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Religious talk by politicians: a touchstone issue dividing America

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Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

If you're looking for a single issue that can reliably separate the supporters of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Pres. Barack Obama, here's the question to ask: Do political leaders talk too much about religious faith or prayer?

A new survey by the Pew Research Center reveals that an increasing number of voters feel they are getting too much religious talk from politicians. Furthermore, the survey also illustrates that asking voters their feelings about how political leaders treat faith and prayer creates a stark dividing line that clearly separates the respective voting bases of the three most prominent presidential candidates.

By way of illustration, consider the portion of each voting base that says, yes, political leaders do talk too much about religious faith or prayer: 33 percent of Romney supporters feel that way, 16 percent of Santorum's base and 52 percent of Obama-friendly voters.

As those numbers suggest, the Pew Research Center's new data also depicts a broad divide between the way Republicans and Democrats feel about the role of religion in politics.

"On the whole, Republicans and people who lean right are much more inclined to grant religion a place in political discourse than are Democrats and those who lean left," Callum Borchers wrote Wednesday in analyzing the Pew survey for the Boston Globe. "Those numbers correspond to people’s impressions of how friendly the country’s two major political parties are toward religion. The Republican Party is religion-friendly, 54 percent said. Just 35 percent said the same of the Democratic Party."

While Santorum's supporters are doubtless the most likely to embrace political leaders talking about faith, prayer and religion, Timothy Egan blogged for the New York Times on Wednesday about a highly compelling paradox inherent in Santorum's campaign: the relatively popular candidate who is overtly Catholic just can't find a way to attract support from his fellow Catholics.

"Rick Santorum doesn’t just wear his religion on his sleeve, he billboards it in neon," Egan wrote. "Still, for all the flash and sparks generated by an ostentatiously Catholic candidate’s crusade for the presidency, one thing has been missing from most discussions: the actual Catholic voter. But with Tuesday’s primary results, we now have extensive exit polling from three major states in the Catholic belt across the Midwest. … A majority of Republican Catholic voters are giving a thumb’s down to Santorum."

After noting that Santorum's base is primarily evangelical Christian, Egan then did something very interesting: he carried the rationale undergirding the relationship connecting religious affiliation and voter preference through to its logical end. His conclusion: the fact that many Catholics won't let their religious conviction prevent them from voting for a Mormon like Romney illustrates why it's such poor form for large numbers of evangelicals to exclude a candidate from consideration solely on the basis of religion.

"National polls show that those who consider Romney’s religion a problem are more likely to be evangelical Christians, again, Santorum’s followers," Egan wrote. "They’re religious bigots; there’s no other way to say it.

"Many, if not most, of these same Santorum evangelicals make up a significant percentage of the Republican base who still think — in the worst kind of reality-denial — that Obama is a Muslim."