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The faith factor: Religion's new prominence in campaign 2012

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Republicans may have brought religion to the stump early this election season, but it was the Democrat in chief who really put God into play. In February, at a national prayer breakfast, Mr. Obama actually gave a scriptural rationale – "for unto whom much is given, much shall be required" (Luke) – for tax increases. But then he caused a firestorm among religious believers and sympathizers when he unleashed federal muscle against the very voters his Bible-quoting may have been designed to attract. Under Obama's Affordable Health Care Act, health insurance plans now must cover contraceptives, sterilization procedures, and what many consider abortion-inducing drugs, even for employees of Roman Catholic universities, hospitals, and charities, and other religious groups morally opposed to providing such services. A tiny, government-defined group of religious employers – mostly churches – is exempt from the mandate. As for the rest, the administration withheld from them the sort of conscience accommodations government historically offers in religious liberties situations.

In the process, the president himself created a campaign issue for the 2012 election and crystallized the intensifying and hardening political battle in America over whose beliefs matter.

As never before, religion is an issue in the 2012 election, say experts.

"Religious currents are more pervasive and more multifaceted than ever in shaping the public debate," says Allen Hertzke, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. While religion historically has influenced politics, affiliation was typically the dividing line: Protestants voted Republican and Catholics voted Democratic. "Patterns now suggest something unusual in American politics – division along the lines of salience of religion" itself, says Professor Hertzke. "This year, it has intensified."

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