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Election Focus 2004

Bush, Kerry Court Religious Voters
Catholics and evangelicals play important role in elections
According to a June 4, 2004 ABC News poll, nearly two-thirds of American citizens say religious leaders in general should not try to influence politicians' positions on issues. Contrast that with recent news stories about both the Republican and Democratic parties' new campaigns to rally religious voters around the country, and it is clear that the dynamic of religion and politics in the United States continues to be a constant in the U.S. political climate.

The role of religion in politics and specifically in presidential elections is a long one. One instance involved the question of democratic presidential nominee Senator John F. Kennedy's Catholicism. In 1960, Kennedy gave a speech to Protestant ministers in Houston that assured the clergymen -- and voters -- that his Catholic faith would have no affect on his political decision making. "I believe in an America where the separation between church and state is absolute," he said.

At that time, the divide between Catholic voters and Protestant voters was clear: 75 percent of Catholics voted for Kennedy and 75 percent of Protestants voted for Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee.

Today, however, "Voters don't seem to care too much about which of the Christian groups their leaders might belong to," said Dr. Clyde Wilcox, professor of government at Georgetown University. "What they really want to see is a president who has some sincere religious faith."

The contemporary role of religion in politics has evolved from being an issue of the candidate's religious affiliation to a matter of voters' religious preferences and what that indicates about their views on specific political issues.

A March 2004 Gallup poll found that 64 percent of registered voters say that their personal religious beliefs and faith will be important in deciding their votes for president this year. With this in mind, both the Republican and Democratic parties have made religious outreach a key component of their campaigns. The Republican National Committee website, for example, features outreach coordinators from groups including Catholics, Protestants (Evangelical and others), Jews and Muslims.

According to a USA Today poll, the demographic of those who attend religious services -- a group that the Bush campaign is actively courting -- are likely to vote republican on election day. In a phenomenon the poll refers to as the "religion gap, " "the divide isn't between Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Gentiles" but instead on the one side are those religious voters that attend religious services regularly -- and are likely to vote Republican -- and other side, "those who attend religious services only occasionally or never."

In April, Senator John Kerry, the presumed Democratic nominee, named Mara Vanderslice, an Evangelical Christian, as the religious outreach coordinator to his campaign. Concerning her new task, Vanderslice is quoted in USA Today as saying "the most important thing to start with are opportunities for John Kerry to share more openly with the American electorate about his faith experience, how it's inspired his commitment in public service and how it's influenced his life."

Although both parties are reaching out to religious voters in general, two specific groups -- Catholics and Evangelical Protestants -- have gotten the most attention from the parties and candidates alike. Catholics and Evangelical Protestants, however, represent two very different voting groups with varying concerns and voting patterns. It is likely that both parties will use different campaign strategies to reach out to these voters.

Kerry will be the first Catholic candidate to secure the Democratic nomination since the late President John F. Kennedy. Although Catholic voters in the past were viewed as a voting bloc, today, many analysts agree that there are simply too many Catholic voters -- a little over 20 percent of voters are Catholic -- to be considered a unified voting entity. According to a poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, only 32 percent of Catholics say that their religious beliefs occasionally or frequently guide their voting decision. "When all is said and done, Catholics go to the polls as something else: veterans, union members, residents of the Northeast, young, old," said pollster John Zogby. "Being Catholic is not the major identifier."

In contrast, the Pew study's results on Evangelical Protestants found that more than two-thirds of those who define themselves as Evangelical Protestants say that their religious beliefs affect their voting decision.

Evangelicals strongly support several Republican positions - for example, against gay marriage, stem cell research and abortion - and, according to the Pew study, 70 percent are in favor of Bush's re-election.

The Bush campaign is also reaching out to the up to four million conservative, religious voters who failed to vote in the 2000 presidential election. It has mounted an aggressive voter registration drive aimed at this demographic.

The Kerry campaign may not be able to successfully court Evangelicals because of ideological differences on many key issues. However, Democrats are reaching out to more politically liberal religious voters. On June 9, more than 350 liberals of varying religious faiths gathered at a conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank. Attendees discussed increasing the role of mainstream religious voters and organizations -- known as the religious left -- in U.S. politics and elections.

Election Focus/June 16, 2004 Adobe Document