Bush vs. Kerry: Whose side is God on?

Sunday, September 5, 2004

Religion is everywhere in the 2004 presidential race. Advantage Republicans? Sure, if conventional wisdom is any guide.

But there’s nothing “conventional” about the role of religion in the 2004 election. From the Catholic debate over John Kerry’s Catholic faith to the fight over unprecedented partisan appeals in houses of worship, issues involving religion and politics are shaping public opinion in unpredictable ways.

Consider the results of a nationwide survey released Aug. 24 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

As might be expected, a majority of Americans (52%) see the Republican Party as friendly toward religion. But a surprising 40% view the Democrats that way, with another 34% describing the Democratic Party as “neutral” toward religion and only 13% as “unfriendly.” So much for the media stereotype of a religious GOP vs. those secular Democrats.

Even more surprising perhaps, John Kerry edges out George W. Bush 45% to 41% on the question of which candidate could do the best job in improving the nation’s moral climate. That’s a critical question in light of the fact that 64% of the electorate say the issue of moral values will be very important to their vote.

What that means, of course, is that Kerry and Bush supporters define “moral climate” in very different ways. Moral and religious arguments are advanced by people on both sides of debates about abortion, health care, the economy and the war in Iraq.

The survey has mixed results for Republicans counting on the highly charged gay-marriage debate to move voters in their direction. Only white evangelical Protestants who attend church weekly see the issue of gay marriage as a high voting priority. All other voters rank the issue low in priority. Among the all-important swing voters, only 26% say the issue of same-sex marriage will be a very important factor in deciding their vote.

Even though it may not be high on the agenda, a strong majority of voters (60%) oppose legalizing same-sex marriage — a position shared by both Bush and Kerry. But by 49% to 44%, a majority favors legal agreements that would give gay couples many of the same rights as married couples. Slight advantage to Kerry for supporting the right of states to legislate “civil unions.”

On stem-cell research — another election-year issue with religious and moral implications — there may some more good news for Democrats. A majority of voters (52%) now agree with Kerry’s argument that the benefits of such research are more important than preserving the embryonic cells that would be destroyed.

Beyond specific issues, 72% of Americans want a president with “strong religious beliefs.” Bush began the campaign with a clear advantage as the religion-friendly candidate. But Kerry has scrambled to narrow the religion gap, weaving more references to his faith and scripture in speeches. Now both candidates are viewed by a majority of voters as mentioning their faith in the “right amount.”

But support for God-talk from a presidential candidate doesn’t translate into support for partisan politics in churches. Fully 65% of Americans oppose the endorsing of political candidates by houses of worship.

What about political parties soliciting church membership lists for “get out the vote” efforts — an innovation of the Bush campaign? Sixty-nine percent of voters oppose that practice as well.

The public also has strong views about Catholic bishops withholding Communion from Kerry and other pro-choice Roman Catholic politicians. Sixty-four percent see this as “improper.” The numbers are even higher among Catholics (72%). This finding suggests that Kerry may be helped more than hurt by this controversy.

Add up the numbers and it’s clear that most Americans mix politics, morality and religion when deciding how to vote — but strongly oppose partisan politics in their houses of worship.

Religion may matter more in this campaign than in any campaign in living memory. But it matters to voters on both sides of the political divide.

No party has a lock on the “religious vote” — and neither party has a monopoly on God.

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