Presidential Faith: When Difference Matters

Does a candidate’s faith matter?

Judging from voters in recent years, and in the 2012 election cycle, the answer is yes, especially if you think it’s sufficiently different.

Last year, over at, I was inspired by a question from a former student:

“So I was trying to remember what we talked about in class last year, is it a cult?”

This was the question that a student popped in my office to ask recently.  She’d overheard some chatter about the Republican presidential primary, and recalled that in my introductory class on Christianity we talked about Mormonism.  I’m not sure exactly what or who she had recently heard, but I am confident that the chatter was because of Pastor Robert Jeffress’ recent comments about Mitt Romney’s religion at the Values Voter Summit in October:  “That is a mainstream view, that Mormonism is a cult.”

Following that event, a slew of political and religious commentaries emerged offering their opinions on whether or not Mormons are Christians.  This included Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, definitively proclaiming that Mormonism “is not orthodox Christianity in a new form or another branch of the Christian tradition.”

David French, writing at Patheos, has done a good job of deconstructing the many issues involved when some Christians declaim other Christians as not real Christians.  To be clear, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints clearly and definitively articulates its belief in salvation through faith in Jesus Christ:  “If we believe in Jesus Christ, follow His teachings, and repent when we commit sins, His Atonement, or sacrifice, can wash us clean of our sins and make us worthy to return to God’s presence.” 

My response to the student in my office started with that fact:  Mormons consider themselves Christians.  As a teacher and scholar, I told her, I’m more interested in talking about who doesn’t, and why?

Mitt Romney’s religion has been a very interesting tool for “othering” him by those who don’t like him and don’t trust him.  We saw this more in the Republican primary than I think we are seeing it now in the general election, because those to whom it matters are the conservative evangelical Christians constituting the GOP base.

And, despite the fact that Barack Obama has spoken extensively about his Christian faith, about becoming a Christian by choice as an adult, his opponents have tried to cast his “otherness” as religious.  Here’s why I think they are doing it:  It’s not really acceptable to say that you don’t like him because he’s black, but if you invent the idea that he’s a secret Muslim, then you have reason to oppose him.

Here’s how I addressed the issue of Obama’s faith earlier on this blog:

The only self-avowed born-again Christian in this elite group of four.  Theologically, the most aligned with conservative Christian voters (many of whom don’t think that either Catholics or Mormons are Christians).  But Barack Obama is the one from whom those same voters flee in fear, calling him a Muslim as if the hint of such a thing can effectively discredit him.

Aaron Blake pointed out at The Washington Post a few weeks ago:

“President Obama’s “religion” may be just as much of a liability as Mitt Romney’s (actual) Mormon religion. 

“According to a new poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more people are concerned about Obama’s religion (19 percent) than about Romney’s (13 percent). 

“The reason?  The unbelievable number of Americans, now numbering 17 percent, who for some reason think the president is a Muslim.

“So while there has been a lot of consternation about whether Americans will be hesitant to vote for a Mormon like Romney, misinformation about Obama’s religion may matter just as much come November.”

As I was last year, as I was just a couple of months ago, I’m astonished that for some voters, an imaginary Muslim is still worse than a real Mormon.

It seems then, that a presidential candidate’s faith matters most when it’s “different” … a tool for othering him. 

So much for our pluralistic democracy.

 Obama photo via

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About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • Jettboy

    A true Pluralistic society allows for others to disagree that what a person calls themselves is really that thing. It also allows for those who disagree with those same people. Your version of a pluralistic society is really thought police. By the way, most believe that Obama is a Muslim because he believes in or had attended for 20 years a church that taught Black Liberation Theology. To many Christians that is more or less Islam in Christian disguise. In a way that proves your theory, but not for the reasons you think. For most Christians (especially orthodox) there is only Sin Liberation Theology.

    • Caryn Riswold

      Wow. You have no idea what black liberation theology is. I’ll be writing about that soon.

      • Pseudonym

        I look forward to that, actually. I’m not American, so I’m completely ignorant on this stuff.

        As a matter of curiosity, is it related to womanism?

        • Caryn Riswold

          Womanism, in part, grows out of the space between black liberation theology’s lack of attention to sexism, and white feminist theology’s lack of attention to racism, so … yes in a way. Inspired by the poetry of Alice Walker, defining a womanist.

  • Adam

    I found it interesting that in the VP debate, since both were Catholic and religion could not “other” them from each other, their views of abortion were then put in the spotlight to create clear discinctions. It seems like “othering” has become a central strategy of debates for elections! I understand it is important to know where folks differ, but focusing so much on distancing themselves from others makes it hard to clearly see who they are.

    • Caryn Riswold

      I agree. And harder to see our shared humanity and common concerns, thus harder to talk about them. :-(

  • Sam Smith

    I’ve never understood why it would even matter if the president was a Muslim.

