Belief and the ballot box

In an election year dance that has seen Roman Catholics swaying toward the GOP and Muslims stepping to the Democratic ticket, pollsters are scrambling to keep up with the choreography.

God may not be a Democrat or a Republican, but faith will be a significant factor when millions of Americans vote Nov. 2.

“It’s very important,” said George Barna, who leads the Barna Group, a Christian marketing research firm in Ventura.

“I think when you look at a lot of the support that President Bush is receiving, it tends to be driven by people’s values and their perception of character – and all of that comes with a particular faith-based perspective that many of those people possess.”

Looming large is what Barna calls the born-again Christian vote, a cross-denominational category that he defines as those who have accepted Christ as their personal savior.

Barna projects that born-again Christians will account for about half of the votes cast in the election, and, according to a survey his group conducted in September, these voters strongly favor President Bush.

Support for Bush is greatest among evangelicals, which Barna defines as born-again Christians who also believe they have “a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians.” Barna said 90 percent of evangelical voters will back Bush, up from 83 percent in 2000.

Bush’s democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry, will capture the majority vote from Christians who don’t fall into Barna’s born-again category and followers of non-Christian faiths, according to the survey.

Perhaps the most telling data concern Roman Catholics, who are expected to account for nearly one of every four voters. Two Barna polls found that Catholic leanings in recent months have undergone a “seismic shift” – from slightly favoring Kerry in May to going heavily for Bush by September. Bush held a lead of 53 percent to 36 percent among likely Catholic voters.

Kerry, the first Catholic presidential nominee on a major ticket since John F. Kennedy, has drawn criticism because his public stands don’t always follow church teachings – particularly on such volatile issues as abortion and fetal stem cell research.

“With many Catholics, they see Mr. Kerry positioning himself as a Catholic, suggesting that he is a good Catholic, but then straying from the signs that one is, in fact, a good Catholic,” Barna said.

‘Margin of victory’

George Marlin, author of the new book “The American Catholic: 200 Years of Political Impact,” agrees that the country’s largest religious denomination could tip the scales for the GOP ticket.

Key votes will come in four swing states: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri, Marlin said. While Catholics are less than one-third of the population in each of those states, he said most of them are strong traditionalists who share Bush’s socially conservative stands.

“These people will come out en masse,” Marlin said. “It can provide the margin of victory.”

Adding fuel to this fire is a million-dollar push by Priests for Life to mobilize voters during this final month through ads in church newspapers and programs on faith-based TV networks.

“Any candidate who supports abortion has no right to hold any kind of office, just as anyone who supports terrorism should not be allowed to hold public office,” the Rev. Frank Pavone, the group’s national director, said in announcing the campaign.

Barna urges caution on making too big a deal of the faith-based effect on the election’s outcome. So does political scientist John Green, an expert on religious trends in presidential elections.

“Religion and religious affiliation is a very important factor when it comes to voting behavior, but it’s not the only factor,” said Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

Green recently completed the fourth national survey on religion and politics, which was co-sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Green also suggests the Catholic vote many not be completely settled. Catholics “are not tightly moored to either political party and many polls show the white Catholic vote swinging between the candidates throughout the campaign.”

And how a person’s religious beliefs affect such issues as the Iraq war and terrorism depends on the person.

“For many people, faith has a direct, self-conscious effect on their vote,” Green said. “For others it is more indirect and is part of the process of making a judgment about who to vote for.”

‘Faithful attenders’

Still, the faith factor cannot be ignored. In the presidential election four years ago between Bush and Democratic rival Al Gore, one of the strongest indications of how a person voted had to do with how often they attended religious services.

Two-thirds of those who went to church, synagogue or mosque at least once a week voted for Bush, said Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tenn.

Land doesn’t see that changing dramatically.

“I think that people who are faithful attenders in any religious organization tend to be more conservative just on a whole host of issues,” he said. “The most significant factor is that a large proportion of those people who go to church at least once a week are pro-life.”

The same-sex marriage issue also will be a factor.

“That’s going to significantly elevate turnout,” Land said. “Trust me, I’m out there in the grass roots.”

Much has been made of Bush’s faith; he is regarded as one of the most openly religious presidents in recent times. He is a conservative United Methodist who has said Jesus is his favorite political philosopher and frequently invokes God and religious language in his speeches.

“I think the reason George W. Bush is pro-life is he’s an evangelical,” Land said.

One of the hallmarks of Bush’s presidency has been the creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which helps religious charities get government funding.

“For too long, some in government believed there was no room for faith in the public square,” Bush said in setting up the program.

Kerry, a churchgoer who reportedly carries a rosary and a St. Christopher medal, has said he thinks Bush inserts his faith too often into the public square. He also has said that while he personally is against abortion, he believes in separating his private beliefs from government policy.

“I can’t take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist,” Kerry said in an interview in the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, Iowa. “We have separation of church and state in the United States of America.”

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C., thinks the focus on faith-based voting is misguided.

“Frankly, what I think Americans want to know from politicians is that they have principles, that they have guiding principles,” Lynn said. “I don’t think they care if they come from the book of James (New Testament scripture) or if they come from the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu writings).”

