Religion and the 2012 Presidential Primaries

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Jill Lepore, Harvard University, The New Yorker
Rebecca Traister, Salon, The New York Times
Alan Wolfe, Boston College

Date: April 12, 2012

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Religion continues to play a key role in presidential politics this election cycle, as new complexities mix with ongoing tensions between American religions and American political culture. Though a new poll shows increasing discomfort with the level of religious language in the current campaigns, the majority of Americans embrace some connection between faith and politics. Join us as the Boisi Center convenes three of the nation's most prominent and insightful political and cultural analysts for a robust discussion about the role of religions in the presidential campaigns thus far.

Speaker Bios

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. She is author of many books, including The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (2010); New York Burning:  Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (2005); and The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (forthcoming). A co-founder of the magazine Common-place, Lepore’s essays and reviews have also appeared in the New York Times, the Times Literary SupplementAmerican Scholar, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington PostThe Daily Beast, the Journal of American History and American Quarterly. Lepore received her B.A. in English from Tufts, an M.A. in history at University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister is an author and writer for, where she has covered women in politics, media and entertainment since October 2003. Prior to that, she was a reporter at the New York Observer, where she wrote about the film business. She is author of Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women (2010), which has been selected for the 2012 Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. She is the recipient of Women's Media Center Award and is a two-time recipient of the Newswomen's Club of New York Front Page Award. Traister has also written for ElleThe NationVogueGlamourNew York Magazine, the New York Times, and Nerve. She received a B.A. in American Studies from  Northwestern University.

Alan Wolfe

Alan Wolfe is the founding director of the Boisi Center and Professor of Political Science at Boston College. He is author of more than a dozen books, including, most recently, Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (2011), The Future of Liberalism (2009), Does American Democracy Still Work? (2006), Return to Greatness (2005), The Transformation of American Religion: How We actually Practice our Faith (2003), Moral Freedom (2001) and One Nation After All (1999). Widely considered one of the nation's most prominent public intellectuals, he is a frequent contributor to the New York TimesWashington PostThe New Republic and The Atlantic, and has delivered lectures across the United States and Europe. 

Event Photos

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Panelists Rebecca Traister,, and Alan Wolfe, Boston College, at Boston College, on April 12, 2012.

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Panelists Rebecca Traister,, Alan Wolfe, Boston College, and Jill Lepore, Harvard University.

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Audience members at Boston College, April 12, 2012.

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Panelists L to R: Rebecca Traister, Alan Wolfe, and Jill Lepore

Event Recap

To discuss the hotly contested 2012 Republican presidential primaries, the Boisi Center invited Harvard historian Jill Lepore and writer Rebecca Traister to talk with Alan Wolfe at an April 12 panel. Their wide-ranging conversation pondered the impact of what Lepore called “the politics of righteousness,” mused upon the political impact of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and Rick Santorum’s Catholicism, and predicted that the general electon is likely to serve as a national referendum on the principle that government cannot be trusted to act effectively on behalf of its citizens.

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Further Reading

Books and Articles by the Panelists

Lepore, Jill. The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton University Press, 2010). Americans have always put the past to political ends. This book tells the story of the centuries-long struggle over the meaning of the nation's founding, including the battle waged by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and evangelical Christians to "take back America."

Lepore, Jill. The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (Vintage 1999). King Philip's War, the excruciating racial war--colonists against Indians--that erupted in New England in 1675, was, in proportion to population, the bloodiest in American history. Some even argued that the massacres and outrages on both sides were too horrific to "deserve the name of a war."

Lepore, Jilll. "The Politics of Death From Abortion to Health Care--How the Hysterical Style Overtook the National Debate," in the New Yorker, November 30, 2009.

Traister, Rebecca. Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women (Free Press 2010). Traister argues that, although, the 2008 election didn’t give us our first woman president or vice president, the exhilarating campaign was nonetheless transformative for American women and for the nation.

Traister, Rebecca. "Democrats: Remember the Ladies!The Nation (Oct. 2010). Traister discusses why the Democratic party still shuns a public celebration of its female power and why it still appears hesitant to boost its strong female candidates.

Wolfe, Alan. The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Practice Our Faith. New York: The Free Press, 2003. Paperback: Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Wolfe, Alan. Is there a Culture War? A Dialogue on Values and American Public Life, co-authored with James Davidson Hunter. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2006.


About and By the Candidates

Michele Bachmann

Lizza, Ryan. "Leap of Faith," The New Yorker, August 15, 2011.

Mills, David. "Michele Bachmann, the Anti-Christ, and the Political Theologian" in First Things, July 18, 2011.

Newt Gingrich

Henneberger, Melinda. "Newt Gingrich: What Kind of Catholic Is He?" The Washington Post, December 23 2011.

Goodstein, Laurie. "Gingrich Represents New Political Era for Catholics" in The New York Times, December 17, 2011.

Bruck, Connie. "The Politics of Perception" in The New Yorker , Oct. 5, 1995.


Mitt Romney

Romney, Mitt. "Faith in America." Delivered on December 6, 2007 in College Station, Texas.

"Romney and the Mormon Factor" in The New York Times, March 25, 2012.

"Political Lessons, From a Mother’s Losing Run" in The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2012.

Renolds, David S. "CAMPAIGN STOPS; Why Evangelicals Don't Like Mormons," inThe New York Times, Jan. 26, 2012.

Rogers, James R. "Mitt Romney’s Constitutional Theology" in First Things, February 15, 2012.


Rick Santorum

Santorum, Rick. "It Is Hard to Be Catholic in Public Life," in Real Clear Religion, March 30, 2012.

Santorum, Rick. "Charge to Revive the Role of Faith in the Public Square," in Catholic Online, Sept. 14, 2010.

"Santorum’s Catholicism Proves a Draw to Evangelicals," in The New York Times, March 23, 2012.

"Santorum Fails to Capture Catholic Vote" in The New York Times, March 26, 2012.

"Santorum Writings Voice Strikingly Consistent Views" in The New York Times, March 26, 2012.


Election Resources

Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United StatesThe publication is a teaching document on the political responsibility of Catholics developed by the chairmen of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In the News

How are Catholic and Mormon presdiential candidates perceived in America today? According to the New York Times, Santorum’s Catholicism was a draw to Evangelicals (March 23, 2012). Now that Santorum has pulled out of the race, will Evangelicals support Romney?