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Correction to This Article
A Nov. 7 article about religious conservatives incorrectly described Dennis Prager as a Christian. He is Jewish. His commentary had been replayed on a Christian radio program.

For the President, a Vote of Full Faith and Credit

Evangelical Christians Shed Their Reluctance to Mix Religion and Politics on Election Day

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2004; Page A07

The 2004 presidential race and its aftermath have brought a new fusion between religion and politics.

For the first time, vast numbers of evangelical Christians showed their clout at the grass-roots level without being organized by a national group such as the Christian Coalition or the Moral Majority. And the candidates showed an increasing willingness to wear their faith on their sleeves -- not just President Bush but also Democratic nominee John F. Kerry, who was known to exhort audiences "Let us pray. Let us move our feet. Let us march together and let us lead America in a new direction, toward that mountaintop which has always been our destination."

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Many religious conservatives have asserted that Bush owes his victory to values voters. That is partially true; more voters (22 percent) said their top issue was moral values than any other single issue, and an anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative in Ohio helped Bush win that crucial state. But, according to exit polls, moral issues ranked below national security issues (34 percent when terrorism and Iraq were taken together) and economic issues (25 percent when combined with taxes).

But the election was unique in the assertiveness of evangelicals and the overt appeals made by the candidates to the faithful. Religious conservatives have been a force in national politics since Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign. But in the past, evangelicals participated in politics reluctantly, at the urging of such figures as Jerry Falwell and, later, Pat Robertson. This time, more than 26 million of them turned out -- 23 percent of the electorate -- in local church-based networks coordinated closely with the Bush campaign.

"You see the maturation of a movement that began in the late '70s with the Moral Majority," said Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "Now these people don't need to be told. They have their own opinions about the state of the culture, and they've gotten organized. It has more power because it's decentralized and organized."

Barry W. Lynn, who runs Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, concurred. "The big sea change was how many local churches and small-fry evangelical preachers entered the effort to get Bush elected," he said. "That you didn't see before."

The two men also say evangelicals have become more comfortable as political actors. "It used to be evangelicals said politics is worldly, and we don't want to get into that," Cromartie said. Now, "politics is part of one's duty. It's a lack of loving your neighbor not to be involved."

Lynn said that a number of evangelicals, inspired in part by minister Tim LaHaye's "Left Behind" novels, have come to view politics as part of their religion. "There is a strain of evangelical Christians who believe it is political figures who usher in the Second Coming," he said. As such, Bush "is the spiritual and political leader of a moral revolution."

Though such views are a minority, there were glimpses of that passion on the campaign trail. Last month, at an invitation-only meeting with Vice President Cheney, a questioner rose and said: "I personally think, next to Jesus Christ, [Bush] probably took the greatest load upon his shoulders of any individual, so it had to be with strong backing that he has been able to stand for his testimony for the Lord Jesus Christ."

At another invitation-only event, a questioner asking about Bush's "faith-based initiatives" told the president: "I believe that the enemy that we need the greatest freedom from right now happens to be Satan, and it's the enemy that we also don't necessarily always see. There's so many people who are being attacked on every level."

Leaders of Christian political organizations have spoken of Tuesday's results as providential. "Only the Lord could have orchestrated an election in which the president got a wonderful majority vote and at the same time we had a basic Christian institution of marriage on the ballot," Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family's vice president of public policy, said on the group's radio show this week.

The organization's head, James Dobson, said, "I think God has honored" Bush because "the president did acknowledge Jesus Christ." The same program broadcast a statement by Dennis Prager, a Christian commentator, saying "civilization as we understand it was in the balance" in the election, and "a beautiful man has been vindicated."

Going back to Jimmy Carter, modern presidential candidates have made their faith a public matter. But in this year's race, both candidates were particularly overt in admitting religion into their politics -- no surprise, because a poll conducted earlier this year by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 68 percent of Americans think it important that a president have strong religious beliefs. Kerry spoke at black churches and made a point of talking about his youth as an altar boy. "Faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday," he said. His campaign launched "People of Faith for Kerry-Edwards" and organized "People of Faith Potlucks."

Kerry, however, was no match for Bush, who endeared himself to born-again Christians in a 1999 GOP debate when he said that "when you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as savior, it changes the heart and changes your life." While Bush spoke of religion then as a private matter, he became more effusive as his presidency continued, regularly using the language of evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians.

In a State of the Union address, he said: "We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history. May he guide us now." He also echoed a hymn in proclaiming: "There is power -- wonder-working power -- in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people." After Reagan died in June, Bush delivered a deeply religious eulogy, tracing Reagan from "the faith of a boy who read the Bible with his mom" to a time when "he sees his savior face to face."

In his campaign this year, Bush's most reliable applause line was his vow on abortion and same-sex marriage: "I stand for marriage and family, which are the foundations of our society. I stand for a culture of life in which every person matters and every being counts."

Now, religious matters may play a more prominent role in Bush's second term, in part because religious conservatives say they are owed a reward by Bush and in part because there are fewer Democrats in the Senate to block favorites of religious conservatives from getting to Bush's desk. There are possible constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and flag burning, and antiabortion legislation such as a bill requiring those receiving an abortion to be offered anesthesia for the fetus.

Other proposals would provide vouchers for religious schools, expand allowing churches to engage in political campaigns without endangering their tax-exempt status, and forbid courts from considering challenges to government expressions of religious belief.

The fireworks have already begun. After Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) was quoted as saying Wednesday that it is "unlikely" the Senate would approve Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, an outcry from religious conservatives suggesting Specter should be denied chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee prompted Specter to issue a statement saying he supported all of Bush's nominees.

Evangelical leaders are pushing for rapid action. "The defense of innocent unborn human life, the protection of marriage, and the nomination and confirmation of federal judges who will interpret the Constitution, not make law from the bench, must be first priorities, come January," D. James Kennedy, president of Coral Ridge Ministries, said in a statement published by WorldNetDaily, a conservative Web site.

The Web site also published a commentary by Roger Fredinburg stating: "I feel that divine intervention is responsible for the blessings we received today. The hand of providence has once again protected America from the deceptions of evil men, and we have been given yet one more chance to get it right."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company