God on the Campaign Trail

Janet Elders has a very interesting analysis of the increased importance of faith in this Presidential election--and the fact that some religious voters appear to be shifting to the Democrats:
In 2004, voters who attended religious services weekly represented 41 percent of the electorate, and 61 percent of them voted for George W. Bush. Historically, they vote Republican. But recent polls suggest the ground may be shifting, due in part to the war in Iraq, and that many of these voters are drifting away from Mr. Bush and the Republicans.

In a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted this spring, 50 percent of the respondents who attend religious services regularly said the United States did not do the right thing and should have stayed out of Iraq, while 44 percent said the United States was right to go to war. Regular churchgoers also said they think the Democratic party, rather than the Republican party, is more likely to make the right decisions about Iraq, with 42 percent siding with Democrats and 36 percent with Republicans.

The same survey found churchgoers disillusioned with Mr. Bush in general. Fifty percent said they disapproved of the way he is handling his job as president while 42 percent approved.

Voters say they want the next president to have strong religious convictions regardless of whether or not they share the same set of beliefs. But just how far candidates should go in talking about those beliefs is unclear. In a CBS News poll taken at the end of June, half of all those polled said it was appropriate for candidates to talk about their religion and half said it was not appropriate.

White voters who describe themselves as evangelical Christians were the group most likely to want to hear candidates talk about their beliefs. Seventy-five percent of them said it was appropriate, 24 percent said it was not. A majority of Catholics, 57 percent, said it was not appropriate for candidates to discuss their religion as did 57 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Independents.

“The public wants some God talk because they are trying to judge people’s character,” said Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University. “This is one of the ways for candidates to convey their core values and what motivates them,” he said.

Mr. Wilcox said churchgoers are attuned to pandering. “It is easy for religious people to spot a fake,” he said. He cited Howard Dean’s gaffe during the 2004 campaign, when Mr. Dean said the Book of Job was his favorite book of the Bible, mistakenly saying it was in the New Testament.

Polls suggest that voters are reluctant to mix religion with politics. In the CBS News poll, 70 percent of the voters said it was inappropriate for religious leaders to urge people to vote for one candidate or another.

Whether they attend religious services or not, 91 percent of Americans say they believe in God, according to a poll conducted this spring by Princeton Survey Research Associates for Newsweek. Voters say they would not vote for an atheist. Sixty-two percent of respondents in the Newsweek poll said they would not vote for an atheist as did 78 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats. Independents were more open to the idea, with 45 percent saying they would not vote for someone who did not believe in God.

Read it all here.

A few observations. First, not that this shift has not occur ed because Democrats have changes their positions on social issues like gay marriage or abortion. Indeed, on gay marriage, the Democrats appear to be even more progressive than in the past. Instead the shift is coming from voters attention to other issues (like the war), and Democrats--by talking about faith--are taking advantage of this shift.

Second, the public has a fairly nuanced view of the role of faith in an election year. On the one hand, they appear to view a candidate's faith as a "character issue", but they did not insist that the candidate be of their faith (with one exception that I will discuss below). This suggest to me that faith is a surrogate in voter's minds for more intangible values like integrity.

Third, sadly, the public does adopt a religious test when it comes to atheists. I suspect that this has more to do with voters (largely unfair) perceptions of the character of atheists as a group and not because voters insist on a belief in God per se.


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