God & American Politics

Posted: Dec 02, 2007 12:01 AM
God & American Politics

Got God? If you’re running for president of the United States in 2008, you’d better.

God matters. More specifically, faith matters for our presidential candidates, right up there with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, health care, illegal immigration, border security and the economy.

Americans like their presidential candidates to like God. Six in ten of them, to be precise: According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 61 percent of Americans say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who does not believe in God.

Republicans once owned the faith vote but that changed in last year’s midterm election when Democrats made significant gains among faith-based voters. While just a quarter of evangelicals backed Democrats in 2004, 41 percent did in 2006. Those leaps in faith helped to put the Democrats back in congressional leadership.

What lever will the “God vote” pull in next year’s presidential and congressional contests? Will religious voters become the swing vote of 2008?

Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center, says it is possible: “It depends on how close the election is. Despite the Democratic advantages at this stage, we could still have a close presidential election.”

Keeter says religious voters will remain an important part of the Republican base, because “their enthusiasm or lack thereof will be critical.”

How did Democrats find God? Through their national committee chairman, Howard Dean. One of his first acts was to conduct a poll among faith-based voters. When he shared the poll with other party leaders, he said “not only is it OK to talk about our faith, but people expect us to.”

So where did Republicans lose God? Well, evangelicals are not much different than any category of voters, says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “They were pushed out in the midterms by the same factors that pushed all voters to the Democrats: Iraq, Katrina, GOP scandals and Bush.”

Reason enough to make Sabato skeptical about the impact of the Democrats’ “God talk.”

Newt Gingrich, former House speaker and author of “Rediscovering God in America,” says “Democrats have realized very wisely that if you run as the anti-religious secular party of the left, you are going to be a minority party.”

So off they went and got their “God game” back on.

Political scientist John Green, who studies religion in politics, says “we certainly have a lot of Democrats talking about faith and values, with many of them believing that this can make the difference in 2008.”

“Sen. Obama is certainly enormously comfortable with talking about his faith,” says Green, also a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. He is not sure if Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are quite so comfortable. “But they all have religious advisers on staff, aggressively reaching out to faith-based voters.”

Quite a departure from the near-agnostic John Kerry campaign in 2004.

Democrats need to produce legislative results for evangelicals to continue supporting them, however. The No. 1 topic for evangelicals is abortion, followed by the preservation of marriage; both are unlikely to get action from Democrats.

Interestingly, the religious vote that probably will have the biggest impact is Roman Catholic. Split down the middle, this large religious community is up for grabs.

“A lot of the competition for religious votes next year will be about attracting Catholic voters,” says Green. If one party gets a majority of the Catholic vote, he explains, that could go a very long way to winning the White House.

It’s impossible in the American context to take God out of politics, he concludes, adding: “Voters do not demand that candidates be devout, they just don’t want them to be hostile.”