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 week, Wheaton College, the alma mater of Billy Graham and the premier Christian liberal arts college in America, surprised many by joining the ranks of many Catholic higher-education institutions on Wednesday in filing a lawsuit to challenge the Obama administration’s mandate that employers must provide contraception. Unlike the Catholic Church, whose teachings denounce contraception, evangelical denominations have generally been more accepting of the use of birth control, and the Catholic Church has, for the most part, led the charge against the Obama administration’s new policy. Wheaton is not the first evangelical college to file such a lawsuit; that distinction belongs to Colorado Christian University, which filed its lawsuit in December 2011. However, given its sterling academic reputation and its general avoidance of engaging in political advocacy (compared with other notable evangelical institutions like Liberty or Regent University), Wheaton’s decision could help galvanize evangelical opinion on this issue.
Describing its lawsuit as a “last resort” to Christianity Today, Wheaton’s President Philip Ryken expressed concern that Wheaton College would be compelled by the government to provide what it considered “abortion-inducing” drugs (namely, emergency contraception) as part of its routine health care coverage. While the science on this issue strongly suggests that these drugs do not act as abortifacients, many evangelical theologians oppose their usage on these grounds.
But the bigger issue for Ryken and other conservative Christians is the principle of religious freedom. As he states in his interview, “Part of our interest in filing alongside a Roman Catholic institution is to help the American public see that this is a fundamental religious liberty issue and not, for example, merely an issue over contraception.”
Politically speaking, Wheaton’s decision to join the ranks of other religious institutions in fighting the Obama administration over the birth control mandate could be good news for the Romney campaign. As the May PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey shows, white evangelicals are strongly supporting Romney over Obama (68% vs. 19%), as are Tea Party supporters (76% vs. 16%). But as the Washington Post recently reported, Romney suffers from an enthusiasm gap: just 38% of Romney’s supporters back his candidacy “very enthusiastically” compared to 51% of Obama’s supporters. A move by the Romney campaign to highlight the Obama administration’s “war on religion” could get many devout, but reluctant, supporters to vote and campaign for Romney.
An emphasis on the mandate also plays into the Romney campaign’s larger campaign goal of repealing the Affordable Care Act. Although polling data, including Public Religion Research Institute’s June Religion & Politics Tracking Survey, show that Americans are largely divided on health care reform, white evangelicals and Tea Party supporters strongly oppose it. The Romney campaign has a tenuous relationship with the Tea Party, but highlighting his opposition to a controversial part of “Obamacare” and its perceived economic and religious threats to Americans as a campaign issue could help strengthen ties between Mitt Romney and both Tea Party supporters and white evangelicals, whose strong turnout he will need if he hopes to take key battleground states in November, especially in the South.
An emphasis on the birth control mandate does carry some political risk for the Romney campaign, since majorities of Americans believe that it is reasonable to require religiously affiliated institutions to comply with President Obama’s birth control mandate—especially women, who already are more likely to identify as Democrats than men,. Yet, as voters begin to look more seriously at the presidential candidates this fall, Romney will need to find ways to make a more meaningful connection to voters. Romney has spoken eloquently in the past about his belief that America is great because of its vibrant, diverse religious heritage, one that protects the ability of all religious adherents to practice their faith as they see fit. As the most public member of a minority faith himself, he has a vested and personal interest in this issue. A focus by the Romney campaign on religious liberty could not only help “rally the base,” but also humanize Romney for voters who know him only through 30-second campaign ads.