Politics and religion, the 2012 version

Earlier this year, evangelical Protestant leaders met in Texas to strategize about what candidate to support in the Republican primary (it apparently being their opinion that God favors Republicans).That meeting reminded folks of 1960, when Democratic candidate John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, went to Dallas to address a meeting of evangelical Protestant leaders on the subject of his religion, to dissuade them from the view that the Catholic Church somehow was an anti-democratic hierarchy whose members took their orders directly from the pope in Rome.Kennedy’s masterful performance there was a highlight of the 1960 campaign. This year, the evangelical leaders picked Rick Santorum, a Roman Catholic, as their preferred candidate over Newt Gingrich, a convert to Catholicism, apparently as an alternative to Mitt Romney, a Mormon. What a change from 1960!This campaign also says something about acceptance of the Church of Jesus Christ-Latter Day Saints in the United States.Those who know their history know that for most of its existence, Mormonism has been viewed as a “sect” or “cult” by mainstream Protestants and, in fact, was viewed as such an aberration that the U.S. government contemplated the use of armed forces against the Mormons in Utah in the 1800s.Now, two members of that faith, Romney and Jon Huntsman, could run for office and attract support as mainstream candidates and, in polls at least, their religious beliefs were not a fatal impediment (regardless of what effect that characteristic has in the voting booth).Speaking of knowledge and attitude toward religion, the New York Times, arguably the finest newspaper in the world, in reporting on candidate Newt Gingrich in January, noted that in the last 15 years, he had had “three religions.”That was patent nonsense. He has always been a Christian. What he had was membership in three different “denominations” of the Christian faith, the latest being Roman Catholic and the first being Baptist. The error says something about the attitude of the press toward religion in general, I fear, and is worse than just sloppy.In 1960, the prevalence of social issues that sometimes dominate primary races, at least in the Republican Party, was not present.Candidates talked about economics, legislative, foreign policy and other substantive issues and did not debate social issues. Perhaps this was due to the fact that there were certain commonly understood social mores and norms that were not deemed debatable.Issues like abortion, contraception, gay marriage and other “social issues” of today were not contemplated by any candidates then. In fact, on the topic of religion, all candidates had one and what was noted was what church each attended, not if the candidate attended.Religion did not seem to be the captive territory of either political party.In those days, ministers and religious leaders debated theology and the differences in religious beliefs between candidates, not how those beliefs were applied to social and policy issues.This year, in South Carolina, a state dominated by evangelical Protestant voters, Gingrich won the primary handily,, notwithstanding the fact he had been married three times, had been a member of three different churches, and had other spots on his record that at least theoretically would offend evangelicals and their theology.Maybe his protestations of conversion and redemption were credible to them and certainly, no one should judge someone else’s faith or sincerity in that regard. Nevertheless, it seems an ironic outcome.All of this makes it interesting to look at what candidates seem to have their family stability and religious devotion ignored. President Barack Obama, a man with a fine family that seems quite stable, is a steady churchgoer and professed Christian. That does not seem to do him much good with the conservative religious voting bloc.Romney, a pillar of his church, with a 42-year marriage and a fine and handsome family, also does not seem to get much credit. Candidates Santorum and Paul, on the other hand, seem to get some credit for these things.All of this points to what has happened to religion in American life since 1960. Church attendance is down, especially in places like New Hampshire and northern New England, where it seems the “gods” of much of the citizenry have changed to money, electronic devices, self-promotion and sports. This is especially true as this is written the week before the Super Bowl.One does not have to be a right-winger to decry today’s decay of moral fiber, family stability and permissive and tasteless culture at least partially due to the decline in religious participation.Maybe it is just I, but these political trends seem ironic and not particularly healthy either in the partisan discussion of religion in politics or the reality of the decline of religion in American life.Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.