Republicans need to think a lot about religion for the 2016 cycle. The social issues, one of the three traditional legs of the Republican stool, seem at best to be an uphill battle. The religious landscape of the nation seems to be undergoing a huge shift. With such things going on, the relationship between the party and religious folk is going to change. Republicans have to be thinking hard about how to message into this rapidly changing environment (something grossly complicated by the current enormous shifts in communication technology and technique) and how to capture and build loyalty in a group that is increasingly diverse and scattered. The good news is that while religious practice and affiliation is undergoing radical changes, religiosity itself remains steady.
That said, the Democrat friendly media, taking cues from the current administration and building on the religious tones and undertones of the last two cycles seems to have figured out exactly how they want to play religion in the next cycle and are very anxious to get to it.
The president’s speeches on religion of the last couple of weeks make it plain that he, and presumably most Democrats since he is their spokesman and leader, view religion as some sort of oddity. They clearly do not think there is any actual super-nature and therefore do not think of different religions as resulting from genuine efforts to arrive at an understanding of that which is by definition outside of our direct experience. Rather they seem to view religion on purely sociological terms – viewing religions as quaint systems of explaining that which is unexplainable to those simply not smart enough to understand what is really going on. When religion is viewed in such terms it is something to be manipulated by those smart enough to “get it” as opposed to something worthy of genuine devotion and study.
The last two cycles have featured a Republican presidential candidate seriously devoted to a religion that is generally considered outside the mainstream of traditional American religiosity. The current religious demographics of the nation would indicate that Mormonism is not nearly so far outside the mainstream of American religious practice as popularly perceived, but in media and politics perception is reality. Nonetheless, the perceived oddity of Mormonism was used to defeat Mitt Romney in the primaries in 2008 and in the general election in 2012. In 2008 the issue was played quite openly by the media. In 2012, the issue was played in the background like Muzak on an elevator. No one payed attention to it, but everybody heard it. In both cycles the issue was played as a wedge to divide and therefore weaken the party.
Such manipulation of religion on the political stage can only be accomplished when one views religion as cynically as the Democrats and their willing media allies do. It is problematic for people of serious faith to combat this manipulation because their own devotion makes it very difficult to obtain the levels of objectivity necessary to do so. For us, religious differences matter and to manipulate our faith “feels” somehow a compromise to our devoutness.
Scott Walker, one of the 2016 Republican frontrunners, has been in middle of this soup this weekend because of comments he made in London a week or two ago on evolution (which really is more of a religion issue that a science one) and questions he suffered this weekend in the wake of comments made by Rudy Giuliani at a fund raiser where Walker was present. Walker is attempting to extract himself from the issue by pointing out that all of the questioning is either outside the context that he is addressing at the moment or by pointing reporters back at the people that made the actual comment.
Frankly, until we of faith can create enough distance from our religious devotion to see how it is being used to divide, and therefore defeat us; taking the issue off the table looks like the most expedient option open to a candidate. Even one whose personal religious devotion is quite plain, as it is in Walker’s life. One wishes for a better way for Walker, or any other candidate, to go in circumstances like these, but at the moment it seems like any other response will be divisive. By comparison, avoidance does not look so bad.
Unless people of faith can unite across their various theological, sectarian, and minor issue boundaries, look for religion in 2016 to be a battle between the media trying to push it to the fore to divide Republicans and the candidates trying desperately to push it into the background. In 2012 Romney successfully pushed the issue into the background, but there is data suggesting that such muted turnout and helped Obama win. The successful candidate is the one that is going to be able to lead the party and religious leaders in keeping the issue on the table while not allowing it to be divisive.