WASHINGTON (AP) — Powerful, unique and unpredictable religious crosscurrents are at work in the US presidential election and could produce subtle but significant shifts that would decide the outcome in what is shaping up to be a very close contest between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Most important are evangelical Christians, one of the most powerful and reliable voting blocs in the Republican party. Many of them are unsettled by Romney’s Mormon faith.

Many fundamentalist Christians consider Romney’s religion a sect and not Christian

Few, if any, Evangelicals will vote for Obama regardless because his support for abortion rights and his new backing of same-sex marriage are an anathema to Christian conservatives. But many fundamentalist Christians consider Romney’s religion a sect and not Christian. Furthermore, Romney’s positions on certain social issues like abortion have shifted over the years, fueling doubts among some Republicans about his conservative convictions. He now says he opposes abortion.

The question, then, becomes will Christian conservatives go to the polls?

During the Republican primary race, many Evangelicals voted for Romney’s more conservative rivals, including Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachman.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney smiles as he addresses supporters at his Super Tuesday campaign rally in Boston, Tuesday, March 6 (photo credit: AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney smiles as he addresses supporters at his Super Tuesday campaign rally in Boston, Tuesday, March 6 (photo credit: AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

“What happens to the conservative evangelical force that supported Santorum and Bachmann? My sense is that a lot of them will stay home,” said Katherine Knutson, a political scientist who studies religion and politics at Gustavus Adolphus College.

“This is such a strange election when it comes to religion,” Knutson said. “Tensions among various sectors of the religious factions make this a really unusual period.”

Right now, Obama and Romney are polling about even and that means the election will be decided in the very few US states that do not reliably vote either Republican or Democrat

It becomes all the more unusual in an election year where the economy, not social issues that normally involve religious belief, is the top issue among voters. Right now, Obama and Romney are polling about even and that means the election will be decided in the very few US states that do not reliably vote either Republican or Democrat.

In those states, independent voters will decide which man sits in the White House come January 2013. Predicting where they will fall on the issue of economy becomes even more difficult when compounded by the unknown variables of how they will decide on matters of conscience, how deeply they follow the dictates of their religion.

The unknowns are compounded by Roman Catholics who are watching as the church hierarchy sues the Obama administration over health insurance coverage for birth control, citing its belief the government is impinging on religious freedom.

Romney’s faith and the Catholic Church hierarchy’s anger at Obama over contraception health insurance coverage could prove to be critical if somewhat ‘hidden issues’

Romney’s faith and the Catholic Church hierarchy’s anger at Obama over contraception health insurance coverage could prove to be critical if somewhat “hidden issues,” says Carl Raschke, religious studies professor at the University of Denver. That will make them difficult to measure in polling as the campaign moves toward the November vote.

“Such prejudices or convictions will come into play when it comes time to pull the voting lever,” he said. “I think it could be enough to tip an election. When you are doubt, you go with your conscience.”

That could be especially important among Catholic voters. While polls show most Catholics use contraception, their church’s opposition to the Obama directive on health insurance coverage for birth control could meld with a general lack of public support for the plan. The overhaul of health care was the signature legislative achievement of Obama’s first term, a plan designed to vastly decrease the number of Americans without health insurance.

That might play against the president’s re-election as much as a poor turnout among evangelical Christians would harm Romney’s chances.

The already close race could well tip for one candidate or the other over religious issues if uncertainty among mainstream Catholics is mixed with conservative evangelicals.

For the large majority of evangelicals who do vote, they are expected to fall in line behind Romney, largely because of his positions on social issues

For the large majority of evangelicals who do vote, they are expected to fall in line behind Romney, largely because of his positions on social issues.

Tony Perkins, president of the deeply conservative and influential Family Research Council, reflected the evangelical position in a statement after Romney gave the commencement address at Liberty University. The school was founded by a now-deceased television evangelist who had a huge following.

Perkins had been slow to accept Romney as the Republican nominee and has been ambiguous in answering whether Mormonism was a Christian denomination or a sect.

Assessing the former Massachusetts governor’s appearance at Liberty, Perkins said: “Mr. Romney seized it by emphasizing the shared values he holds with evangelicals even while acknowledging theological differences.”

Beyond that, Perkins said: “Mitt Romney’s address gives me a sense of hope that he will build on this message at a time when millions of voters are reeling from President Obama’s endorsement for redefining marriage.”

While hardly a full-throated endorsement, it was a signal that a vote for Romney was the only choice for evangelicals.

Religion stands to play a role with black voters, Obama’s strongest backers. Many African-Americans have seen some of their church leaders loudly oppose Obama’s recent declaration in favor of gay marriage.

Hispanics, also predominantly Obama supporters, may be distracted as well. They are overwhelmingly members of the Catholic Church. Some will be torn between loyalty to their bishops, who are at odds with Obama on contraception, and the president, who is much preferred over Romney on issues surrounding immigration. That’s hugely important for Latino voters.

Obama himself has attended church sporadically in Washington since becoming president

Obama himself has attended church sporadically in Washington since becoming president. His religious past became a problem for him during the last presidential race when controversial sermons by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, surfaced on television and online. Obama eventually severed his ties to Wright, whom the president had credited with leading him to Christianity.

Eligible voters among the nation’s few million Muslims, not historically tied to either party but who overwhelmingly backed Obama in 2008, are disappointed with the president’s inability to budge Israel on ending Jewish settlements in land Palestinians claim as their own.

Jews, a small but powerful group of voters, historically back a Democrat but have seen Obama get uncharacteristically tough with Israel over the settlement issue. That’s had a lingering effect even though Obama has since dropped the issue in the face of a stern and public rebuke from Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.