Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
Last July, only 4 in 10 Americans could correctly identify Mitt Romney’s religion. Today, a new survey shows that Americans are no more informed about Romney’s Mormon faith than they were three months ago – only 42% correctly identify him as Mormon.
This total absence of change may seem surprising, given that Romney’s Mormonism has been in the news ever since Robert Jeffress, a prominent evangelical pastor, publicly encouraged Republicans to vote for Rick Perry over Romney because Perry was a “born-again follower of Jesus Christ.” The implication – that Romney was not a Christian – has continued to inspire a lively discussion about whether Romney is being subjected to a “religious test” because of his Mormon faith. The topic of Romney’s faith even made its way into the most recent Republican debate.
Why, given all of this media attention, do Americans seem to be no more aware of Romney’s faith than they were in July? The only subgroup that showed increased knowledge of Romney’s religion were white evangelical Protestants (53% today compared to 44% in July), which makes sense considering that evangelical leaders are contributing significantly to the exchange.
Republicans (52%) and members of the Tea Party (52%) are also more likely to be able to correctly identify Romney as a Mormon than Independents (41%) or Democrats (36%). This suggests that some Independents and Democrats may not been aware of the recent fracas over Romney’s faith, simply because they’re not following the Republican primary.
However, the survey also suggests that not all Republicans are tuning in either, a finding that’s in accord with a recent survey from the Pew Research Center. According to Pew, only about a third of Republicans (36%) say they’ve watched a presidential debate this year.
In other words, while the debate over Romney’s religion may still be bouncing around the media echo chamber, chances are it hasn’t trickled down to most Americans, at least not yet.