Voting on faith

Five stories that could shape the election

By Matt Russell

A lesson learned from the run up to the 2004 presidential election: When it comes to wooing voters, religion matters.

Just how much religion shapes the choices voters make on Tuesday will surely be scrutinized, studied and debated after the results are tallied and lawsuits are settled. Until then, here are five developments that have been hyped, analyzed, debated and, perhaps, overblown, in an election season in which attention has increasingly focused on the intersection of faith and politics.


1. The widening "God gap." The more often people go to religious services, the more likely they are to vote for President Bush. The less often people attend worship services, the more likely they are to vote for John Kerry.

The so-called "God gap" between Republicans and Democrats is a phenomenon that experts say has developed over the past 30 years, but it's received increased notice this election season as attention has been focused on the growing appeal Republicans have gained among conservative Christian voters. At the same time, polls have shown that Bush scored much higher among regular churchgoers than Al Gore did in 2000 while Gore scored higher among voters who said they seldom or never go to church.

While some expect the gap to widen this election among voters increasingly polarized over issues such as gay marriage and abortion, others say the impact the gap will have on this election has been exaggerated and that the concept itself is an oversimplification. As the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has found, for example, black evangelical Protestants tend to attend church frequently while also voting Democratic.

2. The fight for the Catholic vote. Kerry's candidacy marks the first time since 1960 that a major-party presidential nominee has been Catholic, but that doesn't mean he's guaranteed a majority of the nearly 30 million Catholic votes expected to be cast in this election.

A top concern for many Catholics is Kerry's support of abortion rights, a political record that some say automatically puts Kerry's Catholic supporters at odds with church teachings. Other Catholics, however, have said that abortion is just one issue that must be weighed against other issues when deciding for whom to vote.

While Bush has aggressively sought the Catholic vote, the Republican National Committee also funded the creation of a Web site that criticizes Kerry's record on "the issues most important to Catholics."

Unlike President John F. Kennedy, who publicly distanced himself from the Catholic Church because of suspicions the pope would influence American politics, Kerry has increasingly stressed his Catholic upbringing in campaign speeches in the final stretch of his campaign, telling audiences that he was an altar boy when growing up and that he turned to his faith while serving in the Vietnam War.

Polls show that Catholics are split as evenly as the rest of the country between Kerry and Bush.


3. A dramatic reversal in the Muslim vote. In a major swing fueled by opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and post-Sept. 11 concerns over civil rights, American Muslims appear to be overwhelmingly backing John Kerry over President Bush. That's a reversal from 2000, when a majority of Muslims voted for Bush.

A poll released last week by Georgetown University's Project MAPS and Zogby International found that 76 percent of Muslims support Kerry while seven percent support Bush. Another recent poll by the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that 80 percent of Muslims plan to vote for Kerry while just two percent said they'll vote for Bush.

A national coalition called the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT) also supported Kerry, albeit with some reservations, in a statement released last week. The Zogby/MAPS poll found that 69 percent of Muslims said the AMT endorsement would be an important factor in their voting decision in the presidential election.

Estimates of the U.S. Muslim population vary greatly, ranging from two million to seven million. CAIR says Muslims could form a key voting block in major battleground states such as Ohio and Florida.

4. Same-sex marriage bans hit ballots in key states. In a development that's expected to drive greater numbers of religious conservatives to the polls on Tuesday, initiatives banning same-sex marriages have been added to ballots in 11 states including the battleground states of Ohio, Michigan, Oregon and Arkansas.

While gay marriage clearly raises emotions in people on both sides of the issue, it's not clear what impact ballot initiatives will have on election day.

Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America, said she thinks same-sex marriage is bigger than abortion as a social issue this election and will drive a large turnout of Christian voters. At the same time, Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said last month that issues like terrorism and the economy will be play a larger role in the election.

Bush, who has said he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, has called for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. In a recent interview on "Good Morning America," however, he said he disagreed with the Republican platform opposing civil unions.


Kerry said he supports the right of gays to form civil unions, but he opposes same-sex marriage. He opposes a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, saying states should determine marriage laws.

5. Bush and Kerry talk religion to listening voters. With polls showing that Americans prefer a president with strong religious beliefs, both candidates have talked about their faith on the campaign trail and religion was a major topic during the final presidential debate in Tempe, Ariz.

Bush, who said in a 2000 debate that Jesus is his favorite philosopher, said in the Tempe debate with Kerry that his faith has given him "calmness in the storms of the presidency."

"I never want to impose my religion on anybody else," he added, "but when I make decisions, I stand on principle."

Kerry said in the debate that his faith has inspired him to fight against poverty, cleaning up the environment, and for equality and justice. But he has also said he draws a line between religion and public policy. "My task, as I see it ... is not to write every doctrine into law," Knight-Ridder News Service quoted him as saying during a campaign speech in Florida last weekend.

A Time Magazine poll conducted in June showed that 54 percent of likely voters considered Bush a man of strong religious faith while seven percent considered Kerry a man of strong religious faith.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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