God on the ballot
- God on the ballot
For Bush and Kerry, religion a powerful but tricky factor
By Alex Johnson
Updated: 1:50 p.m. ET Sept. 14, 2004
Although He's regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American
- Democratic former Sen. George Mitchell
Tell it to the Republicans, senator. They're banking on Him.
President Bush, a United Methodist, built his meteoric national rise on his
appeal to conservative white evangelical Christians.
Although Bush previously had made it clear that he was "born again," he was
reluctant to discuss the details of his faith before he ran for president.
That changed in 2000, as the Bush campaign highlighted the candidate's
religious principles as the core of his proclaimed "compassionate
It paid off in 2000. Exit polls showed that Bush won 55 percent of the
Protestant vote, which made up more than half of the electorate; among white
Protestants, Bush beat Al Gore by almost 2 to 1. The support was crucial -
Gore won among every other measurable religious group, from black
Protestants to Catholics to Jews to non-believers.
For the president, paying close attention to his religious base doesn't just
make sense - it is imperative. Opinion polling shows that Americans' votes
most closely track their religious attendance. Voters who say they go to
church every week vote Republican, by overwhelming margins. Those who go to
church less frequently vote Democratic, by nearly similar proportions.
Beginning with exit polls conducted during the 2000 election, the
synchronicity has held across nearly all denominations and even faiths,
appearing among Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians.
For Bush, then, a critical goal in 2004 is to generate turnout among the
nation's most religiously observant voters. The Bush campaign sees that task
as being easiest among the president's own.
Bush's main political adviser, Karl Rove, has said he was frustrated that as
many as 4 million conservative white evangelical voters did not go to the
polls four years ago. Those voters, the campaign believes, could make the
difference in any of a number of closely divided states. In an election as
tight as this one is expected to be, when one state could make the
difference, the Republican Party has mounted a sophisticated pitch to what
it sees as its base.
Difference of opinion is helpful in religion.
- Thomas Jefferson
The president appeals to such voters across a shared belief that the Bible
is the literal Word of God. It is a faith that recognizes a very real Devil.
In fundamental terms, in other words, the president's faith divides the
world into two camps: good and evil. There is no gray. There is only right
In "Plan of Attack," his examination of the Bush administration's buildup to
the war in Iraq, Bob Woodward portrays Bush as unwavering in his belief that
his cause was righteous, not merely right. "I haven't suffered any doubt,"
Bush said in an interview with Woodward.
The president's religious conviction is the defining measure of his life,
and of his administration. Lest there be any doubt, Bush said in that book:
"I was praying for strength to do the Lord's will. ... I pray that I will be
as good a messenger of His will as possible."
In June 2003, Mahmoud Abbas, then the Palestinian prime minister, said that
in a conversation with Bush, the president told him: "God told me to strike
at al-Qaida, and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at
Saddam, which I did."
Democrats and other Americans surprised by how strongly Bush's
near-fundamentalist beliefs guide his governance can't say they weren't
warned. Throughout the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush expansively talked
about his faith and how it had rescued him from a squandered life of alcohol
and failed business ventures. But even before then, he had hinted at a more
direct connection between his beliefs and his political aspirations.
Southern Baptist television evangelist James Robison related that in a
telephone call in 1999, Bush told him, "I feel like God wants me to run for
president." The same year, said Richard Land, president of the Ethics &
Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bush told
religious leaders at a meeting that "I've heard the call. I believe God
wants me to be president."
Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what
- Mohandas K. Gandhi
Not since 1960, when Sen. John F. Kennedy chose to confront head-on the
perception that his Catholicism might disqualify him in the minds of many
voters, have the religious beliefs of the major-party candidates played so
prominent a role in the presidential election. Jimmy Carter's faith was
widely commented upon in 1976, but he stressed that he saw no "special
relationship" between God and politics, and the issue rarely came up in a
This year, Bush's frequent invocations of religious principles and faith
have raised complaints that he is blurring the line separating church and
state. Meanwhile, Bush's Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry of
Massachusetts - like Kennedy - is struggling with the demands of his
For both men, religion is a tightrope they must walk carefully.
The Bush campaign makes no secret of its hope to mobilize conservative white
evangelical voters. Doing so too aggressively, however, risks alienating not
only many moderate voters, including many Catholics, but also leaders of
some conservative denominations for which independence from secular
government is a point of principle.
For Kerry, the Democratic Party's longstanding support for abortion rights,
which he has endorsed, is condemned by Catholic doctrine. His candidacy has
become a test case for a Catholic Church task force developing guidelines
for how U.S. bishops should approach Catholic lawmakers who promote policies
opposed by the church.
