With nine more months left of speeches, debates, campaigning and commercials, the controversial topic of religion in the political realm inevitably travels back to the forefront of some discussions. Many political experts say personal religious beliefs of presidential candidates can impact the public’s opinion in negative and positive ways.
Paul Beck, professor of political science at Ohio State, said candidates need to be clear about their faith.
“People who are deeply religious value congruity between themselves and the particular candidate running,” Beck said.
While faith can be considered a factor, there are more criteria to be considered, Beck said.
“Most Americans are willing to consider (religion) among other things in making that decision, in terms of the general election,” Beck said.
The personal religious beliefs of candidates are sometimes impossible to ignore, but some students think too much focus on religion can be a bad thing.
“I definitely at least take it into consideration as part of a candidate’s makeup, although it is honestly one of the lesser things I focus on,” said Andrew Schlabach, a third-year in electrical and computer engineering. “However, if a candidate makes it a point to really focus on religion as a core piece of their platform, it throws up red warning flags.”
Carrie Kirkland, a fourth-year in political science, shared a similar opinion on government leaders applying faith to policy.
“I don’t think they should universally apply their faith because not everyone has the same faith,” Kirkland said. “Presidents are making decisions for the nation and internationally. These decisions impact everybody.”
While religion in politics is often portrayed in the media, Beck said he doesn’t think the topic is blown out of proportion.
“The media is doing its job in reporting what’s there,” Beck said. “Not to say the media does not influence public opinion, and vice versa.”
The misconception that President Barack Obama is actually Muslim and not Christian has followed him since his 2008 campaign. And chatter about Republican nominee-hopeful Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith is still going strong.
In order for Romney to be successful, “people need to see Mitt Romney as Mitt Romney and not ‘The Mormon,'” said Nathaniel Swigger, a political science professor at OSU-Newark.
Protestant Christian Americans historically display a trend of uncertainty and mistrust toward any political figure who is not of the same or similar faith, Swigger said.
Decades ago, some suspected John F. Kennedy, the first and only Catholic president, would put loyalty to the Pope in front of his country. Many thought Kennedy’s faith would prohibit him from becoming president. Kennedy ended up winning the election despite general concerns about his faith.
Swigger said atheism, on other side of the religious spectrum, might arguably present its own challenge in the opinion of the public.
“Atheism is a tough sell,” Swigger said. “A lot of people are simply not comfortable with the idea of people not sharing beliefs. We’ll see a female president long before we’ll see an atheist.”
Whether it is an excess of or a lack of faith, Kirkland said she still feels the impact as a voter.
However, when it comes down to it, “religion is relevant to the public on the surface when choosing a presidential candidate,” Kirkland said. “However, it boils down to how that religious belief, or lack thereof, is reflected through his or her choices and actions.”