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God on the ballot

President Bush’s invocation of religious principles has raised fears that he is blurring the line between church and state.  Sen. John Kerry is at odds with leaders of the Catholic Church over his support for legal abortion and embryonic stem cell research. For both men, religion is a tightrope that must be walked carefully.’s Alex Johnson reports.
President Bush has targeted conservative white evangelical voters with a specifically religious appeal. Sen. John Kerry has sought to attract socially conservative religious voters by addressing social justice and moral values, with little reference to his own Catholicism.
President Bush has targeted conservative white evangelical voters with a specifically religious appeal. Sen. John Kerry has sought to attract socially conservative religious voters by addressing social justice and moral values, with little reference to his own Catholicism.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file (left); Jim Bourge / Reuters file

Although He’s regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics.
— 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 conservative” agenda.

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 and wrong.

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.”

Richard Wilkins, left, watches as John and Julie Malaspina, right, of the group \"Your Catholic Voice\" in Newark, Calif., say a prayer outside of the Supreme Court of California Building where arguments regarding the same-sex marriages were presented in San Francisco on Tuesday, May 25, 2004. Wilkins is in favor of the same-sex marriages, the Malaspinas are against it. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)Jeff Chiu / AP

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 religion is.
— 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 serious context.

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 Catholicism.

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 hand. — 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 better.

But the Catholic Church isn’t exactly cooperating. Kerry disagrees with church doctrine on abortion, and the controversy has occasionally slowed his campaign.

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 against Kerry.

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 percent opposed it in a survey conducted in July by Harris Interactive.

The data explain, in part, why Kerry speaks so seldom about his faith. He does not need to.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., center left, takes Communion during Palm Sunday services at the Charles St. AME Church, in Boston's Roxbury district, Sunday, April 4, 2004. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)Steven Senne / AP

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 churchly voters.

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, 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 policies.

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 mix.