BETHESDA, Md. – Senior faith-based advisers to President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney said the primary issue for them this election is the candidates’ values and competency, not their personal religious views.
“I don’t view myself as having a job speaking about my candidate’s faith. I’m speaking about his candidacy for the office of the president,” said Mark DeMoss, owner of a major public relations company and a volunteer Romney adviser since 2008.
Michael Wear, national faith vote coordinator for the Obama-Biden campaign, said that “from our campaign, and I would hope from Governor Romney’s campaign, personal faith is off limits, out of bounds" for reporters. "We’re talking with faith voters about what we think is really on the mind of faith voters, which is, ‘How is this person going to help my family?’”
DeMoss and Wear were joined by Broderick Johnson, a senior adviser to Obama and coordinator of the president’s Catholic outreach, in a panel discussion at the Religion Newswriters Association’s annual conference here on Friday (Oct. 5).
“While denomination doesn’t matter and shouldn’t matter, values do,” Johnson said. “And values are affected and informed by faith. How one practices their faith and values does matter and it gives people an important barometer."
Wear said Obama has been in the public eye long enough and has spoken about his Christian faith enough times that the public knows his religious views by now.
He added that the president’s faith has changed and grown after nearly four years in the White House.
He cited Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in which he quoted Abraham Lincoln, saying he was “driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction I had no place else to go.”
“Religion has a profound impact on this election,” Wear said, but it is less direct than in previous campaigns and “percolates” through a “broadening of issues.”
Faith affects Obama’s decisions on such major policy issues as health care, tax reform and the economy, Wear said.
He cited Obama’s faith-based efforts such as his “circle of protection” on economic issues protecting the poor, an “ethic of inclusion,” economic security for families, the “fatherhood initiative,” and belief that “we are our brother’s and sister’s keepers.”
Johnson said the No. 1 issue in the presidential campaign has been the economy, and that both Obama and Romney are talking about things that matter most to Americans.
While the candidates have not been, and should not be, talking about their personal faith, he said, Obama’s religious views impact his decisions on the economy.
Johnson said his outreach to U.S. Catholics is “very complicated,” and that he has been “digging deeper” into the issues through grassroots efforts knocking on doors and speaking at Catholic universities and to Catholic groups.
Speaking after the panel discussion, Johnson said in response to a reporter's question that he believes Obama is leading among Catholic voters -- despite the bishops' vehement opposition to the president's health-care plan and a requirement to provide contraceptives -- because Americans are more concerned with the economy and jobs than certain church doctrines.
DeMoss agreed during the panel discussion that jobs and the economy rocketed to the forefront for Americans in 2008 and have not budged since.
A Southern Baptist, DeMoss leads the DeMoss Group, an Atlanta public relations firm that represents such prominent clients as Billy Graham, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Campus Crusade for Christ, and Samaritan’s Purse.
He said he began helping Romney, a Mormon, six years ago because “I concluded that this man was uniquely qualified and competent to be president, and I liked as a bonus that he was a man of faith and that we had quite common values even though we had quite different doctrinal or theological backgrounds.
“I don’t go around talking about his faith; I talk about him,” DeMoss said.
Johnson said he was an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004, when Kerry, a Catholic, was scrutinized for supporting abortion, which the Catholic Church rigorously opposes.
“Religion did play a very important role in that race but it was really about divisive social issues, which I found quite troubling,” Johnson said.
DeMoss said that labels, including religious ones, can be poor indicators of a candidate’s politics.
For example, he said Romney and Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat and the Senate majority leader, “both carry the Mormon label” and are “both faithfully practicing Mormons. But they have very different politics so their faith label is only instructive to a very shallow point.”
He said he works to “shift the conversation from doctrine and theology to values.”
Neither the Democratic nor Republican advisers chose to comment on moderator Dan Gilgoff’s question about how to respond to “strong and stubborn misinformation” among some Americans who believe Obama is a Muslim.
DeMoss said his duties have shifted of late to something that he assumed the two Democratic panelists beside him “hope will be a waste of time” -- working on transition plans for a Romney presidency.