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."
But would it bother him if a candidate didn't believe in God at all? He pauses. "Sure. Their good parts would have to far outweigh the bad side of the equation."
Carol Jackson, 57, of Falls Church refers deliberately to her traditional Anglicanism when considering her vote. She wants to know how candidates understand God and in what way that drives their actions. In 2000, she voted for Bush in part because she was moved by his story of salvation. "I took him at his word that he had dedicated himself to honor God and follow Christ in a cleaned-up, humble lifestyle."
But today Jackson, the director of a nonprofit affordable housing agency, looks at the Bush administration's "self-righteousness" abroad and a war-heavy budget and appraises him as "a little spiritually stuck."
As she puts it, if Bush were in her Bible study group, "I'd say: 'What have you done with Jesus Christ lately?' "
As the 2008 election approaches, she's trying to fend off the skepticism that led her to vote for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004. She wants to hear candidates talk about their faith values, but feels a bit burned. "Less is more," she says.
When Jackson hears Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) talk about his faith, she hears him "trying to be all things to all people." If he had to stand before God today, she wonders, would he be able to articulate a clear statement of faith? "He doesn't say the words I'd hope he'd say, which is that there is a God in heaven who sacrificed his only son," she says.
A minute later, she says she could see herself voting for someone who isn't a true believer in Jesus, as long as he or she didn't pretend to be. "I like genuine integrity."
And while Jackson prays for people not to pursue same-sex relationships, she is angered by politicians such as Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), the former GOP presidential candidate, who oppose civil union-type protections, seeing the whole issue as God's affair.
A different Pew Research Center poll, released in September, underscores the blurriness between faith and voting. While a vast majority of respondents said they want a president with "strong religious beliefs," they also ranked front-runners Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Rudy Giuliani (R), former New York mayor, as the least religious.
Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, said if a shift takes place at the voting booth among religious Americans, it could well be part of a general anti-Republican swing. "Republicans are doing less well, by every measure we have," he said.
Dianne Downs, who works for a missionary organization and coaches her church softball team, said she has lost faith in presidential candidates. They say they're driven by religious values, but then flip-flop on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, or don't attend worship services, said Downs, 45, of Germantown. She is looking for consistency.
Downs says she is turned off by Giuliani's divorces and Romney's previous support for gay rights and abortion. Those positions, to her, are un-Christian.
"Both of these men profess deep faith, but if you look into their lives, there seems to be signals that there is a major flaw," said Downs, who considers herself a nondenominational Christian.
Yet even on these issues, her views can sound imprecise.
It's not that Giuliani is divorced, it's "how he's lived that." And while at one point she says she "will not" vote for a supporter of abortion rights, she then says she prefers to vote for someone who opposes abortion. "If there was no option but to vote for someone who professed to support it, I'd still vote."
Sadie Healy, a 23-year-old who was raised Catholic in Cincinnati, said she cringes at too much religious talk from candidates. After voting for Bush in 2004 because her then-pastor, at a nondenominational evangelical church, told her "Christians should vote for Bush," Healy is wary of judging other people's relationship with God.
"I have a hard time when people head down that way. I am not God, and so, so far from it, it is never mine to question" someone else's faith, said Healy, a social worker who lives in Washington and now worships at a Baptist church. "I just want to know their personal story, to be honest -- how they came to faith."
But what constitutes a "story" isn't clear-cut. Healy thinks she understands Obama because she heard him talk about his upbringing, and how it led him to work with the poor in inner-city Chicago. But in hearing Clinton talk about her faith values, Healy wasn't clear about how they were formed. Was it a specific religious experience? Something she was taught?
One thing she knows: She'd prefer to vote for someone who believes in God -- she thinks.
"I'd like to think I'd be behind the best candidate, I don't know . . ." she says, her voice trailing off. "Basically, people resonate with people who are like them."