Religion is often a hot-button topic in presidential elections, and this year's campaigning has included some unprecedented twists. Never before have Roman Catholic bishops questioned the Catholicism of one of the candidates, nor have strategists of any party ever attempted to access church membership lists.
"In 2000, it was hard to imagine the campaign could get more religiously infused, but 2004 seems to be topping that," says Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, in New York.
A new survey released Thursday offers insight into how Americans perceive the interaction between religion and politics. The survey was done by the Forum and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
While a huge majority (72 percent) affirms that a US president should have strong religious beliefs - and the public is comfortable with leaders talking about their faith and using it to guide policymaking - most are wary about involvement of religious leaders and houses of worship in partisan politics.
On the question of moral values, while 64 percent say they will be very important to their vote, the highly visible issue of gay marriage ranks as among the least important priorities raised in the survey, of significance only among white evangelical Protestants. On the emerging issue of stem-cell research, a slight majority (52 percent) now supports research over protecting human embryos (34 percent).
One significant surprise is the way the nationwide poll of 1,512 adults challenges the conventional wisdom - oft repeated in the media - of a big "religion gap" between the parties, with Republicans being largely the party of the religious and Democrats the party of secular Americans.
Other surveys suggest the gap is less than has been touted. Recently released data from the American Religious Self-Identification Survey of 2001 indicates that people with a "religious outlook" on life tend to favor the Republicans, people with a "secular outlook" tend to identify as independents, and the Democratic Party holds the middle ground, attracting those with a "somewhat religious outlook."
In this week's Pew poll, 52 percent called the Republican Party "religion-friendly" and 40 percent termed Democrats the same, with 34 percent calling the latter "religion-neutral."
As for how much the candidates discuss their faith, 56 percent said Kerry mentions it "the right amount," and 53 percent credit Bush similarly. The proportion of Americans who criticize the president for discussing faith "too much" rose from 14 to 24 percent in the past year.
The candidates run about even on who would do the best job in improving the nation's moral climate (45 percent for Kerry and 41 percent for Bush).
"This is surprising, as there's been a lot of commentary saying Kerry wasn't holding his own on religion," says Dr. Lugo. "These figures suggest he has made significant headway in convincing voters that he takes his faith seriously."
Lugo says the controversy with Catholic bishops may have actually worked to the senator's advantage. That controversy - in which some bishops said that the pro-choice candidate should not take communion - is one of the stunning developments of the campaign.
"This has turned history on its head," says Charles Haynes, director of education programs at Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. "In 1960, John Kennedy tried to demonstrate he wasn't too Catholic to be president; now we have a Catholic candidate attempting to prove he is Catholic enough. Today the Catholic vote, as one-quarter of the population, is critical ... and increasingly up for grabs."
In the Pew poll, Catholics express greater opposition than other Americans to the idea of Catholic leaders denying communion to politicians who defy teachings on abortion.
While 64 percent of Americans disapprove of such action, 72 percent of Catholics called it improper.
Both parties have hit bumps in the road in attempting to engage the faithful. To shore up its religion credentials, the Democratic Party recently hired a liaison to religious organizations. But the Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson resigned almost immediately, under fire for earlier having signed a legal brief in support of the atheist who sought to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.
Republicans have been criticized for crossing the church-state boundary to seek church rosters for help in the campaign. Some Evangelical leaders and Christian ethicists warned the action was inappropriate and endangered churches' tax-exempt status.
"I've not seen anything like that before," says Dr. Haynes. "But the criticism hasn't stopped Republicans from going directly to a demographic they know will be heavily for the president's reelection."
The Pew poll reveals opposition across denominations to political parties asking for church membership lists. Sixty-nine percent called it improper. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say churches shouldn't endorse political candidates.
On issues of highest priority to voters, the economy, terrorism, healthcare, Iraq, and education ranked most important. Swing voters' priorities more closely matched those of the Kerry camp, with the economy and healthcare topping their agendas and abortion and gay marriage at the bottom of the list. Bush supporters ranked terrorism and moral values highest, with the environment and budget deficit at the bottom.