Religion impact pivotal to Santorum surge

Character, consistency on conservative issues may be key to Ohio win.

National polls attribute the development, in part, to white evangelical Christians choosing Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, because of his consistent positions on abortion and contraception.

Faith has been a part of nearly every presidential campaign, but experts say a candidate’s religion doesn’t matter as much as consistency in applying those beliefs.

John Green, director of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said Santorum’s rise has come from rallying elements of the conservative base, where trust and consistency are major factors.

“Santorum has been the most consistent in conservative positions — both in terms of his statements and his personal life,” Green said. “(Mitt) Romney has encountered problems on the first count, and (Newt) Gingrich on the second count.”

Doug Roe, senior pastor at The Vineyard church in Beavercreek, was one of multiple local church leaders who cited Gingrich’s extramarital affairs as a major problem.

“How a person treats his wife is a character issue,” Roe said. “Are they going to treat others the same?”

Romney’s consistency questions stem from his previous position on abortion — he was pro-choice and now says he is pro-life — and his role as the architect of the Massachusetts health care law. The law closely resembles the federal law he now says he will repeal if elected president.

Romney has a tight window to win over the voters’ trust, at least in Ohio. There are just 16 days before the Ohio Republican primary, and polls show Santorum is ahead of Romney in the state, with a Quinnipiac University poll putting the margin at 7 percentage points and a Rasmussen poll having Santorum 18 points ahead. Gingrich is third in both Ohio polls and Ron Paul fourth.

While they disagreed on many points, local church leaders and state political analysts agreed that religious voters’ trust or lack of trust in a candidate’s character will be a key to who wins Ohio.

“I think character is something people need to consider,” said Tony Stieritz, director of Catholic Social Action for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. “Their capacity to follow through on commitments, and do people trust the candidate? ... Those are legitimate questions.”

Contraception issue

It is too soon to predict the fallout from the Obama administration’s policy on contraceptive insurance for religious institutions, but this much is clear: There are mine fields on every side for presidential candidates.

Catholics, by far the largest group opposed to artificial birth control, represent about one in four adults, a large voting bloc that candidates seek out. But not all Catholics believe contraception is morally wrong, and many religions support birth control, meaning a candidate could alienate independent voters by taking a position close to that of the Catholic bishops.

Santorum, Romney and Gingrich each called Obama’s policy some variation of “a war on religion” last week. None of the GOP candidates have called for a federal ban on contraception. Their problem with the policy is forcing a religious institution to pay for something it is morally against.

“There is always some pressure to attempt to appeal to both religious and secular voters at the same time,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. “Candidates can use religion to justify their positions in these situations, but they have to hold strong positions in other areas — taxes, spending and/or foreign affairs.”

The impact of the contraception issue was reinforced last week when Santorum distanced himself from one of his main donors, Foster Friess, after Friess joked that aspirin was once an acceptable method of birth control.

Addressing religion

The remaining Republican candidates for president include two Catholics (Santorum and Gingrich), a Baptist (Paul) and a Mormon (Romney). Democratic President Barack Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ.

Speaking at the Ohio Christian Alliance meeting at a Columbus-area hotel Saturday, Santorum questioned Obama’s Christian values.

Santorum said that Obama’s agenda is “not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.”

Obama campaign deputy press secretary Ben Labolt said Santorum’s comment was “the latest low in a Republican primary campaign that has been fueled by distortions, ugliness, and searing pessimism and negativity.”

It’s not surprising that candidates try to appeal to voters on a religious level, given a 2008 Pew Forum poll in which 55 percent of Ohio respondents said religion was “very important” to them, and another 30 percent called it “somewhat important.”

But local church leaders were nearly unanimous in their skepticism of candidates’ religious pitches to voters.

“Politicians who pander use spirituality and Christianity to gain favor with voters, but the records of their lifestyles show it’s just something to win them votes,” Roe said.

Stieritz and Ginghamsburg Church Lead Pastor Mike Slaughter had similar concerns.

“On many occasions, they manipulate,” Stieritz said. “There’s a self-interest in how they try to use our teachings in their messaging. But (Catholics) should come to the debate with our values already in hand, not the way (the candidates) try to shape them.”

Slaughter, a Methodist minister, has been so concerned by the pairing of religion and politics in recent years that he co-authored a book released last month, called “Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Divide.”

“Religion reminds the state that we have a responsibility to the common good,” he said. “When religion identifies itself with one party, we lose the prophetic influence.”

Disagreement

Local church leaders acknowledged that the economy is first and foremost in the minds of many of their members, with all pointing to increased demand at their food pantries or social service outreach groups since the recession began.

Stieritz said the Catholic Church considers the economy an issue of religion as well, pointing to church teaching on economic justice and citing worries with most of the Republicans “on issues of the social safety net ... and how we support the poor.”

But from issue to issue, there is disagreement on many fronts. Green and Smith, the two political analysts, disagree on the importance of religion in the primary election. Smith says other than character issues, this will largely be an economy-driven vote. Green says the candidates have similar economic ideas, so issues such as religion will be important.

Slaughter thinks individual churches might disagree on what’s important, suggesting evangelicals and some Catholics might focus more on abortion and gay marriage, while social justice issues would be more central for mainline Protestants. Smith added that evangelicals take issue with Romney’s Mormon faith more than other voters.

And while Stieritz said the Catholic Church sees notable differences between the Republican candidates — the strength of their opposition to abortion and the openness of their immigration policies — Roe said much of his congregation sees most of the politicians the same, even including Obama, saying most are about big government and spending.

Given all those differences, the churches agreed there is no way any candidate can claim to be “the faith candidate.” But it also brings the discussion back to the issues they all agree on — trust and character.

“To the extent that religion will matter, it will do so as a shorthand for trust, morality and reliability,” Smith said.

Or as Roe put it, “Trust is a big deal.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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