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Getting religion
The G-word will have a huge impact on next year’s presidential election. Will the Democratic nominee be able to combat Bush’s religiosity?

FOR MANY — whether they’re believers or not — George W. Bush’s in-your-face religiosity is hard to take. The president’s references to his own faith often seem smug and shallow: how, for example, can an aggressive proponent of the death penalty cite Jesus as his favorite thinker, as Bush did during his first presidential run? What’s more, Bush seems ominously predisposed to see the United States as God’s agent in human affairs, a perspective that doesn’t exactly encourage healthy debate and dissent. (Witness his comment, made last month while discussing the Iraq war with the BBC’s Sir David Frost, that "freedom is not America’s gift to the world or Great Britain’s gift to the world; freedom is the Almighty’s gift to everybody who lives in the world.") If you consider religion a private and deeply personal matter, it’s natural to hope that Bush’s Democratic opponent in 2004 will take a totally different tack — that he talks about foreign and domestic policy in human terms, not otherworldly ones, and that he refrains from shoving his faith in voters’ faces.

But while such a scenario might be appealing, it’s also shortsighted. An earnestly secular nominee could be an unmitigated disaster for Democratic efforts to bring about domestic regime change next year. Say what you will about Bush’s public piety, from a political point of view he’s got the right idea. In a national survey conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a solid majority of Americans — 62 percent — believe Bush mentions his faith just the right amount. Another 11 percent said he doesn’t mention it enough. Only 14 percent felt he invoked it excessively. The survey had equally unsettling news for anyone fretting about the concrete implications of Bush’s religiosity: 58 percent of respondents said Bush’s religious beliefs had an appropriate impact on his policy-making decisions, and 21 percent actually wanted to see Bush’s faith play a larger role in the policy arena.

Given these numbers, it’s no surprise that some political observers assert that the Democratic presidential nominee — and at this point, it’s looking like that will be Howard Dean — must take a page out of Bush’s prayer book to have a shot at victory in 2004. To top Bush, they warn, the Dems’ next candidate will need to discuss his religious beliefs competently and convincingly enough to woo the nation’s more moderate religious voters. In the current New Republic, Franklin Foer warns that Dean’s secularism would be deadly in a campaign against Bush, writing, "This is, for better or worse, an openly religious country that prefers its politicians to be openly religious, too."

In recent days, Dean has taken a few tentative steps toward addressing those concerns. According to an account in Sunday’s Boston Globe, Dean, at a rally in Iowa, couched his customary critique of religious conservatives in religious rhetoric of his own, saying that the Reverend Jerry Falwell reminded him more of the Pharisees than "the teachings of Jesus." Dean added: "I think religion is important and spiritual values are important, which is what this election is really about."

For Dean, though, the danger is that, in departing from the resolutely secular nature of his campaign, he may come across as a craven opportunist, alienating his supporters while failing to win over any new voters.

Still, there’s not much doubt that Dean has to try. There are, after all, votes to be won. Contrary to the stereotype of evangelicals voting as a Republican bloc, that isn’t necessarily true. Al Gore — who referenced the evangelical catch phrase "What Would Jesus Do?" early in his campaign — garnered 45 percent of the votes of the 10-million-strong moderate-evangelical vote in 2000. Bill Clinton, who spoke of the rights of public-school students to religious expression, took home 55 percent in the same category in 1996. But while the notion that the Democratic nominee needs to get religion in order to win has become an article of faith in certain circles, it’s possible that this year’s crop of Democrats — Dean included, his newfound God talk notwithstanding — may not get the message until it’s too late.

THE FAULT LINES of religious belief and political affiliation have undergone major shifts since the late 1940s and early ’50s, when the Republican Party was dominated by mainline Protestants and the Democratic Party was essentially a coalition of Catholics, Jews, and white evangelicals. Since then, notes John Green, a University of Akron political scientist and expert in religious voting behavior, there’s been a mass exodus of evangelicals to the Republican Party. In 2000, for example, Bush garnered a whopping 85 percent of the votes cast by conservative evangelicals, a/k/a the "Religious Right." A large number of Catholics — particularly white non-Hispanic Catholics — have shifted Republican as well: according to the Pew study, 33 percent of this group now identifies as Republican, 29 percent as Democratic. The Democrats, in turn, have upped their support among mainline white Protestants, even though this group still tends to vote Republican as a whole. Democrats also enjoy overwhelming support from black Protestants, who were still disenfranchised in the early 1950s. And while Jewish support for Democrats isn’t as monolithic as it used to be, a solid majority of Jews continues to identify with the Democratic Party.

