The Faith Factor

By Dart, John | The Christian Century, October 5, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Faith Factor


Dart, John, The Christian Century


DESPITE THE attention given to religious issues in tiffs year's presidential race, three public opinion experts have stated that the political force of faith and ethics questions has been overblown. Their assessment was not as blunt as the 1992 dictum "It's the economy, stupid!," but they came close.

National security, Iraq and the economy are "more decisive than social issues" for voters as November 2 nears, according to Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People & the Press. Kohut delivered the verdict in a panel discussion at the four-day Religion Newswriters Association convention in Washington, D.C.

The Catholic vote? "I don't think Catholics pay any more attention to their leaders' pronouncements than do Protestants," said Kohut. He also said he saw one poll indicating that fewer than 50 percent of Catholics knew that the Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry, is Catholic.

The "Religious Left" vote? "I don't think there is such a bloc," said Anna Greenberg, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, noting also that polls say a candidate's stance on gay marriage is not crucial for voters choosing a president.

The third panelist, political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron, cautioned the religion news specialists: "We can't forget that race, education, gender or economic status will often be the determination of how [people] vote."

That caveat from a well-regarded expert on religion and politics is all the more notable after months of criticisms of Kerry's abortion rights views by Catholic bishops and complaints by Democrats that President George W. Bush has manipulated his religiosity for voter appeal. Suspicions were even voiced during the Republican National Convention that the speaker's dais incorporated a subtle cross in its design.

Green directed the Pew Forum's newly released fourth annual National Survey of Religion and Politics, and discussed those findings at the September RNA meeting. Though interesting for its breakdown of "traditionalist, centrist and modernist" differences among U.S. Catholics, evangelical Protestants and mainline Protestants, the survey yielded few surprises relating to the upcoming elections.

Focusing on the many political "spins" aimed this year either at religious or nonreligious voters, several speakers at the RNA gathering doubted, for instance, that a factual basis existed for White House strategist Karl Rove's claim that 4 million evangelical Christians did not vote in 2000. That figure has often been cited by Republicans to energize pro-Bush evangelicals to get out the vote. "I don't know where they got that figure," Kohut said. "It's highly speculative," added Green.

Lately, Bush has begun to downplay his faith, as if to combat what supporters say are exaggerations about his evangelical fervor--despite the president's past rhetoric and acknowledged affinity with conservative Protestants. That spin was evident in the keynote address to journalists.

As expected, keynoter Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, described the Bush administation's frustrations with those he called "some extreme secularist" Democrats in the Senate who have "punished the poor" by not passing a faith-based bill. But Towey also spoke at length on Bush's "mainstream America" approach to faith.

"Bush doesn't see himself as a role model Christian for others," Towey said. "He's commander in chief, not chaplain in chief. …

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