Growing gap at ballot box: religious vs. secular vote

Rising concern about nation's morals has drawn more churchgoers into GOP camp.

Religion is making a bigger impact at America's ballot box.

In the 2000 election, a voter's religion - not income, gender, or age - often best predicted whom they chose between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Despite all the talk about the importance of a "gender gap," a new study finds that among Mormons, for instance, both men and women voted solidly for Mr. Bush. Overall, 88 percent of Mormon voters backed the former Texas governor.

On the other hand, some 77 percent of Jewish voters - rich and poor, men and women - cast their ballots for Mr. Gore.

The study, conducted by the University of Akron Survey Research Center in Ohio, also found that it makes a big difference whether people are deeply committed to their faiths, or just nominally religious.

Among evangelical white Protestants, the largest religious group in America, those who attend church at least once a week voted 84 percent in favor of Bush. But among those who attend only occasionally, just 55 percent voted for the new president.

White mainline Protestant churchgoers also favored Bush over Gore, 66 percent to 34 percent, while less-observant mainline Protestants backed Bush by a narrower 57 to 43 margin.

Likewise, 57 percent of highly observant Roman Catholics supported Bush. But among those who went to Mass only occasionally, 59 percent voted for Gore.

The Clinton effect

The 1990s saw several key religious groups gravitate toward the Republicans, says John Green, director of the Akron Survey Research Center.

Early in the campaign, Gore made a strong appeal to religious groups but, Dr. Green says, his efforts "stumbled" because of his association with former President Clinton's moral lapses.

On the other hand, Bush was never able to win over black evangelical Protestants. On Election Day, he pulled in a scant 4 percent of the black evangelical vote.

John DiIulio, a professor of politics and religion at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says the most important lesson of the Akron survey is that, with a few exceptions, the more religiously observant people were, the more often they voted Republican.

Conversely, secular voters supported Gore over Bush by 65 percent to 35 percent.

Yet Dr. DiIulio cautions that by no means has American politics become "all about religion." Other factors like economics and race are also motivating voters.

Green says the trend toward religious motivation in voting can be attributed to rising concern about the nation's morals. It also stems from what many Americans perceive as a hostile attitude by government, media, and academia toward the role of religion in America.

This concern is most keenly felt in rural areas, in the suburbs, and in the central and southern parts of the United States. There appears to be a growing divide between those areas and the more cosmopolitan cities, particularly on the East and West Coasts.

Evangelicals and many others of strong faith want religious institutions to have "an honored place" in American life vis-a-vis the government, Green says. Many don't think they can get that with the Democrats.

The major exceptions, of course, are black evangelicals and Jewish voters.

Black evangelicals are among the most devout and socially conservative voters, and might ordinarily have an affinity for the conservative GOP. Yet those attractions are being outweighed by blacks' preference for a strong federal government that will protect minority rights.

Jewish voters, often culturally liberal, are often troubled by Christian conservatives' goals, such as vouchers for parochial schools that challenge the principle of church-state separation.

Challenges for both parties

America's religious community has always been a battleground for opposing political forces, even in Colonial days.

It remains to be seen whether the next Democratic presidential candidate, out from under the Clinton shadow, can win back conservative white Christians.

Meanwhile, Republicans know they have a serious challenge with black churchgoers. Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster from Atlanta, says drawing blacks into the GOP camp will be a slow process, but that it can be done by emphasizing issues that are important to the black community, such as economic development and fighting illegal drugs.

"It's a matter of chipping away," he says. Republicans are "never going to get a majority of the black vote, but if you can go from 5 percent to 15 or 20, you have changed a lot of elections."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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