LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Concern among evangelical Christians over the course of the war in Iraq is opening a crack in their strong bond with President Bush and the Republican Party, political analysts who track this powerful voting group said.
But they caution there are doubts over whether John Kerry can lure evangelicals into the Democratic camp in November’s presidential election.
“I know there are a lot of evangelicals who are disillusioned with the war and worried about a lot of things, the Woodward book, the Clarke book … (and) how we got into this thing,” said Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., referring to recent books on the al Qaeda threat and the Iraqi war and occupation.
Compounding that is the growing scandal about prisoner abuses by U.S. troops in Iraq.
• stop ignoring America’s dismal human rights record
• stop his support for human rights violations (e.g. America’s use and promotion of the death penalty and America’s use of torture
• stop violating – and fighting against – international law,
• to stop supporting cults and extremist groups such as the Unification Church and the Scientology organization, and to
• stop claiming the alleged support of God as an excuse for furthering his own agenda
Evangelical Christians are still expected to vote overwhelmingly for Bush, but the erosion of support could reduce their turnout on election day, a potentially ominous development for the incumbent president.
If the race is very close in several states, experts said poor turnout by this core voting group could conceivably cost Bush the election, especially if a cliffhanger like the Florida contest in 2000 were to reoccur.
Some academics estimate evangelical Christians represent 25 to 30 percent of the 105 million people who voted in the last presidential election. Evangelical Christians are concentrated in Southern and Midwestern states considered by many political analysts to be the battleground of the 2004 campaign.
Traditionally evangelicals have been politically conservative and voted overwhelmingly Republican although some Democratic candidates have been able to win a substantial slice of their vote, most notably Jimmy Carter, a self-described born-again Christian, in 1976.
“I don’t see anything but trouble over there (in Iraq). People could increasingly become disenchanted with George Bush, evangelicals too,” said Derek Davis, director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University.
“I think the war could have an effect on the evangelical vote,” he said but estimated it would cost Bush no more than 10 to 15 percent of support among evangelicals at the most. He noted that in the 2000 election Bush received about 80 to 85 percent of the evangelical vote.
Evangelical Christians consider President Bush, a man who frequently refers to his Christian beliefs, as one of their own. Kerry in contrast is a Roman Catholic who rarely talks in the public about his faith and is in the midst of controversy as conservative Catholic bishops talk about withholding communion from him because of his views on abortion rights.
“John Kerry … likes to use the mantra that JFK used about observing the principle of separation of church and state,” Davis said.
Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic to be elected president of the United States, said in a widely quoted 1960 speech aimed at quelling Protestant fears about his religion: “I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.”
But Kerry’s disinclination to speak in public about his religious beliefs is not sitting well with some evangelicals.
“In distancing himself from the Catholic church he distances himself from religion and that doesn’t resonate well with evangelical Christians,” said Corwin Smidt, executive director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Smidt noted that evangelicals would be influenced by several issues including the war in Iraq, gay marriage and the economy but their “comfort level” with candidates would also be very important.
“They (evangelicals) don’t just vote on the issues but for candidates they feel comfortable with,” Smidt said, noting currently such considerations favored Bush.
“There is a religious quality to American public life and really distinguishes it from public life in other western democracies,” he added.
Davis said many evangelical Christians were concerned that the nation was in a “moral vacuum” and wanted to “renew the Christian roots of our nationhood.” “Many Christians feel we are in trouble morally and if we don’t do something radical our Christian heritage is going to be lost to the secularist, the atheist, etc. etc.,” he said.
“The solution to most evangelical Christians is a Republican vote,” Davis added.