These mutating allegiances have been driven by a number of factors that have been around for decades — the civil-rights movement and the decline of the once-solid Democratic South; the abortion wars; and Ronald Reagan’s successful courtship of the religious right, to name just a few. But Bush and his deviously brilliant strategist Karl Rove also deserve credit for effectively wooing conservative Christians of all stripes. In 1999, for example, Bush hired Deal Hudson, publisher of the conservative Catholic journal Crisis, to help him court conservative Catholics. Despite Bush’s pre-election appearance at Bob Jones University, an institution with a reputation for racism and anti-Catholicism, Hudson’s assistance paid off in the 2000 election: Bush almost matched Gore among Catholic voters, garnering 47 percent of the Catholic vote to Gore’s 49 percent and winning a clear majority among Catholics who attend church at least once a week. In addition, conservative Christians of all denominations have been impressed by Bush’s advocacy of faith-based social services as the foundation of "compassionate conservatism," his decision to limit stem-cell research, and his successful advocacy of a total ban on abortions performed via intact dilation and extraction (otherwise known by the misnomer "partial birth" abortion).

Among evangelicals, meanwhile, Bush’s personal religious style has been a huge asset. Bush is a member of the United Methodist Church, which is usually classed as mainline Protestant; it’s also Hillary Clinton’s denomination. What’s more, Bush scrupulously avoids describing himself as "born again," usually an indispensable phrase for anyone looking to establish evangelical street cred. But Bush’s own story — in which a hard-living prodigal son turns his life around after joining a men’s Bible-study group — has strong evangelical overtones. Add to this the fact that Bush handled evangelical outreach for his father’s 1988 presidential campaign, and it’s no surprise that the nation’s evangelicals — approximately 50 million of whom voted in 2000 — generally regard Bush as one of their own. As Beliefnet.com publisher Steven Waldman puts it, "the most important thing is more atmospheric — just that he’s one of them. He talks like one of them; he talks about his spiritual journey and the importance of not only God but Jesus in his life. The fact that he was willing to invoke Jesus Christ in that debate was a big deal."

The decades-old shifts identified by Green, and Bush’s savvy courtship of religious conservatives, have created a few givens on religion and politics, many of which bode ill for the Democrats as the nation heads into the campaign’s stretch drive. Conservative evangelicals aren’t going to shock the world by suddenly backing the Democratic candidate, whoever that may be; while they may not give 85 percent of their votes to Bush, as they did in 2000, bet on them supporting the president by a huge margin. The Democrats’ chances of recouping their once-decisive advantage among Catholic voters are equally slim. But if the next election is anything like the last one, the winner could be determined by a handful of small shifts among significant groups of voters. And opportunities to chip away at Bush’s religious base do exist.

In July of this year, for example, 35 Christian leaders who had supported Bush’s "faith-based initiative" signed a letter criticizing the administration’s inaction on poverty relief and questioning the efficacy of faith-based social programs in the face of tax cuts for the wealthy. The letter stated, in part, "The lack of a consistent, coherent and integrated domestic policy that benefits low-income people makes our continued support for your faith-based initiative increasingly untenable." Soon after the letter was sent to Bush, Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, remarked that he was "within a hair’s breadth of concluding that the faith-based initiative is a cynical cover for ignoring the poor." Then there was last year’s "What Would Jesus Drive?" environmental campaign, which garnered copious amounts of ink thanks largely to its organizers’ inspired sloganeering. "What Would Jesus Drive?" has long since receded from the headlines, but the Evangelical Environmental Network — a group of evangelical organizations that see a conservationist, ecologically friendly ethic as inherent in the biblical narrative — still exists. And the Bush administration, which has shown deep-seated disregard for environmental regulations that could damage the industrial bottom line, has given the EEN much to be displeased about.

Put differently, Bush doesn’t have a lock on the support of moderate religious voters. One prominent "evangelical progressive" (who didn’t want to be identified) — a term that’s used, along with "moderate evangelical," for the approximately 10 million evangelicals who oppose abortion with varying degrees of intensity and tend toward liberal views on other social issues — puts it this way: "In 2000, people were tired of sex in the White House, and that’s no longer an issue. Bush was going to change the tone in Washington, and he was a ‘compassionate conservative’; now we’ve seen how he’s governed. I think for a lot of people he’s a polarizing figure. How people feel about his tax cuts and how they’ve impacted the poor — that’s really important stuff for the evangelical-progressive community. Throw the environment on top of that, and I think you’re going to have more of these people in play this time around."

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Issue Date: January 2 - 8, 2004
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