AMERICAN VALUES: THE POLITICS OF RELIGION
Issues of Faith Shape Debates
By Hanna Rosin
LITTLE ROCK In a brief lull between morning appearances recently, Senate candidate Blanche Lincoln paused to reflect on her devotional habits. "I've always had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ," she explained with a kindergarten teacher's enthusiasm. "When I talk to Him it's pretty informal. I just lay it all out there, say it like it is," she said with a laugh.
With the pervasive presence of religion in politics, it is no longer surprising that a candidate for public office would so casually reveal her innermost thoughts on God. What is unusual is that this candidate is not the Republican challenger, but a centrist Democrat, who attends services at both black and white churches around Arkansas and who addresses parishioners as her "brothers and sisters in Christ." So far, her Bible-based values are helping to give her the edge over her traditional Christian right opponent, Republican Fay Boozman.
For nearly two decades now, candidates have mistakenly assumed that the Christian right had a lock on religious voters, and that Americans who espoused a strong role for religion in politics also backed the conservative agenda on issues such as abortion, taxes or prayer in schools. But in congressional and gubernatorial races around the country, Democratic candidates like Lincoln are increasingly discovering that the views of devout Americans cannot be so easily typecast, and they are making an organized, unprecedented effort to win these voters' allegiance.
Not since the civil rights era, political analysts say, have Democratic challengers so aggressively and openly used religious language in their campaigns, threading it into positions on such popular issues as education and health care and calibrating the best way to organize these voters.
Democratic efforts to regain the holy ground are partly a defensive reaction to the Christian Coalition's success. But there is also a growing realization that an enormous political prize awaits candidates who successfully tap this underrepresented pool of voters.
A national survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University shows that the American electorate is deeply religious and places spirituality high among its most prized values. Nearly seven in 10 people say religion is very important in their everyday lives, and 19 percent say it is the most important value. Just over 40 percent attend religious services at least once a week, and 36 percent say they pray several times a day.
Within those numbers, though, are some surprising political dynamics. Democrats are just as religious as Republicans, with almost as many Democrats attending church and praying regularly as Republicans. And black Democrats match white born-again Republicans in the depth of their religious convictions 37 percent of African Americans name religion as the most important thing in their lives, twice the national average.
As a result, candidates are beginning to offer competing views of how religious beliefs should be translated into political terms. If the Christian right invokes the morality of individual responsibility to argue against welfare, many religious Democrats may counter that their commitment to serving the poor leads them to the opposite conclusion.
The battle for the loyalty of religious Democrats has already begun. In addition to the usual signposts of family values images of candidates with their children and dogs and suburban homes political strategists say Americans can soon expect to see snapshots of mainstream candidates from both parties at Sunday morning worship, and hear emotional testimonies of their personal conversions and relationship with Jesus.
Lincoln is at the forefront of Democrats who have already perfected the art of wooing religious voters. But other Democrats are catching on. In Alabama, when the Christian Coalition held a banquet last year inviting only Republicans, the state Democratic Party countered with a religious banquet of its own.
"I've never seen Democrats doing any of this," said Bob Beckerle, who follows local races for the Interfaith Alliance, a liberal-leaning counterweight to Republican religious right groups. "They're trying to deal with the Christian Coalition's manipulation and marking off of these voters."
Across the country, the Interfaith Alliance has organized groups of clergy to spread the message that "faith can find many different political expressions," said C. Walton Gaddy, the group's executive director. "Should religion and politics mix? Yes, the crucial question is how."
Indeed, the deepest divide in America today is not between pious Republicans and secular Democrats but between large groups within each party, one of which favors religious groups getting involved in politics and the other that prefers they stay out.
The Republicans who resist religion in politics are a well-recognized group staunch libertarians and socially liberal Republicans who are often at odds with the Christian right. But the Democrats are so evenly split between those who want religion in public life and those who don't that many analysts are wondering whether the religious warring that has fractured the Republican Party in the last two decades has the potential to take root in the Democratic Party.
Whether an intraparty division develops among Democrats may depend on how actively candidates pursue religious voters, and whether these voters begin to unify and organize. So far, polling data suggest that religion may have less power to set off explosive splits within the Democratic Party because the most religious Democrats are disproportionately women and African Americans, two constituencies embraced by the secular left wing of their party.
And unlike Republicans, who have been unable to ignore their religious wing because in its ranks are the activists who organize rallies, lick envelopes and turn out on Election Day, the poll suggests that religious Democrats who favor mixing church and state are still no more active than the rest of their party.
Although Republicans have most successfully plied the religious electorate in recent years, they didn't invent this strategy. It was Democrats who first introduced religion into modern politics when, during the civil rights era, the left mobilized mainly black churches as well as synagogues to protest the Vietnam War. But for the next 20 years religion made only fleeting appearances among Democrats, with Jimmy Carter's born-again evangelism and Bill Clinton's "New Covenant."
