Charlottesville, Va. — Religion, which has faded as a factor in this year's presidential primaries, could become more significant in the general election, say church representatives and scholars interviewed here at a conference on religion in public life. At the meeting this week, sponsored by the nonprofit Williamsburg Charter Foundation, there was some consensus by those on both the political left and right on these points:
The conservative religious community will rally around probable Republican nominee George Bush, but only if he establishes clear credibility on religion-related issues, including opposition to abortion, advocacy of school prayer, and public aid to parochial education.
Democratic front-runner Michael Dukakis is acceptable to Protestants and Roman Catholics, but needs to prove himself to Jewish voters.
A vice-presidential running mate with evangelical ties, such as Jack Kemp, could significantly draw the religious right to the Republican camp.
Neither party should take the religious vote for granted. Many of those committed to a greater role for religion in the public arena and others who advocate clear separation of church and state still haven't yet made up their minds.
``Bush can't win without the religious right,'' insists Michael Woodruff, director of the Christian Legal Society's Center of Law and Religious Freedom. Mr. Woodruff, a staunch conservative, criticizes most of the presidential hopefuls for sidestepping religious and moral issues.
He expects to hear more moral dialogue ``down the road.'' Woodruff warns, however, that if a candidate cultivates the religious community and then ``fails to deliver,'' there will be a backlash in 1992 similar to that dealt by evangelicals to Jimmy Carter in 1980.
John Swomley, a liberal religious scholar who is chairman of the Church State Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union, says religion is ``subliminal'' as a political factor this year. Mr. Swomley believes that Mr. Bush will ``ride on Reagan's record'' on religious issues.
James Reichley, a religious scholar who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the religious issue has ``receded'' with the collapse of the presidential campaign of former televangelist Pat Robertson. ``When people think about Jesse Jackson, the fact that he is a minister scarcely enters their minds,'' he notes.
The Rev. Dean Kelley, director of religious and civil liberties for the National Council of Churches, expects that religion will be less of an issue in 1988 than in the last three presidential campaigns. He says that Bush could inherit the Reagan mantle with the religious right.
``With Dukakis, it is a non-issue,'' he insists. The NCC leader is concerned about potential Supreme Court choices of the next White House occupant. He says, however, that even a politically right-leaning court is not likely to capitulate to pressure from religious conservatives to significantly break down the wall of separation between church and state.
Samuel Rabinove, legal director of the American Jewish Committee, says Bush is not perceived by the religious right in the same way that Ronald Reagan is. ``He's not a a religious ideologue. He's not one of them.''
Mr. Rabinove says conservative religionists will likely vote against Dukakis, however. He adds that it is a factor with some voters that Dukakis's wife is Jewish.
``There's still a bigotry in the US that will work against a Dukakis or a [New York Gov. Mario] Cuomo,'' he adds. Rabinove allows, however, that this may be as much an ethic consideration as a religious one.