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

Content Director’s Note: This post is a part of our Election Month at Patheos feature. Patheos was designed to present the world’s most compelling conversations on life’s most important questions. Please join the Facebook following for our new News and Politics Channel — and check back throughout the month for more commentary on Election 2012. Please use hashtag #PatheosElection on Twitter.

Honorable Mention:
Guns, Masculinity, a Culture of Life, & Educators on the Front Line
My Review of “Mormon Feminism”
Fractures & Hope: Reflections on Religious Higher Ed
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.