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Religion and the Remaining Republican Primaries360°ANALYSIS

An overview and analysis of the role of religion in the most recent Republican primary elections.

The results of the Tuesday primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, two heavily Republican states, have thrown another wrench into the campaign of front-runner Mitt Romney. Mr. Romney’s main opponent, Rick Santorum, emerged victorious – largely due to the strength of his religious support base.

With 89 delegates between the two southern states, Mr. Santorum needed to win each state in order to narrow Mr. Romney’s healthy lead and pull ahead of third place contender, former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. Over the next three weeks there will be six more contests worth a total of 368 delegates, more than enough to close the 232-delegate gap between Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum. As the Republican Party has grown increasingly dependent on the evangelical voters prevalent in southern states, Mr. Romney is no longer perceived as the only contender with a chance of defeating President Obama in November.

Even though both Mr. Gingrich and Congressman Ron Paul remain in the race, neither has the momentum to catch up with either Mr. Romney or, as of the latest primaries, Mr. Santorum. This change in the race’s dynamic highlights the unique religious perspectives of each candidate: Mr. Romney is a devout Mormon whereas Mr. Santorum is a fundamentalist Catholic. It is because of these distinct religious views that the Republican nominee may remain undecided for several months.

Mr. Romney has shied away from focusing his campaign on his religious views, as Mormonism is an often-misunderstood sect of the American religious experience. Despite a large Mormon population in Utah, questions asked by the media at the start of the primaries indicated potential voter concern that Mr. Romney was not Christian – even though Mormonism is an offshoot of Christianity. One aspect of Mr. Romney’s appeal to moderate voters is his preference to steer away from analytical discussions of his faith and instead focus on his credentials for the presidency. By not allowing religion to drive his campaign, he has enhanced his appeal as an electable Republican who can attract the moderates; which will be of the greatest concern to the Republicans and Democrats come November.

While Mr. Romney has separated the political from the religious in his campaign, Mr. Santorum has chosen to make it a selling point of his candidacy. A devout Catholic, Mr. Santorum has said that the assertion by former President John Kennedy, a Catholic, that “the separation of church and state is absolute” is “not America.” He also claims that President Kennedy was wrong to rely upon his conscience and not his faith while making executive decisions. Along with his position against stem-cell research and evolution as the primary theory taught in public schools, Mr. Santorum has campaigned as a candidate that will be guided solely by his religious views if elected to the presidency.

Despite being the dominant front-runner throughout this primary election, Mr. Romney has failed to garner significant emotional support from the Republican voters, something at which Mr. Santorum has excelled. By utilizing his religious positions, Mr. Santorum has been able to grow his support through the evangelical base of the party. According to the Pew Research Center, Santorum is the candidate of choice among evangelical voters in which “it matters a ‘great deal’ to them that a candidate shares their religious beliefs.”

In the key states of Alabama and Mississippi, Mr. Santorum was also able to land a blow against President Obama. In recent polls conducted by Public Policy Polling, only 14% and 12% of voters, respectively, believed that President Obama is a Christian. Mr. Santorum was able to capitalize on these results when he recently claimed that the president’s theology was “phony…not a theology based on the Bible.” In reinforcing his own religious standing, while also expressing doubt in the faith of the president, Mr. Santorum established the precedent that he is the candidate capable of revitalizing the evangelical base.

The issue now facing Republican voters in the remaining primaries is whether or not a revitalized religious base will be enough to defeat President Obama and his liberal to moderate supporters. Former President George W. Bush won the White House in 2000 by unifying the religious base against two left-wing candidates, but with only one opponent in the upcoming election will the evangelical vote be enough? If Mr. Romney becomes the nominee, then he will need to maintain his electability with moderates while also finding a way to attract Mr. Santorum’s evangelical supporters.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.