Evangelicals ponder their vote, Mormons, national debt

Religion will likely play less a role than political preference

By TOM KISKEN Scripps Howard News Service Published:

It's been a long, strange campaign for evangelical Christians.

Making up about 25 percent of the voting public, they remain a force that could turn the presidential election. But as the Republican National Convention concluded Thursday in Tampa, Fla., they're faced with a GOP ticket -- with a Mormon at the top -- that doesn't mirror their beliefs.

While many conservative Protestants speak of issues such as abortion, school prayer and marriage, they also link the Bible to secular targets, like the $16 trillion national debt. And members of a faith movement that often tie their votes directly to God say values and issues are more important than specific beliefs.

"I'm for Romney," said the Rev. Steve Larson of The Bridge church in Newbury Park, Calif. "It's certainly not because of his religion. It's more in spite of his religion."

Like many evangelicals, Larson doesn't consider Republican candidate Mitt Romney a Christian because of his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But he also thinks that measuring stick won't emerge because of the ferocity of the battle between the right and the left.

"I think people are so polarized right now, I think it would be hard for a Christian who is politically conservative to vote for President (Barack) Obama," Larson said, adding his vote is determined primarily not by a candidate's religion but by the direction he thinks the person would take the country.

Added Larson: "And if you were on the liberal side, it would be hard for you to vote for Romney right now." (Christians in the political center and left point to the Bible's directives to protect the poor and "the least of these.")

But if religion is a huge issue for some, it barely registers with many others. A national poll by the Pew Research Center said four of 10 voters don't know or don't believe Romney is a Mormon. Half know Obama is Christian, with 17 percent thinking he's Muslim.

It appears evangelical voters have decided the religious identity of the candidates is not as important as the issues, whether they are faith-based like abortion or tied directly to the economy, said Diane Winston. The University of Southern California professor has studied the intersection of religion and politics for 30 years.

"It's a tremendous shift in American politics," she said. "This would have been unthinkable 25 years ago: the fact that white evangelicals see beyond religious labels and instead rally around defining issues."

John Green, a political scientist who studies religion and government at the University of Akron, said the white evangelicals who vote will likely vote Republican. But he thinks there's a chance that lack of enthusiasm about the choices could mean some people won't vote.

Many inside the evangelical world resent the perception that they all vote for the same party and the same candidates. The Rev. Mark Almlie, leader of Simi Covenant Church in California, said he has church members who are Democrats and others who are Republicans.

"I get very concerned elevating a political party and somehow making that synonymous with one's religious outlook," he said, also expressing concern that a faith group is viewed as a political bloc.

"It's not my job to preach politics," he said. "It's my job to preach Jesus."

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