Faith factor seen fading in 2008 U.S. elections

October 28, 2007

Political materials at Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs, July 22, 2007Remember the “God gap”? During and after the 2004 U.S. elections, Washington was awash with talk that the Democrats were increasingly out of touch with the religious views of the voters, especially the evangelicals linked to the Republican Party. Karl Rove based President George Bush’s successful re-election campaign on that analysis. But since the mid-term vote in 2006, the “God gap” strategy has looked increasingly shaky. Several articles in recent days discuss how some of the evangelical communities in that supposedly solid voter bloc have turned away from the Republicans’ “wedge strategy”.

At the same time, articles are appearing about how U.S. Catholic bishops are putting the final touches on a pre-election statement that will urge Catholics to be “guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group”.

Our colleagues over at the Reuters U.S. political blog Tales from the Trail 2008 have already flagged the slump in evangelical support as seen in the polls and Dallas correspondent Ed Stoddard has highlighted the dilemma about how to appeal to “religious right” voters. Seeing several other articles on this shift prompted me to flag it to readers of this blog, especially those outside the United States who don’t follow American politics that closely.

On the evangelical side, the New York Times Magazine today has a long feature “The Evangelical Crackup” about how “the movement shows signs of coming apart beneath its leaders”. David Kirkpatrick quotes Bill Hybels, whom he calls “very possibly the single most influential pastor in America”, as saying the people in the pews were growing weary of religious right leaders who keep hammering away at the hot-button issues: “The Indians are saying to the chiefs, ‘We are interested in more that your two or three issues. We are interested in the poor, in racial reconciliation, in global poverty and AIDS, in the plight of women in the developing world’.”

Political Tide Turning,” a shorter story in today’s Washington Post, has the same message. Another solid analysis on the evolution of evangelical voters was at a discussion of two books about them at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington, called “Evangelicals and the Public Square.

Anti-abortion protester in New York, June 16, 2004

There was also a specifically Catholic dispute in 2004, over whether they could support a Catholic politician who did not follow Vatican teaching on abortion and whether priests could/should/would give them communion. The bishops were divided, with some saying “no” to both questions but most wanting to avoid “a confrontation at the altar rail”, as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick put it. The bishops asked Pope Benedict, at the time still the top Vatican doctrinal watchdog Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, for an opinion. He said priests should refuse communion to Catholic politicians who actively support abortion, but Catholics could vote for them if they did so because of other policies the candidates advocated.

The bishops are due to meet on Nov. 12-15 and vote on draft guidelines for Catholic voters called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) statement stressed, as did their statement in 2004, that they would not tell the faithful how to vote. The statement this time around says clearly that Catholics should be “guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group”, it said. The New York Times and America magazine ran stories on the upcoming statement at the weekend.

The America story has some interesting excerpts from the text. It says the draft document repeats the Ratzinger argument that Catholics can vote in good conscience for a Catholic politician who supports abortion if they do so “despite the candidate’s … position but because of other proportionate reasons”. It does not mention the issue of giving communion to a pro-abortion Catholic candidate. America hasn’t run the full text, so we can’t say with certainty that the bishops have skirted the other part of Ratzinger’s letter “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion, General Principles.” But, having seen the communion issue become a political football in 2004, it does look like they do not want it to be part of next year’s campaign

“Although some bishops have denied communion to pro-choice politicians and have told Catholics not to vote for them, this document does not endorse either position,” Fr. Thomas Reese S.J., former editor-in-chief of America, wrote in an analysis. “The bishops are clearly upset with pro-choice Democrats who defend themselves by saying that they are with the bishops on issues of justice and peace. But the bishops are equally upset with Republicans who oppose programs to help the poor and say that abortion is the only issue that matters. The bishops are unhappy with either response.”

But they are not unanimous about this. St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, who said in 2004 he would refuse communion to Kerry, has said he would do the same if Rudy Giuliani turned up in his communion line.

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The United States must (refering to George Washington) independent! Any other Person than John McCain becoming our president might serve the german enemy but never the people or the spirit of America! We must be careful that foreign powers won’t influence too much the fate of our country! John McCain is 100% american and i will give him my vote!!!

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