ill purposes. The fact that the country has opened up virtually any civic job you can think of to the point where they really don’t care what religion you are—I think that’s a healthy thing.”