    • Caryn Riswold

      Exactly. It shouldn’t. It doesn’t to me. It apparently does for a whole lot of folks, though, which is sad and frightening.

    • pagansister

      I agree with you Sam Smith (and Caryn) that the “religion” of a president should be of no concern. What is sad is those who STILL think that our current President is a “secret Muslim” feel that ALL Muslims are “bad” and untrustworthy due to the events in the Middle East. They have piled all Muslims into a group, just like those those who pile all Jews or Catholics or Baptists, or Methodists, etc (or Blacks, Hispanics, etc) . into one group, and are sure that ALL those in that particular faith (culture) think the exact same thing, like robots. Truly sad.

    • Eric

      It doesn’t. “Muslim” is a code word for different (and usually, black). The people who spout that nonsense don’t care whether or not he’s a Muslim, they care that he’s different from them. It’s identity politics at the most base, and it’s ugly and repulsive.

  • jerry lynch

    “Mitt Romney’s religion has been a very interesting tool for “othering” him by those who don’t like him and don’t trust him.” And so has Mitt Romney. His “othering” has to do with, I feel, his lack of a stance on anything. There is abundant visual evidence this man is simply an opportunist. Which is politics, so good for him. If you can lie to the general public on camera and have your staff issue a furtive denial afterwards, God bless: you are living the American Ideal. Romnesia seems very much real. But that does not address the point of this article.

    What faith a candidate belongs to is of no concern. What faith a candidate follows sincerely is of the utmost concern. Yet is a pluralistic society, growing more so almost by the minute, the neutral character of the Constitution gradually becomes more binding. The fundamental ideal in this country is equality (despite a history to the contrary). A candidate’s faith may say marriage between gays is fundamentally wrong, yet the Constitution bot encourages and applauds it. How is he to choose as the defender of the Constitution?

    Why a president’s faith may be important, to the degree in which they practice, is that it can signal whether or not we are getting the truth.

    This is the question: if the religious tenets we honor and grew up following can be suspended for a campaign, does religion matter? Romney has completely, seriously, done so. If you think socialism is an evil and anti-American, wait until the Red Tide takes all of your rights to protect “the American Way.”

  • Mark Curran

    Ive been fascinated with Mormon religion for 30 years, since I first read the book of Mormon and heard ex Mormons speak about it. The most amazing thing to me was how it started. Its the newest religion and it seems the goal of the men who founded it was to mesmerize and control women.

    According to ex Mormons, they are taught that in the afterlife, the succesful Morman man turns into a God — and HE — that God who was man on this earth — decides where his wives spend eternity, on which planet! The men get their own planet, to be God of. But their wives go where he decides. The audacity of the Mormon religious founders is something to behold. The book of MOrmon itself is apparently made up of many parts of the KJ bible, paraphrased, as if someone wanted to make some changes. They used “verily” and “Saith” a lot, it was actually comical. As if the Angel appeared to Smith and was stuck in old England language.

    Yet for all it’s apparently fakery, the few Mormons I knew who stayed in the church were hard working men and women, with the woman utterly devoted and obedient to the husband. WHich the husband seemed happy with. And the woman felt validated by Mormonism. Was it true? It didn’t matter, they seemed to share the same religion or delusion, which ever you prefer.

    It’s a bit scary to see a fake religion, because it make you realize, how much of my faith is like that?

  • pagansister

    My brother-in-law is a Mormon, and my sister is not. She remained a Methodist. My sister has worked since she was 16 and out of the home during their now 32 year marriage. Their 2 girls were introduced to both faiths as they grew up. One decided to be a Mormon, the other a Methodist. Believe me when I tell you, my sister is not controlled by my brother-in-law and my Mormon niece is 25, unmarried, has a college degree, and is planning on a career. She has not married and started a family, like many of the young women in her church. My other niece has just graduated and is looking for a position in the film industry. So not all Mormon women marry their Mormon sweetheart and stay at home and have 5 kids (though they are totally encouraged to do so). Somehow I don’t think my brother-in-law is going to do any deciding on my sister’s afterlife. My sister has been basically tole, however (not by my brother-in-law) that she won’t be in their heaven with him when she dies. She isn’t too worried —

  • jerry lynch

    Love when they say “play the racist card.” Once said, even the most blatant racism becomes watered down, just this oversensitive political correctness without any basis in fact. Run an ad complaining about welfare and show just white people hard at work (paying for those slackers), and the picture is clear: racism. Obama’s “base” is not featured, excpt to infer they are the slackers. Ah, infer: therein is the problem. Without anyone stating directly that whites work and blacks collect welfare from their sweat, it is a wildly oversensitive conspiracy theory. When both Pomney and Ryan talk about the “base” of Obama behind closed doors, they are clear. No bout adoubt it.