Defying the notion that religion plays a major role in American politics, many college students engage in the power struggle from either side of the aisle rather than from the pew.
If observers and a Pew Research Center study are accurate, Mitt Romney’s college audience at Liberty University’s May 12 commencement ceremony was less than receptive to his remarks on his Mormon faith. The research fact tank released a study suggesting 38% of Americans are weary towards politicians invoking their faith in God too often.
Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum made headlines when he accused higher education of driving students to become non-believers, but USA TODAY found a report that challenged his perception. A 2007 Social Science Research Council report suggests 64% of university students attend a religious service less frequently than they did before college, but 76% of those who did not reach college supplied the same answer.
Dr. Chad C. Pecknold, assistant professor of historical and systematic theology at the Catholic University of America and author of Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History, said he believes university students are more encouraged to develop their political beliefs than their theological beliefs in college. Citing the Pew study, Pecknold said he believes the abundance of spiritual candidates prompts students to be more discerning with their support.
“College students are circumspect when politicians appeal to religion, unsure whether religion is being used as a tool for vote gathering, or whether their theological convictions are deeply held,” Pecknold said.
A partisan campus culture can contribute to a political orientation because there is often less pressure to form theological positions, Pecknold said. Students at other universities echo the professor’s opinion, but culture is a key factor.
Taylor Jordan, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior and former student director at the school’s Christian Student Center, said he believes the majority of college students back likeminded politicians, regardless of the leader’s political party or religion.
“I think that students want to see religion play a role to an extent, but they are much less inclined toward religion in politics than previous generations,” Jordan said.
Victoria Darling, a sophomore at Murray State University in Kentucky, said most people in her school community who do not claim a religion or who do not strictly abide by its values believe the Bible cannot satisfy political arguments. However, Darling said some members of the College Republicans belong to the Baptist Christian Ministry and actively incorporate politics at services.
“They preach about how your decisions are not only a reflection about your faith but also your political stance,” Darling said. “They believe if you have certain religious beliefs, it should dictate political decisions.”
This attitude is practiced at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn. Amanda Willhite, a senior at the Catholic university, said religion plays a pivotal role in her friends’ relationship with politics.
“I constantly see my peers’ religious beliefs affecting their political choices,” Willhite said. “Many of them shape their political beliefs around the beliefs of their subscribed religion.”
Attending a school without a religious affiliation would probably allow a student to fully explore political beliefs without any extra pressure, Willhite said.
Regardless of religious persuasion, Pecknold said college students tend to vote for the candidate whose ‘brand’ they appreciate. This mainstream platform, established by a campaign’s theme and sound bites, effectively influences students because it resonates with their sense of group identity, the professor said.
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