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Longtime journalist Suarez surprised by religion’s role in 2012 election

Author and journalist Ray Suarez thought that after three decades covering politics and American society, he knew how to gauge the country’s sentiment.

When it came to handicapping the leading topics in this year’s presidential election, Suarez told an audience at DU April 24 that he counted on a tough economy, unemployment and the mortgage crisis to shove aside any focus on religion. He was way off.

Read a Q&A with Suarez here

“[I thought] who is going to have time to argue about Bible-reading in class, prayers at the flagpole and morning-after pills?” he asked a crowd of hundreds assembled at the University of Denver Newman Center for the Performing Arts. “As it turns out, I was wrong.”

Suarez has authored several books, most recently The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America, which chronicles the increasingly tight relationship between religion and politics in elections. He spoke at the final lecture in the 2011-12 Bridges to the Future series, which focused all year on the undercurrents of the 2012 presidential election.

Suarez said he has been fascinated by the role religion plays in American society and elections, considering the country was founded on ideas that include freedom of religion and separation of religion and government.

But while some 50 million Americans don’t consider themselves religious, Suarez said, a candidate’s religion plays a large role in his or her candidacy. And reporters are more and more apt to ask questions about a topic that grabs headlines and dominates water-cooler conversations.

He traced the recent rise to post-World War II America. Liberal groups at first used religion to build a platform for disenfranchised groups to find strength. And as those groups pushed for civil rights, social justice and the rights of women in the workplace, a backlash built up among conservatives. The effect gained steam in the 1960s, but it didn’t really take hold until the 1970s.

“This silent majority came off the sidelines first to put a Southerner in the White House, Jimmy Carter in 1976,” who spoke openly about his faith, Suarez said. “We hadn’t seen anything like Jimmy Carter as a major-party nominee since William Jennings Bryant.”

From that election on, religion became a key component of the race to the White House, and of lesser political contests nationwide. But it wasn’t always that way, Suarez said.

“Did you know what church Lyndon Johnson went to? Did we talk about it much?” he asked.

A voice from the crowd shouted out an answer, earning congratulations from Suarez, who pointed out that it wasn’t much of an issue when Johnson was president in the 1960s.

“Did anybody know what church Dwight Eisenhower went to?” he asked.

In this year’s election, Suarez said he thought bigger issues of the day, issues of policy, would dominate the primaries. But an assortment of candidates seeking the GOP nomination raced to the right, and to religion. Polls showed that some continued to think President Barack Obama was a Muslim. Others question if GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith constitutes Christianity, Suarez said.

The issue has become so polarizing, Suarez said, that Romney has been curtly, but politely, instructing those with questions about his religion to contact his church instead of asking him. Suarez said that concerns him.

“It should make us all a little sad,” he said. “In this country, which has been religiously neutral and has set off freedom of religion in a way that is the envy of the world, that a man feels constrained from talking about a significant part of his life in a significant way is a little sad.”



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