WASHINGTON (CP) – Americans are electing a president, not a pastor, a priest or a rabbi.
Yet faith has become a key factor in the U.S. election campaign, with some analysts predicting religion will strongly influence the outcome of Tuesday’s vote. Republicans have made no secret of their direct appeal to the religious right – white evangelical Christians who comprise up to a quarter of American voters by the broadest measures.
It’s a critical bloc for George W. Bush, who’s made his own born-again beliefs such a central part of his presidency that some of his most ardent supporters believe he’s a messenger from God.
The focus on faith has forced Democratic challenger John Kerry, a Massachusetts Catholic, to overcome his reluctance to publicly confront the role of religion in politics as he courts the less traditional vote.
“Religion always matters here,” says John Green, who’s done extensive polling on the topic at the University of Akron in Ohio.
“If you compare the United States to Canada or Great Britain, Americans are much more religious. But it appears to matter more this time, partly because the election is so close. And some of the issues like same-sex marriage and the Iraq war have engaged people on faith grounds.”
Green’s polling suggests most traditionally religious Americans who report attending worship services at least once a week support Bush. People with less traditional views of their faith lean toward Kerry.
U.S. Catholics equal evangelicals at about one-quarter of voters. The other 50 per cent belong to many different groups, so-called “mainline” Protestants, Jews, Muslims, secularists and others.
“There’s tremendous diversity,” says Green. “There are a lot of religious people up for grabs. Talking in terms of faith can be very persuasive.”
Bush, a United Methodist who was reportedly born again in 1985 with the help of evangelist Billy Graham, actually doesn’t attend church that much.
But he’s long been invoking God, especially since the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
The president has characterized the anti-terror war as a “crusade,” one that will “rid the world of the evil-doers,” and famously told journalist Bob Woodward that as he prepared to invade Iraq: “I was praying for strength to do the Lord’s will.”
In this campaign, Bush has been appealing foremost to his fundamentalist base, especially some four million evangelicals who didn’t vote in 2000.
He publicly opposes same-sex marriage and increased money for embryonic stem-cell research. He also holds the best prospects for appointing more socially conservative federal judges.
Early in his first term, Bush started giving public money to faith-based groups to combat social problems, although analysts differ on whether the schemes have been effective.
“God Wants Bush” signs frequently appear at his rallies. A new video called Faith in the White House examines how the president lives out his beliefs on the job, a practice that terrifies more moderate Republicans.
For his part, Kerry is using more religious rhetoric in recent months. Lately he’s been quoting from the Book of James, a favourite of less traditional worshippers.
But he never suggests God should be pulling policy strings and he’s unapologetic about his pro-choice views that have sparked condemnation from some Catholic clergy.
“I don’t want to claim that God is on our side,” he told the Democratic national convention this summer as he staked out his position on religion.
“As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God’s side. And whatever our faith, one belief should bind us all: The measure of our character is our willingness to give of ourselves for others and for our country.”
Supporters of both candidates, though, have been scouring the pews for converts and taking their message straight to the pulpit.
They’re seeking endorsements from churches and religious groups, which are tax-exempt and aren’t supposed to intervene in political campaigns under federal law, says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a religious liberty watchdog group.
It’s an example of the kind of charged politics that has surpassed a routine religious involvement in policy that began with the Moral Majority in the 1970s, he says.
“When you start having co-ordinated efforts between a church and a campaign to endorse a specific candidate, it’s way over the line,” says Lynn.
“What this does is make people think that religion is the principal basis for their vote. We’re not supposed to be selecting theologians-in-chief.”
In a deadlocked race, many pollsters are pegging the election’s outcome on a new crop of registered voters and who they’ll support next Tuesday in key swing states.
Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, predicts up to 15 million new voters this time, suggesting Bush can’t just count on four million more evangelicals in his bid for re-election.
“We do know this – both political parties think religion matters an enormous amount in this campaign,” says Lynn.
“If John Kerry is elected, some people will say it’s because he captured the religious vote at the end. If he loses, some will say it’s because he didn’t talk about religion enough.”
“Those are the statements you will hear. It will take months to determine if they’re true.”