In 2008, "values voters" contributed significantly to Barack Obama's smashing victory. This year, the president has his hands full with them - and not only with Catholics, some of whom protested his decision to require Catholic institutions to insure contraceptives.
A new Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life poll shows Republicans gaining ground among all major U.S. religious groups - Catholics, white evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Mormons, Jews.
The trends among white mainline Protestants and young evangelicals are particularly important. In a close election, which this one likely will be, they could bolster the GOP.
Seemingly forever, white mainline Protestants were a pillar of the Republican Party. Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, et al. formed the civic backbone of many American communities. Their ministers and theologians may have been relatively liberal, but most of those in the pews reliably voted Republican.
In 2008, Obama scored a coup of sorts: White mainline Protestants were split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Now, they favor Republicans by a 12-point margin.
Obama also wowed some evangelicals under 30 in 2008. Most were Republican, but he appealed to those with a passion for social justice, racial equality, and the environment.
Today, the story is different. Young, white evangelicals are trending Republican in a major way.
Even some Jewish voters have broken from the Democratic Party. In 2008, 72 percent identified with Democrats. Today, only 65 percent do.
So what are we to make of this trend? Some of it is surely related to unease in the land. Jim Denison, a Southern Baptist minister, put it this way on a Dallas Morning News blog: "We're afraid of the next terrorist attack and the possibility of war with Iran. We're afraid for our financial future. ... We're afraid for our culture, with immorality leading the news each day. To the degree that Americans view the Republican Party as representing strength in war, financial stability, and moral certitude, they are more likely to support its candidates."
That unease may be even more acute among voters whose faith shapes their politics. As Denison also wrote, "People of faith are perhaps more likely to be concerned about the moral trajectory of our nation, and therefore more likely to seek leaders who reflect their concerns and reflect their values."
The improving economic news will allay some of the unease. But Obama strategists can hardly ignore these trends. If left unaddressed, they would hurt him in November.
Also, the White House already can hear a general-election theme taking shape: that the president is at war with religion.
Rick Perry started it when he declared that Obama is hostile to religion. Echoes of that charge were heard in a congressional hearing last week about the contraception flap. Baptist theologian Craig Mitchell told legislators, "This mandate, in the name of health care, seems designed to offend those who have religiously informed moral sensibilities."
The charge that the president is at war with religion is bogus; he'd have to be at war with himself. The president doesn't appear to be a regular churchgoer, but he talks personally about his faith and meets with ministers, and theology oozes from his speeches about the common good.
But he opened the door for critics by requiring Catholic institutions to provide insurance that covers contraceptives. He backpedaled from that mandate, but the damage was done: He served up religious freedom as an issue for opponents.
How he handles the criticism will determine if he holds on to enough "values voters" to win a second term.