Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Final Push, Kerry Tries to Close a Perceived 'God Gap' ; Democrats Hope to Draw Swing Voters from Ranks of Religious 'Moderates,' Eyeing Fault Lines within Churches

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Final Push, Kerry Tries to Close a Perceived 'God Gap' ; Democrats Hope to Draw Swing Voters from Ranks of Religious 'Moderates,' Eyeing Fault Lines within Churches

Article excerpt

Nearing the end of the most religion-infused election campaign since 1960, Sen. John Kerry is making a bid to close the perceived "God gap" between the two political parties.

To convince undecided voters - particularly religious moderates in swing states - that he stands for their deepest concerns, the Democratic candidate is speaking more frequently in the language of faith. Framing the issues in moral terms and showing how religious values undergird his policy choices, Senator Kerry hopes to broaden the values debate and to show that he is as much a man of faith as is President Bush.

But the Democrats are playing catchup on the religion front, and the question is whether this effort, including the speech Kerry gave Sunday devoted to religious ideals and values, will give voters a more satisfying glimpse of the candidate, or be "too little, too late."

Surveys have shown not only that most Americans want a man of faith as president, but that they see the Republican party as more "religion-friendly."

But if the Democrats are seen as the more secular party, studies show that a realignment is going on among religious Americans. Groups such as Catholics, Protestants, and Evangelicals all include people who range from traditionalists to centrists to "modernists" in terms of faith.

The latest evidence is the split among Roman Catholics over the challenge to Kerry by some bishops and conservatives based on his support of abortion rights. Other Catholics have come to his defense.

"A fault line runs through the denominations ... with moral absolutists on the one hand versus those who see shades of gray on the other," according to Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. "Religion's role is increasing and will only continue to increase."

Pollsters say that many religious moderates - whether Catholic, Evangelical, or other - are still up for grabs.

"One reason Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania are so competitive is that they ... have a lot of 'centrist' groups," says John Green, director of Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "There are votes to be had among white Christians."

While traditionalist Evangelicals are a core political base for the president, he adds, "Bush isn't doing well with liberal Evangelicals, and Kerry might even make inroads with centrist Evangelicals, who are for Bush but have a lot of reservations."

Recent polls suggest Kerry is making some headway. According to the Pew Research Center, white Catholic voters, who have consistently favored Bush over the past month, now lean toward Kerry by 50 to 43 percent (Hispanic Catholics are heavily Democratic). Kerry's pollsters also claim a recent survey shows he is winning among white mainline Protestants, a traditionally Republican group.

Within the Muslim community, major organizations that endorsed Bush in 2000 last week gave their qualified support to Kerry. The latest Zogby poll shows 76 percent of Muslims now backing Kerry.

Still, President Bush's persistent strength in the polls seems tied partly to the religious inflection of his presidency and the perception that he is a man of strong convictions. "His presidential identity has become thoroughly wrapped up with religion. The faith- based initiative is the domestic priority closest to his heart," says Mark Silk, who heads the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Religion "has also filtered into his foreign policy. Freedom is 'God's gift,' he says, and it's 'what we're giving to the world.'"

Kerry's rhetoric of religion

The Democrats lag behind, but not because the party lacks religious supporters. …

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