Religion used to be everywhere in the presidential elections. George W. Bush courted conservative believers in 2004. In 2008, Sarah Palin excited evangelicals and — unexpectedly — so did Barack Obama.
What a difference a few years make. In 2007, then-candidate Obama used evangelical language to describe his Christian conversion: He was a young, secular community organizer who occasionally visited the local Chicago church, when one day he walked to the front of the sanctuary and knelt before the cross.
"I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me," Obama recalled. "I submitted myself to his will and dedicated myself to discovering his truths and carrying out his works."
The testimony startled and intrigued some evangelicals, like David Gushee, director of Mercer University's Center for Theology and Public Life. But now, Gushee says, Obama's evangelical language has disappeared.
"So instead of, 'I love God, God loves me,' 'Here's a hymn quote' or 'Here's a Bible cite,' it's the Golden Rule. It's the common good. It's concern for the poor," Gushee says.
A Less Overt Religious Message
It's a message even nonbelievers can accept: less emphasis on Obama's Christian faith, and more about how his faith has shaped his values. Earlier this year, the president cited the Golden Rule when explaining why he supports same-sex marriage. And he uses New Testament language to connect his mainline Protestant faith to more secular issues like poverty.
"Let me tell you about values," Obama told a group in Burlington, Vt., in March. "Hard work, personal responsibility, those are values. But looking out for one another, that's a value. The idea that we're all in this together, I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper, that's a value."
Four years ago, Gushee says, Obama actively courted moderate believers in a major outreach campaign, convincing them that this was a new kind of Democratic Party.
That's not the case today. Sources say that several senior people were invited to head up the campaign but declined, because they felt the Obama administration was not serious about reaching out to believers. Now, the tiny outreach campaign is headed by a 24-year-old.
Gushee and other observers say there's a split among Obama advisers. One group is furious about the campaign ignoring the faith vote.
"But then there's another group that appears to believe that religious voters of this type are more trouble than they're worth," Gushee says. "That as soon as you think you've pleased them, they complain about something else.
"And so it seems the energy is shifting to shoring up the base of women voters, and union voters, and other kinds of voters that are a more reliable constituency," Gushee says.
Indeed, religion is something of a minefield for Obama. Many voters still believe, wrongly, that he is a Muslim. And his advisers are loath to remind people of the controversy that surrounded his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who declared, "God damn America."
But the greatest deterrent of all, says Mark Rozell, a scholar of religion and politics at George Mason University, is President Obama's record over the past four years. Rozell says conservative believers are upset with the president's support of same-sex marriage and his health care mandate that would require some religious groups to provide birth control coverage.
"I think it's quite clear from their standpoint that Obama's policies have not been friendly to their worldview and that they're going to turn out for Mitt Romney," Rozell says.
A Minefield For Both Candidates
As for GOP candidate Mitt Romney, he, too, is noticeably mum about his faith.
The Republican National Convention presented an opportunity to introduce himself to the world — and the faith that has dominated his life. But in his one reference to Mormonism, he played it down, noting that while he attended a Mormon church as a child, "my friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to."
Shaun Casey, who teaches politics and religion at Wesley Theological Seminary, says there are several reasons for Romney's reluctance to emphasize faith.
"The downside for Romney is, first of all, he's not a natural cultural warrior," says Casey, who also advised the Obama campaign in 2008.
Second, Casey says, is that every reference to Mormonism "reminds people in his conservative base that he is a Mormon and he is not an evangelical Christian."
Romney needs those voters to turn out in record numbers, Casey adds, "and the fear is there, that those folks are going to stay at home."
But despite reservations about Mormon theology, evangelicals immediately snapped into line once Romney became the Republican candidate. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, says that new unity means Romney doesn't have to spend time or money reaching those religious voters. Instead, Jones says, the GOP candidate needs to focus on voters in the middle.
"And when he makes his case more to the middle," Jones says, "I think he has to speak less in overtly religious language than he did earlier on, when he was still struggling to make the case that he was the evangelical's candidate."
Moreover, Jones says, raising religious issues has not helped Romney. Consider the most potent religion weapon: the administration's birth control mandate. That rule sparked the U.S. Catholic Bishops to launch their "Fortnight for Freedom" campaign this summer.
Romney tried to capitalize on frustration with the rule in a campaign ad that accused President Obama of using his health care plan to "declare war on religion, forcing religious institutions to go against their faith."
But the ad had little traction, pollsters say, in part because Catholics are split about the mandate. If that was Romney's silver bullet, Jones says, it appears to have been a blank.
"We don't see the Catholic support for Romney going up after the Fortnight for Freedom campaign is on the ground," he says. "In fact, we see the opposite."
Jones' polls show that Romney has seen his 20-point lead among white Catholics — critical swing voters — completely disappear. There are a lot of explanations for that — primarily, that voters are focused on the economy above faith. But Jones and others say the effect is that 2012 election is more like the days before George W. Bush — when candidates wore religion lightly, not on their sleeves.