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Evangelicals Say They Led Charge For the GOP

In Ohio, Lori Viars held a party for Moms and Kids for Bush at a local McDonald's. As co-chair of her county's GOP committee, she also spearheaded a registration drive at churches that began July 4. "By the time the Bush campaign said, 'You should do voter registration through churches,' we were already doing that," Viars said.

National religious leaders, and their lawyers, also made a concerted effort to persuade pastors to disregard the warnings of secular groups about what churches can and cannot legally do in the political arena.

Evangelical Christians, such as these activists, were often urged by churches to vote their convictions. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

Exit Poll Data Inconclusive on Increase in Evangelical Voters

Exit polls do not permit a direct comparison of how many evangelical and born-again Americans voted in 2000 and 2004 because the way pollsters identified these voters changed. Four years ago voters leaving polls were asked: "Do you consider yourself part of the conservative Christian political movement, also known as the religious right?" In 2004, the question was changed to: "Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?"

Fourteen percent answered "yes" in 2000 and 23 percent did so in 2004, but polling specialists said the 2004 wording virtually assures more affirmative answers.

The percentage of voters who said they attend church more than once a week grew from 14 to 16 percent, a significant difference in an election decided by three percentage points. These voters backed President Bush over John F. Kerry 64 percent to 35 percent. Similarly, the percent of the electorate that believes abortion should be "illegal in all cases" grew from 13 to 16 percent. These voters backed Bush by 77 percent to 22 percent.

In the two major battlegrounds, Ohio and Florida, exit polls showed Bush substantially improved his support among voters who attend church more than once a week. At the same time, the percentage of the electorate that goes to church this often actually fell.

-- Thomas B. Edsall

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Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, advised in mailings to 45,000 churches that their clergy should avoid endorsing a candidate by name from the pulpit. Other than that, "we told them they were absolutely free and should encourage their people to vote their convictions," he said.

Such entreaties appear to have worked. Sekulow said he believes that thousands of clergy members gave sermons about the election, and that many went further than they ever had before. The Rev. Rick Warren, author of the best-selling "The Purpose Driven Life" and one of the most influential ministers in the country, sent a letter to 136,000 fellow pastors urging them to compare the candidates' positions on five "non-negotiable" issues: abortion, stem cell research, same-sex marriage, human cloning and euthanasia.

Dobson, a powerful figure among evangelicals, endorsed Bush -- though he said he was doing so as an individual, not as chairman of Focus on the Family, whose programs are heard on 7,000 radio stations worldwide. "This year the issues were so profound that I felt I simply could not sit it out," Dobson said last week.

Far from sitting it out, Dobson created a separate nonprofit, Focus on the Family Action, which organized six stadium-size rallies to urge Christians in battleground states to "vote their values."

A values voter, Dobson said, is someone with "a Christian worldview who begins with the assumption that God is -- that he not only exists, but he is the definer of right and wrong, and there are some things that are moral and some things that are immoral, some things that are evil and some things that are good."

Although liberals may mock Bush for his good-vs.-evil approach to the world, it "is seen by many of us not as a negative but as a positive," Dobson said. "Here is a man who is simply committed to a system of beliefs."

Staff writer James V. Grimaldi in Ohio, polling assistant Christopher Muste and researchers Carmen E. Chapin, Madonna A. Lebling and Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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