Will 2012 be remembered as the year of the religious left?
It’s already known as the year that America’s vaunted evangelical-political machine finally ran out of gas.
On almost every imaginable front, the religious right suffered terrible defeats: Same-sex marriage prevailed in all four states where voters considered it, marking the first time that the public, instead of the courts, has endorsed same-sex marriage. Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana made comments about rape that did little to help their party’s bid for control of the U.S. Senate, but also alienated millions of voters outside their respective states and dealt a blow to the anti-abortion movement in general. Voters even showed more love for stoners than they did for church officials, passing state initiatives in Washington and Colorado that lift the prohibition against cannabis while ignoring numerous injunctions to defend “religious freedom” by voting President Obama out of office.
This is not to say that evangelicals fell short for lack of trying. For the presidential race, Billy Graham himself came perilously close to dropping his normal pretense to non-partisanship. Less than a month before Election Day, he met with Mitt Romney and offered to do “all I can to help you,” short of offering a formal endorsement. But Romney — and much else besides — still lost.
James Guth, a political scientist at Furman University, tells the New York Times that the 2012 elections show the “Republican constituency is going to be shrinking on the religious end as well as the ethnic end.” Along with shrinkage on the right, however, there’s also been new strength among church-going liberals. The “Nuns on the Bus, ”a group backed by a Catholic social-justice group that launched a cross-country bus trip over the summer to spread the word against the Paul Ryan budget, have helped to create the impression that such folk exist. Sister Simone Campbell, the leader of the “Nuns on the Bus,” also made appearances on MSNBC and other news outlets, while delivering a well-received speech at the Democratic convention in Charlotte.
The nuns have even gained enough prominence to become a right-wing target, which is perhaps the best measure of effective liberal advocacy. Here’s evidence of their surprising notoriety: this fall, when the “Nuns on the Bus” rolled into Marietta, Ohio, to meet with Republican Congressman Bill Johnson, they found the local Tea Party waiting for them. Protesters carried signs calling them the “Bums on the Bus” while others said “Romney/Ryan, Yes/Fake Nuns, No.” In the words of one demonstrator who described the protesters in a local newspaper, it was a “wonderful ecumenical group (about 60% Catholic, 40% non-Catholic) of people who turned up to protest a group of political ideologues intent to hide behind religion as a way of insulating their message from criticism.”
If the nuns have a plan to hide behind religion to avoid criticism, then the plan doesn’t seem to be working. More criticism will come if they continue to cast an unflattering light on Paul Ryan-style austerity. But the religious left is operating on ground with plenty of room to grow. On Nov. 6, voters who attend religious services once a week — or 42% of the total electorate — favored Romney over Obama by a margin of twenty percentage points, 59% to 39%.