For the most part, however, religious politics became synonymous with the Christian right. These religious conservatives, who once shunned politics as the tainted earthly realm, became mobilized, reacting against what they saw as the encroachment of corrupted modern culture into their once secluded communities. They insisted that biblical values guide politicians, and the Christian Coalition was born.
Now, mainstream Democrats, provoked by the Christian right's own success, are fighting back.
"The temptation is to cast the left's reaction in secular terms but it's actually very religious," said John Green, a historian of religion at the University of Akron.
This group has a very different set of values than the Christian Coalition, and voters who listen beyond the generic biblical cue words will detect that difference in the Arkansas race.
A Testing Ground
Indeed, the Senate battle here is in many ways a testing ground for the evolving role of religion in politics. Religion has not become an explicit issue the candidates mostly jockey over a standard list of campaign fare from education to taxes to health care. But it pervades the race in subtle ways. Both candidates tap into the state's most spiritually minded voters by talking freely about their own religious beliefs, while presenting sharply different views of how those beliefs should translate into the public arena.
At the extremes it is easy to predict whom each candidate might attract. Boozman, the Republican, has a lock on voters who want Christian principles to define their candidate's every decision, and who assume those principles will lead to standard conservative positions such as no exceptions on abortion and encouraging prayer in schools.
"We need more Christians up in Washington," said Ruth Armstrong, a retired volunteer who showed up at a rally of Veterans for Boozman wearing a silver cross around her neck. "I don't see how you can keep Christianity and politics separate. Anyone can say they're Christian, but you've got to be an outspoken Christian, and it's got to be the basis of everything you do."
At the other end, Lincoln, despite her biblically laced message, has a lock on the sliver of Arkansans who object to any display of religion by a public candidate, and who don't want government to make any decisions about abortion or prayer in schools. Richard Hutchison came to a candidate forum held at an AME church but said he does not normally go to church. "Religion is a private matter," he said, untangling his "Star Trek" tie from the "I Love Blanche" sign around his neck. "I wouldn't want any of them imposing their views on me. I like her because she's a hard worker and she understands the issues."
But in the great spongy middle stand the majority of Arkansas voters who hold more shaded views about mixing the earthly and spiritual realms. They want their candidates to read the Bible but not necessarily to vote by it. They may agree with the Christian Coalition that this country has lost its moral bearings, but they bristle when the pastor starts handing out voter guides at church. They may think abortion is wrong but they can see situations when it might be necessary. They may support prayer in schools, as long as Jewish prayers count also.
Candidates in Arkansas have already learned that the religious electorate is not easily stereotyped.
About 40 percent of Arkansans say they have had a personal conversion experience with Jesus Christ, according to a poll conducted by the Clinton campaign in 1992. Yet half of those supported sex education in schools. Arkansans overwhelmingly attend church regularly, but only 12 percent said they oppose abortion under any circumstances. Many have few libertarian impulses, strongly supporting federal funding of education, the Family and Medical Leave Act and even welfare.
Arkansas and America
"Arkansas is a great place to debunk the conventional wisdom," said Celinda Lake, who conducted the poll and advises Lincoln. "There's a real stereotype about what conservative religious people believe and it's often wrong."
In their flexible faith, Arkansans mirror the rest of America. The depth of a person's religious conviction can predict attitudes about some issues, but not others. In the Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll, 62 percent of the most devout believers said abortion was always unacceptable. But that leaves a significant minority of those who classify themselves as overwhelmingly religious who tolerate abortion under certain conditions. Similarly, the more religious Americans are, the more willing they are to judge others they think are wrong. Still, 55 percent of the most religious Americans were skittish about imposing their views, agreeing that society should be more tolerant of people who choose to live by their own standards even if they think those people are wrong.
It's a toned-down religious conviction that Kathy Braughton, a Christian missionary, calls "low-key evangelism." "I think personal faith should affect the decisions we make, even in politics," she said, standing in the hallway of Immanuel Baptist Church, which President Clinton attends when he is home. "But there's a way to support biblical standards without appearing to be Jerry Falwell and forcing it on people."
In their efforts to win over voters who feel like Braughton, both candidates make subtle appeals to faith. Lincoln not only attends church services regularly throughout Arkansas, but, if asked, will talk about her uncle the minister, or her college days in the Campus Crusade for Christ. She does not explicitly set out to target any specific religious group, an adviser said. Instead, she talks about her religion as one of the factors, along with hearth and home, that has framed her value system. She hands out a voter card with a picture of her husband and smiling twin tots, guarded by a sphinx-like dog.
"Blanche is comfortable talking about her faith, and usually links faith and family," said her media consultant, Jim Duffy. "Ultimately you want to tie this person back to the voters, make them a person they would not be ashamed to have over for dinner."
So far, her strategy is working; Lincoln is winning across the state, polls suggest, and according to Lake, Lincoln is carrying churchgoing voters by 2 to 1.