Local liberal activist Tanja Winter, co-chair of the Peace and Democracy Action Group of First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, said she, too, is concerned about principles, but she worries when they are too connected to a “rigid repeat of some mantra.”

“I don’t care what religion people are, but the country should not be run by somebody’s religion,” she said.

The GOP has drawn ire for its courting of religious voters this season. Among the highlights: sending e-mails looking for “friendly congregations” in Pennsylvania and mass mailings in Arkansas and West Virginia that suggest “liberals” would ban the Bible.

To retired United Methodist Bishop William Boyd Grove, this latter example amounts to blasphemy.

“It is now widely believed that, of course, nearly all persons of religious faith will vote for President Bush,” Grove, who lives in Charleston, W.Va., recently wrote. “That ‘conventional wisdom’ has originated in the Republican Party and been advanced by an uncritical media. The claim is not correct, and the statistics supporting it have been distorted and oversimplified. The ‘religious right’ is not the only voice of religious faith in this country.”


The Rev. Albert Pennybacker, a Disciples of Christ clergyman in Kentucky, is leading a fledgling interfaith coalition that wants to be another religious voice – and wants President Bush out of office.

The Clergy Network for National Leadership Change was formed a year ago to mobilize liberal and moderate religious leaders who “choose to stand for a different direction for our country,” according to its mission statement.

“We are saying that the Bush administration, its leadership and the leadership of Congress has put us in a position in this country and around the world that is no longer acceptable religiously,” said Pennybacker, the Clergy Network’s chief executive officer and a retired official with the National Council of Churches.

Under a banner that includes opposing the Iraq war and domestic policies “incompatible with a religiously grounded social vision,” the group is urging clergy to get involved. While tax-exempt religious congregations are barred from taking partisan stands on candidates, Pennybacker argues that their leaders, acting as individuals, can speak out for change independently.

“Getting ordained doesn’t overturn your citizenship right,” he said.

The “values” word figures into his conversation, as well – albeit with a different outcome.

“Embryonic stem cell research and its potential for cures is a matter of loving one’s neighbors, not violating fetal integrity,” Pennybacker said. “Abortion choices, affirmed for women, are a part of responsible human maturity and worth, not mandated doctrinally or by an arbitrary ethic or to be castigated as a betrayal of faith. Same-sex marriage, while it may be unacceptable in various religious communities, which is their right, in the public realm is a matter of human and civil rights, as are all marriages.”

Likewise, Muslim and Jewish leaders also are driven by what they value.

For Muslim voters, Election Day this year falls during Ramadan, the holy month of daytime fasting and increased attention to faith. Many Muslims supported Bush in 2000. But opposition to the war in Iraq, a predominantly Muslim nation, and concerns over civil rights issues in the war on terrorism largely have reversed that sentiment.

“The majority feel that our president is not doing a good job and not approaching Muslims with the right attitude,” said Mohammad Younis, director of the San Diego chapter of the Muslim American Society’s Freedom Foundation.

Last week, the national group’s recently formed political action arm endorsed Kerry for president.

“Since Sen. Kerry is not controlled by religious and political ideologues, the possibility of an open and productive dialogue with the Kerry administration for the Muslim-Americans remains alive,” said Mukit Hossain, president of the Muslim American Political Action Committee, in making the announcement.

Support for Kerry is especially high among black Muslims. One survey found that nine of 10 black Muslims will vote for the Democratic presidential ticket. However, there also is talk that some Muslims will go for the independent candidate – Ralph Nader.

Jewish voters have been historically Democratic. This year, more than two of three Jewish votes are expected to go to Kerry, according to a survey by the American Jewish Committee. Most Jewish voters disapprove of the handling of the Iraq war and are split on whether to legalize same-sex marriage, the poll found.

Rabbi Martin Lawson, longtime spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El in San Diego’s Del Cerro neighborhood, said he is concerned about the growing divide in America over ideology.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re living in a time of polarization, where individuals on the conservative right feel that they have the authentic way or they know ‘the truth,’ ” Lawson said. “I think a lot of people who are not in that camp are very threatened at this point by the loss of civil liberties, by the threat to the rights of women, by a number of other issues that really will have a long-lasting impact on America.”

Many of those may belong to an emerging group of Americans who profess no religion.

In a recent study released by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, about one of six respondents declined to identify a religious affiliation. That’s a 60 percent jump over a decade ago, said Gary Tobin, president of the institute and author of the study.

Since these “nones” are twice as likely to be liberals, how they vote could have a big effect on electoral politics, Tobin said. On the other hand, Barna’s survey put the percentage of atheists and agnostics who are likely voters at 5 percent.

The dance continues, with faith-based get-out-the-vote drives, voter guides issued by religious groups and election forums hosted by congregations. There also are exhortations to vote your values and calls for prayer, including one offered by Rabbi Lawson.

“I hope and pray we will come out and remain one nation,” he said.

There also is the caution for perspective.

“I don’t think it’s terribly surprising that if faith means something to you or that if your faith is at all discernible in your life, you’re going to vie for one candidate or the other because they’re so clearly different,” Barna said.

In the end, he said, “what all this comes down to is a person’s world view. And one’s world view is largely driven by your faith and your core beliefs.”