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John Baer: Religion taking a back seat, but not so race

COMEDIAN W. Kamau Bell says that a presidential race featuring "a Mormon vs. a black guy" is to most Americans "like Alien vs. Predator."

COMEDIAN W. Kamau Bell says that a presidential race featuring "a Mormon vs. a black guy" is to most Americans "like Alien vs. Predator."

It's a funny line. And Bell, who hosts his own TV comedy show, FX's "Totally Biased," is a funny guy.

But the line got me thinking about religion and race in the current election.

And as the campaign continues to wallow in small-minded (often surrogate) sludge, the prospect of religion and race becoming overt increases.

Better for all if that doesn't happen; at the moment, there's good news and bad news.

The good news is evidence that religion won't play a role; the bad news is evidence that race will.

Religion first.

With one candidate a Mormon and the other someone who only half of America believes is Christian, the field seems set for religious fervor.

Indeed, some bubbled up during Mitt Romney's primary run when a few evangelicals called his faith a "cult," and again when Barack Obama was accused of leading "a war against the Catholic Church."

Do these things affect the race going forward?

"I haven't seen anything so far that suggests that," says Gregory Smith, of the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The center is polling religion throughout the campaign; findings to date are interesting.

Smith, a senior researcher, says that voters are more focused on jobs and the economy than on religion or social issues, and that religion-to-party-candidate preferences are about the same as in the '08 and '04 races.

Republican Romney holds a 45-point lead over Democrat Obama among white evangelicals; Obama holds a 40-point lead over Romney among people with no religious affiliation.

Romney leads Obama 51-42 among mainstream Protestants; Obama leads Romney 53-40 among Catholics.

Romney was preferred by Catholics in April; neither candidate has held a consistent lead among the group because its membership is so diverse.

And polling specifically on religious beliefs of Romney and Obama, according to Smith, shows "limited awareness of the religion of the candidates, and [among those aware] relatively few say they are uncomfortable" with either candidate's beliefs.

There's no guarantee that some surrogate group won't hit Romney or Obama in some way connected to faith or religion. But, so far at least, nothing suggests that any such messages are in play.

I'd like to say the same about race.

But there's Romney's misleading TV ad reacting to the Obama administration's action on waivers to states on some welfare rules.

The ad was a) aimed at white, blue-collar workers, and b) written to evoke resentment of welfare recipients - too often and wrongly stereotyped as black, with lines such as: "They just send you your welfare check."

(The ad wasn't as bad as an Obama-surrogate ad blaming Romney for a woman dying of cancer because her husband lost a job and health coverage when a steel plant taken over by Bain Capital closed; but we're talking about race here.)

Then there's Joe Biden, a stone-cold lock for the Political Pandering Hall of Fame, telling a crowd in southern Virginia - in a city, Danville, where the population is 48 percent black - that Romney economics will "put y'all back in chains."

(Interestingly, the New York Times reported the quote as "put you all back in chains," when Biden clearly used a Southern "y'all.")

No amount of parsing or pointing to GOP comments about "unshackling" the economy excuses this. Biden's comments were as racially charged as you can get, and shameful.

Closer to home, the new state voter-ID law, viewed as partly aimed at the poor and elderly urban black vote that turned out in record numbers in '08, could affect the race. It could reduce that vote or fire it up.

So, what does all this suggest?

It suggests that the politics of the moment are better on religion than on race.

I'm just not sure if that helps Alien or Predator.