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Religion & Rock'n'Roll
Why religion will decide who is elected president
Bob Harvey
The Ottawa Citizen

Forget the war in Iraq and the economy. It is religion that will decide the American presidential election this year

The United States is the most devout of the world's industrialized nations and President George W. Bush is the most openly religious president in decades. He speaks in a language that religious conservatives understand.

In the 2000 election, Mr. Bush won 87 per cent of the votes cast by Southern Baptists, Pentecostals and others on the religious right, as well as 57 per cent of the votes by Catholics who attend church frequently.

The religious vote will be crucial once again on Nov. 2. "The significance of the faith factor cannot be overlooked in Campaign 2004," says California's Barna Group.

The group has been analyzing trends related to values and beliefs since 1984, and says the dominant issue in this year's election is Mr. Bush.

Those who plan to vote for him say it is because of his character and his leadership abilities, while a majority of Mr. Kerry's supporters said they are backing him because "he is not George Bush."

In a survey by the Pew Research Center, 7 in 10 Americans told pollsters they want a president with strong religious beliefs, and don't mind the candidates discussing those beliefs in public. Two out of three Americans said the candidates' values will influence how they mark their ballots.

Mr. Bush makes no secret of his values. He is a born-again Christian, and talks openly and often about his own conversion, and how that commitment to Christ helped him quit drinking.

He says he often prays as he makes his way to a microphone in press conferences, and has been quoted as saying "I believe that God wants me to be president" and that "I get great sustenance from my personal relationship" (with God)."

John Green, the director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, is a leading authority on religion and politics in the U.S.

He says religion plays a large part in politics because American society is very religious.

He attributes that to diverse settlement and migration patterns, including religious dissidents. But Mr. Green said it is also because of "the vibrant religious economy based on the absence of a state-sponsored church."

"To survive and prosper in America, all religious groups must be self-supporting and attract members," he said.

"This feature is central to what is called 'American exceptionalism' -- the fact the U.S. is unlike other industrialized democracies," said Mr. Green.

He said religion also plays an important part in elections in other countries, especially Israel, India and Indonesia.

"What is unique about the U.S. is the diversity of the religious communities that are active," said Mr. Green.

He said religion has played a major role in other elections, but it is getting more attention this year because the election is so close that "there are strong incentives for politicians to reach out to every religious community."

Issues like same-sex marriage have also mobilized religious groups, some of which, including Catholics and Episcopalians, are deeply divided on these issues.

The race for the presidency has also attracted attention in Canada, Britain and other nations. The Canadian Islamic Congress has even urged Americans to vote Mr. Bush out of office.

"It is chiefly the current administration's policies that have bred ongoing death, destruction and misery in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine and made the world unsafe for Americans and all of us," said the Congress.

Mr. Green said this worldwide attention "is because of George W. Bush. Many people would like to see him replaced."

John Stackhouse, a theology professor at Regent College, an evangelical institute of Christian studies in Vancouver, says "the election of the American president is too important to be left to the Americans."

He says religion has also played a part in some Canadian elections.

"Only in our era can we conduct Canadian politics without reference to the Catholic-Protestant divide. In all kinds of ways, Catholics sensed Protestants saw things differently."

Religion played a small part even in the last federal election, said Mr. Stackhouse.

"The evangelical Protestantism of perhaps Stephen Harper and certain members of his party was seen by some to be an indication of intolerance for diversity," he said.

But in a country where the number of people going to church is dropping rapidly, and which has been committed to multiculturalism since 1972, "personal liberty is the dominant moral value of the Canadian establishment now," said Mr. Stackhouse.

In the current American election, politicians are concerned with more meaty issues, and that hurts John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator who is challenging Mr. Bush.

Twenty-three per cent of the voters are Catholics, as is Mr. Kerry, but he lost his lead among Catholic voters in the early days of the campaign.

In May, he had the support of 48 per cent of Catholic voters, compared to Mr. Bush's 43 per cent. But Mr. Kerry has been outspoken in his support for legal abortion and has opposed other Church positions on euthanasia, stem-cell research, and homosexuality. His problems began when a leading Vatican official, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, guardian of the church's doctrine of faith, sent American bishops a letter saying that Catholics who "reject the doctrine of the Church" should abstain from taking communion. It was obviously directed at Mr. Kerry.

Several American bishops weighed into the debate, saying that Catholic Democrats are obliged to do everything they can to reverse the pro-abortion policy of their party, and to recognize that as they vote. The bishop of Colorado Springs, Michael Sheridan, went further and said it is a mortal sin to vote for politicians who contradict church teachings on abortion, gay marriage or other issues.

Denver's archbishop, Charles Chaput, said the only way for a faithful Catholic to vote is for Mr. Bush and against Mr. Kerry.

In May, the Democratic challenger had the support of 48 per cent of Catholic voters, compared to Mr. Bush's 43 per cent. By the end of September, it was Mr. Bush who had a 17 per cent lead among the Catholics who are likely to vote, as well as a seven per cent lead among those Protestants most likely to vote.

The president pleased the conservatives, Catholics and Protestants alike, by supporting a constitutional amendment banning abortions and proposing another constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America as the union of one man and one woman.

Mr. Kerry has tiptoed through these issues, saying he opposes abortions as "an article of his faith," but, as president, he would not appoint a Supreme Court justice who would favour overturning Roe vs Wade, the court decision that opened the doors to legal abortions.

For much of the campaign, he resisted pressure to openly discuss his faith. But he yielded to the pleas of his aides in the closing weeks of the campaign, and began talking about it. In his third televised debate with Mr. Bush, he spoke at some length about the Catholicism that he says guides his ideology and his beliefs. "My faith affects everything I do," he said.

Mr. Kerry has also appealed to Jews wavering in their traditional support of the Democrats because of Mr. Bush's strong support for Israel.

Mr. Kerry said he would do a better job of "holding those Arab countries accountable for funding terrorism." In Florida, he called out in Hebrew during campaign stops before groups of the state's large Jewish population, and boasted of flying an Israeli jet.

Mr. Kerry's improved religious profile may be helping. In a poll by the Pew Research Center Oct. 15-19, he and Mr. Bush were tied, each with 45 per cent among registered voters, and 47 per cent to 47 per cent among likely voters.

However, more voters expressed confidence in Mr. Bush's ability to defend the U.S. from terrorist attacks, deal with the economy and improve the nation's health-care system.

The U.S. Election

© The Ottawa Citizen 2004

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