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Campaign advisers spin faith into values for Obama and Romney

BETHESDA, Md. — Faith outreach advisers for President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney would rather not talk about the religion of their respective candidates.

They prefer to steer the conversation toward values and whether those values align with the voters they are trying to mobilize.

“I feel strongly that you shouldn’t elect someone because of his faith,” said Mark DeMoss, a Southern Baptist and public relations man who advises the Romney campaign on the evangelical community. “It would be like only patronizing Christian businesses” because you’re a Christian.

That’s not to say Romney’s Mormon faith hasn’t been an issue when DeMoss has met with evangelical leaders and their followers. He explained that he has spent the past six years persuading evangelicals to judge Romney by his values and competency to be president.

“It’s more important that we share values than theology,” DeMoss said. “I would say as a conservative evangelical I have more in common in values with Mormons than I would with a liberal Southern Baptist.”

The exchange among campaign advisers took place Friday at the annual meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association. Some columnists and bloggers have expressed frustration during much of the election season that neither candidate, particularly Romney, has opened up much about his personal faith, leaving unanswered questions on a topic that polls have said is important to voters.

For Obama, his Christian faith was vetted during the 2008 campaign. But recent surveys indicate the president can’t shake the perception that he is Muslim. Still, the campaign contends it’s a non-issue.

“The president doesn’t feel it’s his responsibility to convince people about his religiosity,” said Michael Wear, national faith vote coordinator. “He has said he’s a Christian.”

Both Wear and Broderick Johnson, a senior Obama adviser who also coordinates Catholic outreach, said Obama has talked about his faith journey since 2004 and how it informs his life, so they don’t spend time elaborating on it.

“What I do on a daily basis on Catholic outreach is making sure that Catholics understand that Barack Obama leads with values that are very consistent with those of Catholics,” Johnson added.

DeMoss said a candidate’s personal faith can be instructive to voters as long as they don’t draw conclusions based on “simple labels.”

“The problem is two people with the same label can have diametrically different politics. Romney and (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid both carry the Mormon label and have very different politics,” he said.

Candidates choosing not to discuss details of their faith hasn’t kept the news media from trying to explore how Mormonism has influenced Romney. But Mormon scholars who are often sought out by journalists for comment said the stories too often focus on peculiarities of the faith and don’t draw relevant connections to Romney’s candidacy.

“Not once has a reporter asked me about the defining elements of my faith,” said Terryl Givens, a professor at the University of Richmond, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and oft quoted commentator about Mormonism, during a Saturday panel discussion. “All I get are questions about the oddities.”

Givens said Romney’s decision to avoid taking about his faith is the same thing John F. Kennedy did when his Catholicism became an issue in 1960. In Kennedy’s landmark speech before Protestant ministers in Houston, he declares his allegiance to the separation of church and state and “refuses to indulge their the curiosity into (his) Catholic beliefs,” Givens said.

“I personally don’t know if Romney made a good decision to be as reticent about his faith as he has been,” Givens said. “I would insist that’s his prerogative and it’s unfair to insist that America deserves some kind of insight into his faith through him.”

Advisers for both campaigns appear to be accurately reading public opinion in their handling of the faith angle to the election. Public opinion surveys say that in this election, while being a believer is important to voters, jobs and the economy are their biggest concerns. “Voters have limited awareness of the religious faiths of both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama,” a recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey concluded. “And there is little evidence to suggest that concerns about the candidates’ respective faiths will have a meaningful impact in the fall elections.”

Follow-up surveys by Pew have also found that the religious groups some pundits predicted could derail either Obama’s or Romney’s quest to be president are now solidly behind their candidate. Romney has 75 percent support among white evangelical voters, and 54 percent of Catholics back Obama, despite the church’s opposition to Obamacare’s contraception mandate.

Another survey found a growing number of voters becoming weary of too much religious talk by politicians.

DeMoss attributed voters’ decreased concern with a candidate’s religion to the fact that the 2012 election is the second time both candidates have been before the public and voters know more about them this time around. In addition, the economic recession has been the top issue since Obama took office, eclipsing all other topics — including religion.

In an earlier presentation at the same conference, pollsters from Marist Institute for Public Opinion cited surveys showing 86 percent of voters said the economy was their top concern, while jobs were second at 80 percent, followed by cutting spending, the federal debt, fear of a terrorist attack and health care costs.

Barbara Carvalho, director of the Marist poll, said the 2012 electorate is very polarized with half of them strongly committed to their candidate and another 25 percent leaning toward one or the other, leaving very few undecided voters.

“It looks like the final week of the campaign,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute. “It’s not about persuasion, it’s more about mobilization” to get their base to turn out and vote.