Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Religious Influences in the 2004 Presidential Election

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Religious Influences in the 2004 Presidential Election

Article excerpt

Following the 2004 presidential election, journalists and pundits seized upon religion and public concerns about moral values to explain President George W. Bush's victory. While much of this "Wednesday morning" analysis oversimplified the issues influencing the vote, there is no doubt that religion played an important role in the outcome. As one early political science analysis put it, Bush "showed himself willing to use religion forcefully to sharpen partisan divisions and highlight his own qualities as a leader," while John E Kerry and the Democrats "faced obstacles in using religious rhetoric, in appealing to religion to underscore his qualities as a leader, and in benefiting from the political organization of religious groups." Religion, this analysis concluded, "was at the heart of the campaign" (Muirhead et al. 2003, 222).

Both candidates had a "religious strategy," but Bush's was well developed and consistent while Kerry's was reactive and erratic. Chastened by losing the popular vote in 2000, Bush and GOP political strategist Karl Rove pursued a comprehensive approach to mobilizing religious traditionalists, especially Evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics, into the Republican camp. Bush's policies on controversial social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem cell research were shaped with an eye toward attracting their support. In addition, his nominations to executive and judicial posts recognized these religious groups to an extent greater than previous chief executives had. Furthermore, as a devout Methodist, Bush presented himself as part of the conservative religious community, using religious rhetoric and themes to an extent arguably unparalleled for any modern president, especially after the events of September 11, 2001. Finally, Bush and Republican campaign officials cultivated conservative religious leaders and sought to link their communities with the GOP electoral machine (Guth 2004).

Senator Kerry, on the other hand, failed to find an effective approach to America's religious communities during the campaign. Although a practicing Catholic, Kerry nevertheless found it difficult to discuss matters of personal faith, which he considered fundamentally a private matter. Such expression was complicated by the vocal criticism he faced from some Catholic bishops for his pro-choice stance on abortion, preventing him from attending Mass in several dioceses while campaigning and keeping him on the defensive in dealing with religious issues. Kerry eventually began to connect publicly his liberal Catholic faith to Democratic policies advancing social justice and spent considerable time in religious venues, especially black Protestant churches, often quoting scripture in the process, but these efforts often seemed strained. Similarly, the Kerry-Edwards campaign managed to activate some religious liberals from Mainline Protestant and Catholic bodies, and along with the Democratic party, sought institutionalized links with liberal religious groups and leaders. But these efforts met with varied and repeated frustrations, failing to accommodate the diverse array of religious and secular groups constituting the party's contemporary activist corps (Vinson and Guth, forthcoming).

To analyze the impact of religion on the 2004 presidential election, we use two perspectives on the contemporary political shape of American religion, the ethnoreligious and religious restructuring perspectives, to produce a single, combined classification of religious voters. We find that Bush and Kerry attracted very different constituencies. Bush drew on Evangelicals and other religious traditionalists from Mainline Protestant and Catholic communities, while Kerry's coalition was based on secular voters, religious minorities, and modernists from Mainline and Catholic churches. We also show that the religious groups in each coalition held distinctive views on national priorities, on the role that religion should play in politics, and on salient issues, such as the Iraq War, abortion, same-sex marriage, and tax cuts. …

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