Political Tide Turning

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007

E xperts watching the 2008 presidential election say they see ferment in a segment of the population that has long been more likely to vote Republican: religious Americans.

Since the 1980s, white Americans who attend regular worship services and describe themselves as religious have been much more likely to say in polls that they are Republican than Democrat or independent. Even among minority groups that vote heavily Democratic -- Jews, blacks, Latinos -- the more religious people are, the more likely they are to vote Republican.

But early data suggest that some of the religious vote is up for grabs next year. While exit polls showed that 82 percent of white evangelical Protestants who attend church weekly voted for President Bush in 2004, only 60 percent of the same group said they expected to vote GOP in 2008, according to a Pew Research Center survey released this year. Among weekly-attending white Catholics, the percentage dropped from 61 percent to 38 percent; among weekly-attending white mainline Protestants, from 57 percent to 36 percent.

Pollsters and political scientists say some religious voters who supported Bush now feel discouraged, either by the war in Iraq, or by the rich-poor gap, or because they feel he didn't go far enough on the hot-button social issues they cared about, such as abortion and gay marriage. And new issues have risen in importance for religious voters that are not seen as GOP priorities, such as the environment.

Concern about the ferment was apparent last weekend in Washington, where thousands of Christian conservatives were being courted by GOP candidates at a conference of the Family Research Council. Christian leaders have lamented recently that none of the GOP candidates seems able to enthuse their constituents.

Fifty-seven percent of Americans say religion is important (or very important) in their lives, and 39 percent say religion is very important in their political thinking. But exactly how do their faith values lead them to vote a certain way, and how do they interpret the rising level of faith-talk from candidates?

In interviews with several religious voters, haziness is evident. They hold complex and sometimes contradictory views. They have litmus tests, but then make exceptions. They say that only God can judge another person's soul, and then, in the next breath, explain how that's just what they're trying to do themselves.

"One candidate might talk a lot about their religious upbringing. That might work, it might not. Another candidate might talk about issues and say, for example, 'I'm pro-life because of what the Bible says.' It might work, it might not. Most people respond to many things when they vote. It's too messy a business to see clearly," said political scientist John Green, who works with Pew.

Dan Hopkins is a 56-year-old real estate developer from Dallas. He goes to a Methodist church on Sundays and votes based "on morality issues," which for every presidential election since he was 18 has meant voting Republican. Shortly before the 2000 election, when Hopkins was seething with disgust over President Bill Clinton's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, he heard then-Gov. Bush speak at a prayer breakfast.

"I was impressed with his outlook on family. I hoped he would resurrect a higher moral standard to the office," he said.

Today, Hopkins is bracing himself to vote for a Democrat for president for the first time in his life. He is livid with the GOP for a long list of reasons, including turning its back on immigrants, facilitating the Iraq war and catering to religious conservatives, who he says "are the same level of fanatics as in the Middle East."

"The religious right has as much reason [as Bush] to be guilty; they took this country too far the other way," he said. "Isn't [former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt] Romney Mormon? That wouldn't bother me at all. Faith and morality aren't the same thing."

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