Republican base loses faith
As midterm elections near, polls show that some religious voters are stepping off the GOP bandwagon.
Ever since George W. Bush named Jesus as his favorite philosopher and positioned himself as a strong man of faith, Republicans have increasingly been viewed as the party sympathetic to religion – with the Democrats found seriously wanting.Skip to next paragraph
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That may be changing.
With the Congressional election less than two weeks away, recent surveys show signs of a shift among religious voters that could give Democrats a boost.
A Gallup poll earlier this month found white religious voters "equally as likely to say they will vote Democratic as Republican." And a Pew Research poll last week found just 57 percent of white Evangelicals planning to vote Republican, a drop from 68 percent in 2002 and 74 percent in 2004. Among white Catholics, the decline was even greater.
"The GOP's problems with white Evangelicals are important, but they have even bigger problems with white Catholics," says John Green, senior fellow at Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "The survey shows a majority of white Catholics saying they'll vote for a Democratic congressional candidate; that's a return to where white Catholics would have been a decade or two ago."
The shift reflects plummeting support for the Republican administration and Congress over the war in Iraq and multiplying political scandals. But it appears that Democratic candidates' efforts to articulate their faith and values – and tie them to a broader range of issues – are also resonating with voters.
The party has initiated a serious effort to reach out to people of faith. For example, after a series of meetings with religious and lay leaders across the state, the Michigan Democratic Party has written language on the role of faith into its party platform.
Meanwhile, Christian conservatives are working hard to ramp up support for their priority social issues and get out the Republican vote, but they admit there is less enthusiasm this time around.
"Several factors play into a level of enthusiasm that is less than it was two years ago," says Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, a conservative religious group. "It's not a presidential election year, ... the threat [of same-sex marriage] has diminished in the minds of many, and you've had scandal in the Republican party.
"The Foley episode has caused some to step back and say, 'Wait a minute: What are the core values of the Republican party?' " he adds. "That's caused some to ask whether the big-tent strategy has led to the point where we've got a three-ring circus."
The buzzword after the 2004 election was the "values voter." Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry was criticized for not speaking convincingly in the language of faith, while the party was charged with being hostile to religion.
That opened the door wide for religious folk outside the conservative camp to begin to speak more openly. A host of books by progressive people of faith hit the market asserting that Christian values ranged far beyond what conservatives were promoting, particularly caring for the poor and environmental issues. A number of new organizations formed to galvanize moderate and liberal Christians.
Red Letter Christians – named for the teachings of Jesus printed in red letters in some Bible editions – advocate "an evangelicalism marked by compassion and justice," in the words of cofounder Tony Campolo, professor emeritus at Eastern University, a Baptist-affiliated university in St. David's, Pa.
The Catholic Alliance for the Common Good organized to inform Catholic voters on the "full range of issues" they should consider given Catholic social teachings. Last month the group distributed more than a million voter guides.
Christian Democrats established a new online community, Faithfuldemocrats.com, to engage religious and political leaders and ordinary Americans in discussions on putting faith into action. They aim to show that the Republican party doesn't have a monopoly on values or on being Christian.
"I don't know how many Tennesseans have told me that their pastor or Sunday School teacher told them you cannot be a Democrat and a Christian," says State Sen. Roy Herron, a Democratic leader in the Tennessee legislature and a co-founder of the online community.