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Election Focus 2004

Religion and the 2004 Presidential Elections
An Interview with Professor Clyde Wilcox
Clyde Wilcox, Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., and author of several books on the relationship between religion and politics including "Public Attitudes toward Church and State" and "Religion and Politics in Comparative Perspective," spoke to Washington File Staff Writer Alexandra Abboud on June 4 about religion and the 2004 presidential election.

Question: The United State is a country that fosters the separation of church and state. What is the relationship between religion and politics in the U.S. today?

Professor Clyde Wilcox: Politicians and the courts continue to debate the meaning of the separation of church and state in the 1st Amendment to the US constitution. The phrase itself is "Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of a religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof." So, what does it mean to establish a religion? It doesn't actually say.

The phrase "separation of church and state" is Thomas Jefferson's language later on. It means that the government shall not establish a religion in the way that there are established churches in Germany and Norway, for example.

But what it has never meant is that religious people can't use their religion to help them make political decisions, including policy decisions, including who to vote for. It has never meant that churches cannot comment on policy issues of the day. In my view, it simply means that the government can't establish a religion or take sides between religions.

Q: In this election year, are presidential candidates looking at religious voters and religious organizations as an important voting bloc? If so, what are they doing to reach out to these voters?

Wlicox: One of the remarkable things about the United States is that it is a very religious nation, compared to Europe for example. Probably close to half of Americans tell survey researchers that they attend church every week. And although some of them are probably exaggerating, this is a very high number and therefore no presidential candidate could ever win the presidency without appealing to highlyreligious voters.

The difficulty is that we are also a nation of many religions. Christians constitute about 80 percent of the public, but there are many Muslims, and Sikhs, and Hindus, and so forth. And moreover, within that 80 percent who are Christians, there are hundreds and hundreds of denominations. So there is no single group that comes anywhere close to being a majority in the U.S. So candidates cannot make a narrow sectarian appeal but rather a broader appeal.

What the surveys show is that Americans want their president -- and their leaders in general -- to be somewhat religious. Voters don't seem to care too much about which of the Christian groups their leaders might belong to.

But what voters do want to see is a president who has some sincere religious faith -- some kind of grounding in a religion. At the same time, there's a little bit of a nervousness on the part of voters about voting for someone who might think that he's having a very close conversation with God, and God is calling him to make a particular policy.

Q: What is the role of religious organizations such as churches in an election?

Wlicox: Churches are actually active in campaigns, but there's a limit on what they can do and still remain a taxexempt charity. They can't endorse a candidate, for example. But they can have voter registration drives, they can encourage their voters to think about the issues, and which issues are important to them. Quite a few churches are very active in politics. But they're not at least in theory -- partisan in their approach.

Q: What safeguards are there to make sure that these taxexempt organizations -- such as churches -- aren't involved in political activities that tax-exempt organizations are prohibited from engaging in?

Wilcox: The Internal Revenue Service has developed a set of guidelines to help churches understand what they're allowed to do, and what they're not allowed to do, and those guidelines are widely distributed. If the IRS finds that the church had been engaged substantially in partisan politics, it might withdraw its taxexempt status.

In general, we lean over backwards to give freedom of religion, and to give churches the right to criticize policies and to talk about what issues are important in the campaign. But there is a policy that if they become heavily partisan, then they're no longer considered a charity. That's very important in the U.S. because anyone can form a church here. I could form my own church and call it the Church of Clyde, and if I'm a taxexempt operation, then, by law, I can't really be doing electoral politics from it.

Election Focus/June 16, 2004 Adobe Document