Televangelist Kenneth Copeland, speaking last week at a conference at the Fort Worth Convention Center, made clear the consequences of sitting out the 2004 presidential election.
God’s judgment will be upon those who don’t register to vote or who cast ballots for the “wrong agenda” — in support of same-sex marriage and abortion — said Copeland, whose Eagle Mountain Lake ministry generated about $70 million in revenue in 2002.
“I’m not telling you which way to vote,” Copeland said. “You’re going to have to deal with that with the Lord. You vote however the Lord leads you to vote.”
Spirituality has become a defining issue in this year’s presidential contest, in part because of the debate over same-sex marriage and an effort by the Bush campaign to rally conservative Christians to the polls.
As the November election draws nearer, many polls show a close race between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry. Respondents to a July 21 poll by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., were equally divided on which party would provide the strongest moral leadership.
And there are signs that the “faith gap” — the tendency for regular churchgoers to support Republicans and infrequent worshippers to vote for Democrats — is narrowing, according to a June poll by the Pew Center, an independent opinion research group.
Among voters who attend a house of worship at least once a week, Bush leads Kerry by 10 percentage points, according to the poll. In a similar poll in 2000, Bush’s advantage over former Vice President Al Gore was 20 percentage points.
“Every candidate is going to have to talk about religion in this election,” said Carl Raschke, a religion professor at the University of Denver who teaches about religion and media. “It’s going to be unavoidable.”
With the race so close, the candidates are trying to walk the line between energizing true believers and appealing to undecided voters.
One strategy for Bush is to motivate religious conservatives, including his base of evangelical Christians, said Clyde Wilcox, a religion professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
Bush political strategist Karl Rove hopes to energize an estimated 4 million evangelical Christians who sat out the tight 2000 election.
In recent weeks, Kerry has countered by increasing his use of words such as values in his speeches. Accepting the nomination at last month’s Democratic National Convention, Kerry made a brief reference to his own faith.
“I don’t wear my own faith on my sleeve,” he said. “But faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday.”
Energizing the faithful
The way Bush and Kerry have handled the same-sex marriage issue illustrates how they tie religion to politics.
Bush supports limiting marriage to unions between men and women and has pushed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. That stance resonates with some conservative Christians who believe the Bible forbids homosexuality.
Kerry opposes same-sex marriage but supports civil unions, an indication of his desire to separate personal beliefs from political stands.
Liberal groups say that Bush is using the marriage amendment, in particular, to energize evangelical Christians. As many as 14 states will hold elections on same-sex marriage amendments this year. That is sure to mobilize Republicans, said Randall Ellis, executive director of the Austin-based Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas.
“People who want to vote against marriage equality, they in turn are going to be voting for conservative candidates,” said Ellis, who argues that same-sex marriage is about equal rights, not religion.
James Robison, a Euless televangelist and spiritual adviser to Bush, said the marriage debate is a question of right and wrong. Robison, echoing Bush’s stand on the issue, has said that conservatives were forced to respond because of the actions of what he called activist judges.
“I don’t think it has a thing to do with rallying support,” Robison said. “All the president and certain family advocates are saying is, ‘This is a choice, a different choice could be made, and we simply want to confirm that marriage is between a man and a woman.’ “
Keith Appell, a conservative strategist in Washington, D.C., said both views have merit. The marriage amendment is about religious values but is tied to politics, he said.
“One is a means to the other. If you are a religious conservative … you want to do something about it,” he said.
A double standard?
Although Bush has devoted some of his public speeches to the marriage amendment, Wilcox believes the president is using a more private channel to communicate directly with conservative Christians.
A campaign memorandum made public last month instructs volunteers in 22 duties, ranging from organizing conservative churches for the president to sending state campaign headquarters copies of church membership directories.
Members of the Southern Baptist Convention are often seen as Republican allies. But Richard Land, president of the convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said on his Web site that he was “appalled that the Bush-Cheney campaign would intrude on a local congregation in this way.”
Other critics said the request could come close to jeopardizing the tax-exempt status of charitable organizations. Federal law prohibits houses of worship and other tax-exempt organizations from endorsing candidates or otherwise participating in a campaign, according to a letter the Internal Revenue Service sent to political parties in June.
Republicans see a double standard.
“The Democrats go into black churches all the time,” said Pat Carlson, chairwoman of the Tarrant County Republican Party. “They let candidates campaign in their churches. No one ever talks about that.”
Republicans point out that Kerry has been endorsed from the pulpit by a Boston pastor who introduced him as the next president of the United States.
Kerry’s Web site includes a “Clergy for Kerry” sign-up sheet and a link to an Internet site offering campaign buttons with slogans such as “Christians for Kerry” and “Catholics for Kerry,” as well as one in Hebrew.
The sign-up sheet asks religious leaders for their faith background but does not ask which house of worship they represent.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, called Bush’s tactics an abuse of religion. Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United, said Kerry’s sign-up sheet doesn’t raise the same concerns because it doesn’t ask for clergy to identify their house of worship.
Robison said that any attempt to use churches for political gain would disturb him. But when Bush talks about moral issues, Robison said, he is motivated solely by his convictions.
“We have an undeniable cultural war, it seems, at least a certain heated discussion that necessitates him speaking out concerning the family and marriage,” Robison said. “Bush’s opponents would try to make it look like an imposition of his beliefs on others, and that’s simply not the case.”
Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairman Art Brender said Republicans have used the debate over same-sex marriage to divert attention from what he says are more important issues such as the economy and poverty.
“I think that is entirely a political choice made by George Bush and his political consultant Karl Rove,” Brender said. “Not a religious belief that he [Bush] actually and truly has.”
Pastor in chief?
“The Bible is the best gift God has ever given to man.”
— Abraham Lincoln (R), president from 1861 to 1865
“‘O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt (D), president from 1933 to 1945, in a prayer read as the D-Day invasion to liberate Europe began
“I never have found any serious disharmony between my own religious faith … (and) my responsibilities as a state senator, or governor or president.”
— Jimmy Carter (D), president from 1977 to 1981
“Has anyone stopped to consider that we might come closer to balancing the budget if all of us simply tried to live up to the Ten Commandments and the golden rule?”
— Ronald Reagan (R), president from 1981 to 1989
“You know he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.”
— George W. Bush (R), on whether he asked advice of his father, the former president, about going to war with Iraq
“I can’t take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist.”
— Sen. John Kerry (D), explaining why he opposes abortion personally but not politically
Sources: The Washington Post, Scripps Howard, The Associated Press, www.whitehouse.gov, Star-Telegram archives
Politics of religion
Regular churchgoers are more likely to support President Bush, while those who attend infrequently support Sen. John Kerry, according to a June poll by the nonpartisan Pew Center for the People and the Press. The so-called faith gap, however, is closer than in 2000, when Bush and Vice President Al Gore were the candidates.
|Attend church every week||52%||42%|
|Attend church every week||59%||39%|
The 2004 results are based on a survey of 2,891 registered voters in May and June with a margin of error of +/- 2 percent.
ONLINE: The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, people-press.org
Republican National Committee, www.rnc.org
Democratic National Committee, www.democrats.org
Bush campaign, www.georgewbush.com
Kerry campaign, www.johnkerry.com