Religious experience is highly intimate, and, for me, ready words are not at
- Adlai Stevenson
Catholic voters favored Gore by 50 percent to 46 percent over Bush in 2000,
exit polls showed. As a Catholic himself, Kerry would hope to do even
But the Catholic Church isn't exactly cooperating. Kerry disagrees with
church doctrine on abortion, and the controversy has occasionally slowed his
A handful of U.S. bishops said they would deny communion to
pro-abortion-rights politicians, including Kerry, and two - Archbishop
Raymond Burke of St. Louis and Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs -
said Catholics who voted for them would be guilty of a grave sin. In Los
Angeles, meanwhile, a member of an ecclesiastical court filed heresy charges
Republicans have sought to exploit Kerry's positions - he says he personally
opposes abortion but believes it is a woman's choice that must be
protected - as evidence that he is not a "good Catholic." Public opinion
polling, however, suggests that the charge could rebound.
The polling firm Belden Russonello & Stewart reported in June that 61
percent of Catholics believed abortion should be legal. Even more, 72
percent, said Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights should not
be denied communion, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted
in May, indicating that even some abortion opponents did not see the issue
as make or break.
Likewise on embryonic stem cell research. Bush issued an executive order
three years ago banning federal funding for scientific research using new
lines of stem cells harvested from human embryos. Many scientists believe
such research could lead to significant advances in treatments for Alzheimer
's and other neurological diseases, but Bush said that "even the most noble
ends do not justify any means."
The president is in line with the Vatican's stance on embryonic stem cell
research, which a spokesman said "the Holy Father has always unequivocally
condemned." Polls show that American Catholics overwhelmingly support such
research - only 15% opposed it in a survey conducted in July by Harris
The data explain, in part, why Kerry speaks so seldom about his faith. He
does not need to.
Bush's decision to target Catholics on religious grounds means he must talk
to them in explicitly religious terms. Kerry, with Catholic voters on his
side on many issues, is under no such obligation. To try to match Bush's
rhetoric would be largely superfluous, and it would risk disaffecting less
Kerry prefers to speak in terms of "values," a word that for him encompasses
not just religious principles but also "social justice" issues that have
little to do with religion. In that way, he can speak to religious voters
without invoking individual faiths.
"I don't wear my own faith on my sleeve, but faith has given me values and
hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday," Kerry
said in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.
The appeal is targeted at so-called "freestyle evangelicals," a term coined
by Steven Waldman, founder of Beliefnet.com, and John Green, a political
scientist at the University of Akron who is considered the foremost scholar
on the politics of the American evangelical movement.
Green estimates that as many as 40 percent of American evangelicals fit the
definition: theologically conservative but politically independent and more
troubled by what they see as the degradation of the world around them -
popular culture, the environment, neglect of the disadvantaged - than they
are by specific questions of doctrine. The term could apply equally as well
to moderate Catholics, giving Kerry a surprisingly large pool of religiously
conservative voters who could be open to his message.
Again, polling data suggest that Kerry is already making noticeable inroads.
In a major new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted
last month, "moral values" emerged as a key issue in the presidential
election, with 64 percent of likely voters saying it would be "very
important to my vote." Even though conventional wisdom holds that those
voters should overwhelmingly back Bush, Kerry was statistically tied -
leading by 45 percent to 41 percent, in fact, but within the margin of
error - when likely voters were asked which candidate "could do the best job
in improving the nation's moral climate."
Religion, as well as reason, confirms the soundness of those principles on
which our government has been founded and its rights asserted.
- Thomas Jefferson
Both this year's Pew survey and a similar poll the foundation conducted last
year make it clear that by a vast majority, Americans don't mind hearing
their political leaders talk about their faith. That is a philosophy Bush's
campaign has embraced, but it could hide a trap. While Americans like to
talk about God and want to hear their leaders talk about Him, they are much
more nervous when politicians openly let their faith determine their
Last year, 70 percent of likely voters said there was just the right amount
or even too little expression of faith and prayer by political leaders. At
the same time, however, only 42 percent said politicians should be guided by
religious principles, less than the 46 percent who said "religion and
politics don't mix." And only 37 percent said religion frequently or
occasionally affected their own voting.
The surveys suggest that Bush's aggressive courting of deeply religious
voters has exacted a cost. For even though 70 percent of voters thought in
2003 that there wasn't too much religious discussion in politics, that has
fallen to 63 percent in just the last year - and nearly all of that drop is
blamed on Bush.
The proportion of likely voters who thought Bush mentioned his religious
faith and prayer too much jumped from 14 percent last year to 24 percent
this year, a statistically significant difference. By contrast, only 10
percent of likely voters thought Kerry spoke of his faith too much. (Kerry
was not included in last year's survey.)
In other words, while most Americans are quite comfortable with mixing
politics and religion, they remain deeply suspicious of mixing church and
state. For both candidates, the key to victory lies in finding the right
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