Nones and the Republican Revival Tent

By Jeffrey Weiss

During last week's Republican national convention, there was one fast-growing demographic to which there wasn't much outreach: people of unspecific or absent religious faith.

The podium was festooned daily by people of color -- folks that the GOP finds easier to get onto a speakers' list than to the ballot box. Outreach is smart for this election and for the future, given that whites in America are on their way to plurality status.

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The demographic shift away from doctrinal religious belief isn't nearly so dramatic. But there's ample evidence it's happening. And that it affects disproportionately the self-identified independent voters in whose hands the margin of election victory may reside this year.

Where religion came up in Tampa last week, at least among the best-known and prime-time speakers, it was mostly in reference to a fairly specific notion of God. The speakers used language most familiar to a particular reading of Christianity. To be fair, much of the language would also have been familiar in the mid-1700s, as America's founders crafted their exquisite balance of freedoms and responsibilities.

But today, as many as one American in five belongs to the religious "Nones," depending on the polls you read. That's a huge leap from a couple of decades ago. And members of this group are far more likely to describe themselves as political independents than people who say they ascribe to any particular religion. They may have been more turned off than inspired by the way the Republicans wove religion and politics together.

Here are some highlights from the convention:

Ted Cruz was the surprise winner in the Texas primary for U.S. Senate. Here's a snippet from his speech:

"What is happening all across America is a Great Awakening...It's the story of our Founding Fathers, who fought and bled for freedom and then crafted the most miraculous political document ever conceived, our Constitution. The Framers understood that our rights come not from monarchs, but from God -- and that those rights are secure only when government power is restrained."

The "Great Awakening" is a term applied by religion historians to a series of bursts of religious fervor that spread to and through America during the 1700s and 1800s. The first one gave us the famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The second Great Awakening was marked by enormous tent revivals and emotional camp meetings.

In any case, it was a specifically Christian phenomenon. Which sets a context for the "miraculous" Constitution and the rights that emanate from God. Which is totally in tune with the way many Americans understand it. Maybe not so much for some of the Nones?

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, the Baptist preacher-turned-politician-turned-pundit offered up this:

"The Democrats have brought back that old dance, the limbo. To see how low they can go in attempting to limit our ability to practice our faith. But this isn't a battle about contraceptives and Catholics, but about conscience and the Creator. Let me say to you tonight, I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church, than I do about where he takes this country."

Which makes a point about God's will vis a vis birth control, while suggesting that the specifics of Mitt Romney's Mormon faith don't matter as long as he's on the side of the Creator in where he wants to take the nation. Again, music to some, discord to others.

Now to the headliners:

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio did an extended bit of faithtalk:

"And we're special -- we're special because we are united -- we're united not as a common race or ethnicity, we are bound together by common values. The family is the most important institution in society. And that almighty God is the source of all we have."

Which God is that? He goes on.

"Our national motto, 'in God we trust,' reminding us that faith in our creator is the most important American value of them all. And we are special -- we're special because we've always understood the scriptural admonition, that for everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required."

The scripture he refers to is, of course, the New Testament's Book of Luke.

Next consider the speech by Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP nominee for vice president. Given how central his understanding of his Catholic faith has been to his public, political persona, I was a little surprised I didn't find more. But there was this passage where he ties his Catholic beliefs to those of Romney's Mormon principles:

"The man who will accept your nomination is prayerful and faithful and honorable. Not only a defender of marriage, he offers an example of marriage at its best...Our faiths come together in the same moral creed. We believe that in every life, there is goodness, for every person there is hope. Each one of us was made for a reason, bearing the image and likeness of the lord of life."

A lovely turn of phrase -- ending with a clear reference to Genesis 1:27.

Let me be clear: I am not even slightly suggesting there is anything wrong or questionable or objectionable to any of this. I am suggesting that voters who are not comfortable with the claim that American governance rests on a particular reading of religion may not feel welcome in what they may feel is a GOP big tent revival.

On the other hand, the unaffiliated are no more monolithic than any other faith-identified group. According to the extensive polling done by the Pew Center, while 66% of Nones say that religious conservatives have too much influence on the GOP, 27% think that religious liberals have too much influence over the Dems. And here's how they identify themselves politically, according to Pew:

Independent -- 50 percent. That's up 7 percent since Obama was elected. Democrat -- 32 percent. Which is down 5 percent in four years. Republican -- 12 percent. Dead flat since 2008.

So in a close election, the GOP can hope to peel off those religiously unaffiliated who don't mind the explicitly religious language and lean Republican for other reasons. Those who object aren't likely to become Romney voters, anyway.

The Democrats are likely to offer a more open door to the Nones. President Obama, even in his most detailed explanations of how his Christian faith informs his ideas about governance, is careful to say that governance must rest on principles that work for people of no particular faith or no faith at all.

I found nothing remotely like that kind of tip to the legitimacy of the Nones in any of the major Tampa speeches. Check back in a week for my assessment for what happens in Charlotte.

And oh, yes. How did presidential-candidate Romney address his faith in Tampa? Mostly he did not. Surely, he offered not a hint of answers in his speech to questions I've been asking for a while about how the former Mormon bishop's understanding of LDS teachings inform his ideas about governance.

Romney promised to "guarantee America's first liberty, the freedom of religion." (Though I'll note that the first liberty in the Bill of Rights, the one that starts off the First Amendment, is more about freedom from religion: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...")

He promised that America will uphold "rights that were endowed by our creator and codified in our Constitution."

And he drew this gentle veil over differences in religious doctrine that sometimes divide Americans:

"We were -- we were Mormons. And growing up in Michigan, that might have seemed unusual or out of place, but I do not remember it that way. My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed that what church went to."

And maybe that claim -- that differences about religion should mean no more than rivalries between sports fans -- will be enough to reassure the Nones. On the other hand, I'm thinking about the history of Yankees-Red Sox, Packers-Steelers, Michigan-Ohio State.

Maybe Romney wasn't quite as reassuring as he'd hoped.

Jeffrey Weiss is a RealClearReligion columnist from Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyWeissRCR.

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