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The Religion Gap 

by Paul Seebeck


Three-quarters of Americans think there's nothing wrong with President George W. Bush saying he relies on his religious beliefs to make decisions," says Luis E. Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "Half wouldn't vote for an atheist."


Lugo's remarks -- based in part on surveys done by the Pew Research Center -- suggest that how people practice religion may be the most significant indicator of their voting behavior. Political experts believe a "religion gap" fundamentally divides the current political landscape.


"The most recent number I've seen suggests a 16 percent religious attendance gap," says John Green, a University of Akron political science professor who studies religion and politics. "This means regular church attendees are 16 percent more likely to vote for Bush than less regular attendees. One of the few exceptions are black Protestants, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic."


Green says this religious attendance gap came about as cultural issues have become more a part of the political agenda. "The granddaddy of cultural issues was the civil rights movement. It gave way to the women's movement, which gave way to abortion on demand," says Green. "This opened the door for conservative religious people to become active politically. Cynical political people, on both sides, saw this and said, 'Hey, we can use these issues to gain an advantage.'"


As Republicans and Democrats increasingly stressed either conservative or liberal values, "it became easy," Green says, "for voters to make a choice on these cultural issues, even as some in the middle of both parties wished they would go away."


But Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics to professional journalists at the Poynter Institute in Florida, believes the political process has created "the religion gap" by mining certain issues that appeal to a certain kinds of religious people while ignoring others. "We spend a lot of time talking about abortion and homosexuality, and the press gets manipulated into painting half-truths," says McBride. "Then people start to assume all religiously devout people only care about these issues and believe one way."


As an example, McBride points to a recent announcement in Charleston, S.C., where three bishops stated that Catholic politicians who "support abortion on demand" would be denied communion in South Carolina, parts of North Carolina and Georgia. With the presidential election just three months, the story became about politics, instead of about the nuances and complexities of the religious story.


"There are way more than three bishops around the United States who think it is absolutely ludicrous to deny communion to someone based on what they do at work," says McBride, lamenting that certain questions never got into the debate. "What if someone suggested doctors who work in clinics where abortions are performed shouldn't be able to take communion? How do you draw the line?"


"There isn't a unique solution to the problem for Catholics who are pro-choice who receive the Eucharist," says Monsignor James Ribble of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane. "It can't be. It's a misnomer. The Catholic Church teaches the Eucharist is about the affirmation of life. In good conscience, I will try to teach that to those who will listen."


Ribble condemns the endorsing of a political candidate from the pulpit. But he won't distance himself from political leaders who support ideas the church supports. "In a sense, we are an anti-abortion church," says Ribble. "We are opposed to any destruction of life. We don't change the teachings of the church."





As religious and political power intersect around these divisive social issues, ethical and legal lines are in danger of being crossed. For example, some were outraged in June to learn that the Bush campaign sought out church directories of congregations in Pennsylvania known to favor the president. Some churches are clarifying their position on politics before confusion ensues. On July 21, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent out a letter to all of its Mormon congregations instructing that it be read during worship services.


"It basically affirmed the constitutional right for the church to express itself on political and social issues," says Dale Bills, the media relations manager for the LDS Church in Salt Lake City. "It also reaffirmed its long-standing policy of neutrality regarding political parties and platforms, and candidates for political office."


Still, this politically neutral letter was written two weeks after the Mormon Church stated that it "favored a constitutional amendment preserving marriage as the lawful union of a man and a woman."


"The common belief in this country is that if churches want to preserve their tax status, they can't lobby for an individual candidate," says McBride. "But its OK religiously to lobby for a cause."


"There's all kinds of strategy involved," adds Green. "Voter guides are available. Or a Sunday sermon is preached right before election. But there is very high motivation to preserve tax-exempt status, which is why these kind of 'politically neutral' letters get sent out."


"The political game is different than the church game, at least it's supposed to be," says Steve Allen, who recently was appointed as senior pastor of the Spokane church formerly known as Harvest Christian Fellowship and now known as The Bridge. "The biggest problem I have with politics is that the gospel is not about our morals, or about what we do or don't do. It's about what Jesus has done for us."


The 27-year-old Allen grew up watching his father Steve pastor the church. In the 1980s and early '90s, the congregation got very involved with the pro-life movement. "It's so easy for it to become all about morality," says Allen. "It takes Christianity into a place where the church becomes irrelevant, because it becomes more known for what it is against, instead of being for Jesus."


Despite the religious attendance gap numbers, Allen believes the relationship between personal faith and voting behavior is often very complex. "It's funny, but sometimes the gospel makes you more liberal than the greatest liberal," he says. "Other times, you become more conservative than the greatest conservative. But always you are searching for God's heart and love in the situation."


"I don't think political pollsters understand how a devout person experiences his or her religion," says McBride. "I've been to church the last four weeks. We prayed for peace. We prayed for people serving in the war. We prayed for our leaders, and for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. We prayed for those starving in Sudan." McBride pauses, letting her point sink in. These are also religious issues that matter deeply to religious people, but they can't all be neatly categorized.


"The religious attendance gap would likely disappear if you got rid of abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage, because these are the issues that mobilize regular church attendees," says Green. "There is simply an easier and more direct connection between traditional morality, cultural issues and the vote than there is with social justice and social welfare. There's no reason in principle why this should be true, but it just happens to be true these days." nThree-quarters of Americans think there's nothing wrong with President George W. Bush saying he relies on his religious beliefs to make decisions," says Luis E. Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "Half wouldn't vote for an atheist."


