St. Paul Pioneer Press, 30 Nov 2003

American voters increasingly split along religious lines

Knight Ridder Newspapers

DES MOINES, Iowa - Want to know how Americans will vote next Election Day? Watch what they do the weekend before.

If they attend religious services regularly, they probably will vote Republican by a 2-1 margin. If they never go, they likely will vote Democratic by a 2-1 margin.

This relatively new fault line in American life is a major reason that the country is politically polarized. And the division over religion and politics is likely to continue or even grow in 2004.

A new poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center For The People & The Press this fall confirmed that the gap remains; voters who frequently attend religious services tilt 63-37 percent to Bush and those who never attend lean 62-38 percent toward Democrats.

"We now have the widest gap we have ever had between Republicans and Democrats," said Andy Kohut, the director of the Pew survey.

"It's the most powerful predictor of party ID and partisan voting intention," said Thomas Mann, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington research center. "And in a society that values religion as much as (this one), when there are high levels of religious belief and commitment and practice, that's significant."

Mixing theology and policy

President Bush is a churchgoing Christian who often mixes theology with public policies ranging from the war on terrorism to a ban on a specific type of late-term abortion.

By contrast, most leading Democratic candidates for president keep their campaigns secular, seldom mentioning God, religion or attending church, except for the occasional well-publicized visit to an African-American church.

The most notable exception among top-tier candidates is Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, a Jew who frequently invokes God, casts policy issues in moral terms and refuses to campaign on the Sabbath.

The Rev. Al Sharpton is religious too, of course, but polls show he's favored by fewer than 1 percent of likely Democratic voters in New Hampshire, the first primary state.

Dean quit congregation over bike path

In contrast, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, said recently that he prayed privately, but quit being an Episcopalian in a dispute with his parish over a bike path, recently linked God with guns and gays in a list of issues that shouldn't influence voting and doesn't regularly attend church. Nor do most of his chief rivals.

It wasn't always so. Most Democratic candidates through the 20th century were openly religious. Born-again Christian Jimmy Carter ran in 1976 as much a moral messenger ("I will never lie to you") as a champion of the Democratic policy agenda. Bill Clinton could quote the Bible as readily as the party platform. The one exception: John F. Kennedy played down his Roman Catholic faith in 1960, when anti-Catholic bias was still common.

Voters weren't split by the frequency of their visits to church, synagogue or mosque until recently. The gap started growing in the 1990s and became clear in the 2000 election between Bush and Democrat Al Gore. Voters who attended religious services more than once a week went for Bush by a margin of nearly 2-1. Those who never went to services went for Gore by the same margin.

60s social upheaval produced political, religious split

The schism began as a countermovement to the culture wars of the 1960s. By the late 1970s, conservative Democrats, notably evangelical Christians in the South and ethnic Catholics in the North, found many of their values under assault, particularly in regard to legalized abortion and gay rights, according to Dennis Goldford, a political scientist who teaches a course in religion and politics at Drake University in Iowa.

Many disaffected voters became Republicans, who cast their party as the champion of conservative religious values with the help of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and the Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.

Democrats reacted by pulling away from public discussion of religion.

"Liberals thought the ayatollahs were taking over the country," Goldford said. "The Democrats haven't figured out how to talk about it. Many just aren't comfortable with the talk of God."

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who managed Gore's 2000 campaign, recalled recently that she felt uncomfortable even mentioning her religion while working in the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis. "I couldn't talk about my faith," she said, adding that she thought the party got better under Clinton and Gore.

"It is a problem," said Dick Harpootlian, a Democratic strategist and former state party chairman in South Carolina. He said Democrats should be more comfortable talking about religion, particularly as it relates to principles such as tolerance and helping the poor and weak.

"Democrats have a much more Christian, religiously friendly message," he said. "But if you go to a Democratic meeting, they don't open it with a prayer."

The biggest exception among Democrats is African-Americans. They tend to be religious and regular churchgoers. Democratic candidates frequently attend African-American churches to appeal for support.

While in Detroit to attend a nationally televised debate on a recent Sunday, for example, most Democratic candidates spent the morning in black churches. Pumped up by a backdrop of drums, music, singing and dancing, Dean told the congregation at one church, "It's going to be a long time before I go to a white church again."

Indeed, Dean isn't a regular churchgoer. Baptized Catholic, he later became an Episcopalian. He quit that denomination because he had what he called "a big fight" with a Vermont Episcopal church over plans for a bike path on church-controlled property. He became a Congregationalist, but said recently that he didn't attend church very often.

On a recent visit to Tallahassee, Fla., Dean all but lumped God with other divisive social issues. "We have got to stop having our elections in the South based on race, guns, God and gays," he said, "and start having them based on jobs and health insurance and a foreign policy that's consistent with American values."

Dean isn't alone among major Democratic contenders who're rarely seen at church.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts occasionally attends Catholic Mass, but is "very private about his religion," said aide David Wade. "If he's in someplace like Davenport or Dubuque, with a big Catholic community, he'll go to church."

Republicans speak to religious

Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, another major contender, mentions when campaigning that he had a Baptist church scholarship for college. But he doesn't mention God or religion beyond that. "He is a religious person," said aide Erik Smith. "He does not regularly go to church."

Smith conceded the political challenge. "Republican candidates," he said, "have been talking to those who worship regularly in a language they can relate to. Too often, Democrats speak a more secular language that they're unable to relate to."

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark's father was Jewish, but Clark was raised first as a Methodist, then as a Baptist, converted to Catholicism as a young adult and now attends the Presbyterian Church. "I'm spiritual. I'm religious. I'm a strong Christian and I'm a Catholic, but I go to Presbyterian Church," Clark said in an interview this week being circulated by his campaign.

Lieberman, who does speak the language of faith and religion, said his party should set aside its aversion to religion and embrace it as a message harmonious with its core principles. But he insisted that any such stance must be born of principal, not politics.

"I didn't become religious because of a focus group," he said. "I have a sense of mission. Republicans act as if they have a monopoly on values or faith-based values. They don't."