What the Ryan Pick Means for Religion and the Romney Campaign

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, shakes hands with his running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, before parting ways on the tarmac at Milwaukee-Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee on Aug. 12, 2012

When Mitt Romney named Paul Ryan as his running made on Saturday, he clearly differentiated his fiscal policy from that of President Obama — but his choice of Ryan also said something important about how the candidate views the politics of religion.

Romney has been mostly quiet about his Mormon faith throughout the campaign. During the Republican primary, his faith appeared to hurt him in heavily evangelical Southern states, and some have argued it could depress evangelical turnout in the fall. The selection of Ryan, a Catholic, indicates that Romney is not concerned about these Mormon-evangelical pressure points.

If he had been worried, Romney could have picked VP short-lister Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty’s former longtime pastor Leith Anderson is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Pawlenty’s role as a Romney surrogate since he dropped out of the presidential race last fall has included a lot of outreach to the evangelical community.

Instead, Romney opted for Ryan, who may be a more natural fit on religious grounds. “Historically there has not been the same level of animosity between Mormons and Catholics as between Mormons and evangelicals,” says political scientist David Campbell of Notre Dame. “Today, when we look at how people of different faiths perceive one another, Catholics actually have quite a positive perception of Mormons [and vice versa].” Catholics and Mormons have found common cause in recent years, he says, in opposing same-sex marriage.

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The press has already made much of the fact that neither Romney nor Ryan is Protestant, but Mark DeMoss, an evangelical adviser to Romney, argues that denomination is not a determining factor among evangelical voters, who lean Republican. “Since the vast majority of evangelicals are more concerned about the values of a candidate than the religion or denomination, I don’t think it matters that there is not a Protestant on the Republican ticket,” he says.

Ryan’s Catholicism is also a reminder that the U.S. has accepted politicians from faith groups it once marginalized. “The Ryan pick demonstrates how completely mainstream Catholicism has become,” says Campbell. “Romney has a religious background that makes some voters wary, not unlike Catholicism in the days of John Kennedy.” Mormonism appears to be on the same track toward widespread cultural acceptance.

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With questions of Romney’s Mormonism on the back burner, the religious focus of the campaign will likely shift to a debate about Catholic values. The church has sparred with both parties this election year. Catholic bishops supported a lawsuit against the Obama Administration’s requirement that employees of Catholic hospitals and universities receive birth control coverage. But they also attacked the House Republican budget, written by Ryan, for proposing cuts to programs that aid the poor and elderly.

Stephen Schneck, director of Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Research, explains the choice between two very different Catholic VP options (Obama’s Vice President, Joe Biden, is Catholic too): Biden’s Catholicism “is the Catholicism of our ethnic neighborhoods and union halls and St. Christopher medals on the dashboard. Congressman Ryan’s Catholicism seems different,” he says. “It’s about obedience to the bishops, about pro-life politics, and reflects the professional class of Catholics who made it out of the old neighborhood and into the suburbs.”

No matter which vision wins out, America will inaugurate a Catholic Vice President in January for only the second time in its history. Romney hopes that milestone will mark the inauguration of the first Mormon President as well.