Lugo's remarks -- based in part on surveys done by the Pew Research Center -- suggest that how people practice religion may be the most significant indicator of their voting behavior. Political experts believe a "religion gap" fundamentally divides the current political landscape.


"The most recent number I've seen suggests a 16 percent religious attendance gap," says John Green, a University of Akron political science professor who studies religion and politics. "This means regular church attendees are 16 percent more likely to vote for Bush than less regular attendees. One of the few exceptions are black Protestants, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic."


Green says this religious attendance gap came about as cultural issues have become more a part of the political agenda. "The granddaddy of cultural issues was the civil rights movement. It gave way to the women's movement, which gave way to abortion on demand," says Green. "This opened the door for conservative religious people to become active politically. Cynical political people, on both sides, saw this and said, 'Hey, we can use these issues to gain an advantage.'"


As Republicans and Democrats increasingly stressed either conservative or liberal values, "it became easy," Green says, "for voters to make a choice on these cultural issues, even as some in the middle of both parties wished they would go away."


But Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics to professional journalists at the Poynter Institute in Florida, believes the political process has created "the religion gap" by mining certain issues that appeal to a certain kinds of religious people while ignoring others. "We spend a lot of time talking about abortion and homosexuality, and the press gets manipulated into painting half-truths," says McBride. "Then people start to assume all religiously devout people only care about these issues and believe one way."


As an example, McBride points to a recent announcement in Charleston, S.C., where three bishops stated that Catholic politicians who "support abortion on demand" would be denied communion in South Carolina, parts of North Carolina and Georgia. With the presidential election just three months, the story became about politics, instead of about the nuances and complexities of the religious story.


"There are way more than three bishops around the United States who think it is absolutely ludicrous to deny communion to someone based on what they do at work," says McBride, lamenting that certain questions never got into the debate. "What if someone suggested doctors who work in clinics where abortions are performed shouldn't be able to take communion? How do you draw the line?"


"There isn't a unique solution to the problem for Catholics who are pro-choice who receive the Eucharist," says Monsignor James Ribble of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane. "It can't be. It's a misnomer. The Catholic Church teaches the Eucharist is about the affirmation of life. In good conscience, I will try to teach that to those who will listen."


Ribble condemns the endorsing of a political candidate from the pulpit. But he won't distance himself from political leaders who support ideas the church supports. "In a sense, we are an anti-abortion church," says Ribble. "We are opposed to any destruction of life. We don't change the teachings of the church."





As religious and political power intersect around these divisive social issues, ethical and legal lines are in danger of being crossed. For example, some were outraged in June to learn that the Bush campaign sought out church directories of congregations in Pennsylvania known to favor the president. Some churches are clarifying their position on politics before confusion ensues. On July 21, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent out a letter to all of its Mormon congregations instructing that it be read during worship services.


"It basically affirmed the constitutional right for the church to express itself on political and social issues," says Dale Bills, the media relations manager for the LDS Church in Salt Lake City. "It also reaffirmed its long-standing policy of neutrality regarding political parties and platforms, and candidates for political office."


Still, this politically neutral letter was written two weeks after the Mormon Church stated that it "favored a constitutional amendment preserving marriage as the lawful union of a man and a woman."


"The common belief in this country is that if churches want to preserve their tax status, they can't lobby for an individual candidate," says McBride. "But its OK religiously to lobby for a cause."


"There's all kinds of strategy involved," adds Green. "Voter guides are available. Or a Sunday sermon is preached right before election. But there is very high motivation to preserve tax-exempt status, which is why these kind of 'politically neutral' letters get sent out."


"The political game is different than the church game, at least it's supposed to be," says Steve Allen, who recently was appointed as senior pastor of the Spokane church formerly known as Harvest Christian Fellowship and now known as The Bridge. "The biggest problem I have with politics is that the gospel is not about our morals, or about what we do or don't do. It's about what Jesus has done for us."


The 27-year-old Allen grew up watching his father Steve pastor the church. In the 1980s and early '90s, the congregation got very involved with the pro-life movement. "It's so easy for it to become all about morality," says Allen. "It takes Christianity into a place where the church becomes irrelevant, because it becomes more known for what it is against, instead of being for Jesus."


Despite the religious attendance gap numbers, Allen believes the relationship between personal faith and voting behavior is often very complex. "It's funny, but sometimes the gospel makes you more liberal than the greatest liberal," he says. "Other times, you become more conservative than the greatest conservative. But always you are searching for God's heart and love in the situation."


"I don't think political pollsters understand how a devout person experiences his or her religion," says McBride. "I've been to church the last four weeks. We prayed for peace. We prayed for people serving in the war. We prayed for our leaders, and for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. We prayed for those starving in Sudan." McBride pauses, letting her point sink in. These are also religious issues that matter deeply to religious people, but they can't all be neatly categorized.


"The religious attendance gap would likely disappear if you got rid of abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage, because these are the issues that mobilize regular church attendees," says Green. "There is simply an easier and more direct connection between traditional morality, cultural issues and the vote than there is with social justice and social welfare. There's no reason in principle why this should be true, but it just happens to be true these days."





Publication date: 08/19/04
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