Boozman, a state senator, makes far more explicit religious appeals. At the end of every campaign appearance, he signs off by pledging to be "a man of integrity who walks the talk and, with God's strength, who will make the difficult decisions that keep America great." On Sunday mornings Boozman testifies to congregations around the state, telling the story of how he became born again.
Yet if Boozman is the conventional Christian right candidate, Lincoln is an unexpected counterpoint, and she is co-opting issues Boozman thought he would own. "We're too afraid of religious expression," said Lincoln, recalling her happy days as a schoolgirl when a prayer came over the intercom each morning. "I grew up in a public school and we'd have prayers every once in a while." It is a politically wise position to take: In the Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll, 71 percent of Americans favored starting each day at public school with a prayer.
In her attitude toward homosexuality, Lincoln is the model of low-key evangelist. "Because of my upbringing I bring to it different views," she said. "I don't think that's what God intended for people to do. But God teaches us to love one another." Again, she is in sync with the 57 percent of Americans in the poll who do not find homosexuality acceptable, and the 87 percent who favor equal job opportunities for gays.
Even when she deviates from the standard religious right position, Lincoln cleverly phrases her opposition in Christian terms. "I don't think anyone's for abortion. But that's not a decision that should be made by government," she said. "It should be between a physician, a family and their Creator."
For all those who disagree, she encourages them to "witness it," using the Christian term for proselytize, "go tell it to your family, your church, anyone you can. The problem is, if we start to depend on government to implement our faith, then our faith has no value."
Finding a Mission
Boozman's personal narrative mirrors perfectly the history of modern evangelicals. Like many of his contemporaries, his political awakening seems almost indistinguishable from his religious reawakening. In the mid-1980s he realized he was living a life "not pleasing to God," both because he did not have a "real" enough personal relationship to Jesus, and because he was doing nothing to stem the moral decay in the world around him.
He found his mission one Sunday six years ago, when his pastor told the congregation that if they did not support candidates who value the sanctity of human life, then they needed to question their Christianity. Several people left the church in irritation with the pastor's political bluntness. But Boozman, an eye surgeon, began plotting a new life.
After "praying for guidance," he ran for state Senate and his political career was born. In person, Boozman is easygoing and infinitely accommodating to the people around him. But when it comes to governing, he is not shy about imposing his views on the country. His guidebook to Washington life is the Bible.
The Bible dictates his anti-tax, anti-government philosophy, he says. The first chapters of the Old Testament lay out the proper and limited jurisdiction of government, he explained. The rest of the Bible explains the central and forgotten role of family.
Lincoln's religion, by contrast, is ecumenical and multicultural: It flavors her opinions without dictating any specific views, left or right. The morning prayers that she remembers at her desegregated school were said by a Catholic nun or a rabbi or a black preacher.
Her conception of God excludes no one. "We are all children of God," she said. "Above and beyond what Christianity represents is God's love extended to everyone." When the Christian right accuses her of espousing a squishy, meaningless Christianity, she responds: "God's love is an absolute truth you can depend on absolutely. God's love is not judgmental."
Lincoln can say how her beliefs, no matter how vague, translate into hard political currency. Her openness to others, she said, will make her better prepared to reach bipartisan deals and avoid bickering, precisely what allowed her to help cut the budget as part of a centrist Democratic coalition during her time in Congress as a House member. Her concern for others leads her to preserve government programs helpful to farmers and the elderly in Arkansas, something she says her opponent's libertarian streak won't allow him to do. "Christ calls on us to reach out to one another, to the homeless, the elderly, those who need help," she said.
Lincoln's healthy lead suggests Arkansans are warming to her interpretation of God. "People here like their religion but they don't want it dictated by other folks who seem to operate with a sense of superiority," said Art English, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas who tracks local races.
That's exactly the beef that Margaret Langston, a Little Rock grandmother at the AME church forum, has with Boozman. "These Republicans don't know what religion is," she said, quoting the 25th chapter of Matthew, in which the Lord rewards those who feed the hungry and clothe the naked. "They just seem so mean. They are like fundamentalists and they're treading on my territory. Being religious means taking responsibility for the weak and poor."
Perhaps the best evidence that Democrats are winning Christian right territory is Boozman's last-minute scramble to mimic his opponent's muted Christianity. At one political rally, Boozman expressed a medical opinion that's now come to haunt him. It was rare for women to get pregnant during rape, he said, because their fear triggered hormonal changes that blocked conception. He denied he attributed the phenomenon to "God's little shield," as the local paper reported, but the incident has still marked him as suspect in some segments of Arkansas.
Now Boozman is sounding more and more like Lincoln. "Abortion is a personal religious conviction and we can't impose that," he said when asked about the rape quote. "The pro-life movement has to learn from the temperance movement. Taking the legislative route got them Al Capone. They have to win over the heart of society."
Then he offered a less philosophical reason: "I just have to remember when I'm in the personal arena I don't have the luxury of saying what I think."
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company