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Mormon? Catholic? Religious labels matter less in 2012 campaign
First Published Sep 04 2012 07:31 pm • Last Updated Sep 04 2012 07:31 pm

There aren’t any white Protestants from a major political party on the presidential ballot this year — a first in U.S. history.

Instead, the contest features two Catholic candidates for vice president, and a Mormon Republican and African-American mainline Protestant for president.

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Perhaps lucky for all of them, voters care more about issues such as social justice or gay marriage than they do about denominational brands.

That’s particularly true for Republican Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan, who hope to woo evangelical voters sharing their values rather than their theology.

It’s a situation that probably would have baffled famous evangelicals such as the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who used abortion in the 1970s and ’80s to turn evangelicals into a powerhouse voting bloc among Republicans.

"If you had told Jerry Falwell back in 1980 that by 2012 that there would not be a white Protestant on the ticket, he would have died right there," said Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

But the same dynamic doesn’t bother David French of Columbia, Tenn., a blogger at EvangelicalsforMitt.org. He wants a candidate who shares his values, not his theology.

"The real questions are: Is this person pro-life? Are they pro-marriage? Is this person really conservative?" French said.

The answer to all three of those questions is yes for Romney, he said, and that’s more important than the fact that some evangelicals see Romney’s Mormon beliefs as heretical.

He also said that Americans in general no longer worry about denominational labels. French, for example, grew up attending a Church of Christ and now attends a conservative Presbyterian church. A Pew Forum study in 2008 found that 44 percent of Americans have changed faiths at least once.

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"We are moving well past being obsessed with religious affiliation or denominational labels," he said.

But Casey said having a Mormon and Catholic on the ticket could be risky for Republicans because both groups have been seen as suspect in the past by evangelicals.

Casey, who worked on religious outreach for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, said the prospect of voting for an LDS candidate may keep some evangelicals at home.

"I am not looking for a record evangelical turnout this time," said Casey, who wrote a book about the anti-Catholicism in 1960 that nearly kept John F. Kennedy out of the White House.

According to CNN exit polls in 2008, about three-quarters of evangelicals voted for Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee for president. During the election, McCain touted the fact that he attended a Baptist church.

A quarter voted for Obama, who joined a United Church of Christ in his 20s. Among the evangelicals who voted for Obama was John Lamb, a Southern Baptist from Nashville. He plans to back Obama again. His main concern is immigration reform.

"I am dismayed at the lack of concern for the poor and for disenfranchised immigrants in this country," he said.

Lamb doubts that denominational labels make much difference to voters. He points out that former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were Southern Baptists, and evangelicals opposed them both.

But it’s not just the voters who downplay denominational identity.

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