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.
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.
He says Democrats bear some responsibility for such perceptions. "The charge that some Democrats have been insensitive to religion is a valid one, and others of us have been keeping our lights under a bushel," he explains. "Some of us have been reluctant to speak of our faith in the political arena ... because we can see a danger that people deeply rooted in faith will seek to use God rather than be used by God." But now it's imperative "to tell the truth about our faith."
In the current campaign, a number of Democratic candidates are seeking to do just that. Prominent party leaders have led the way: Sen. Barack Obama's speech on faith and politics last June won wide play in the press and accolades from the public; Senator Kerry followed with a speech about his own religious convictions that many say he should have given in 2004.
Others in the political fray are opening up. In Ohio, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland has talked regularly about faith and values and is way out in front of his religious conservative opponent, Ken Blackwell. Ohio went for President Bush in 2004, but Republican scandals and a deteriorating economy have put the social issues promoted by conservatives on the back burner for many voters. Instead, raising the state minimum wage is garnering support from more than three-quarters of Ohioans, according to a recent poll.
In Tennessee, Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who is running for the US Senate, filmed a TV ad from his home church explaining his values and has a faith statement on his website. Pennsylvania state treasurer Bob Casey Jr., an anti-abortion Democrat running against conservative Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, has given the Democrats a different face on the abortion issue.
Such efforts "may help particular Democratic candidates get Evangelical votes, but it might be even more effective with Roman Catholic and mainline Protestants, groups that have been voting Republican but aren't as strongly wedded to the GOP," suggests Dr. Green, a longtime political analyst from Ohio.
Two other innovations may also benefit Democrats as they try to bring religious voters into the fold. A number of Democratic candidates are advertising for the first time on Christian radio. And national and state Democratic parties are working hard on outreach to religious groups. The chief of staff of the Democratic National Committee, in fact, is a Pentecostal pastor.
Mark Brewer, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, says their "listening meetings" with faith groups and rewriting of the platform have helped change perceptions. They also have policy initiatives involving faith groups, such as seeking common ground on abortion reduction.
"I want to make sure on an ongoing basis that people of faith feel comfortable participating in the party," Mr. Brewer says.
On a national level, however, this outreach is controversial among some secular party members. And the impact of such efforts remains to be proven.
Disillusionment among Christian conservatives may also be a factor. Along with the scandals, an explosive new book by David Kuo, former deputy in the White House office for the faith-based initiative, describes an administration that looked down on Christian leaders and chose not to deliver on promises while exploiting the Christian base for political advantage. In "Tempting Faith," Mr. Kuo calls on fellow Christians to go on "a fast" from politics for the next two years.
The religious right has been intensely active in recent weeks, holding a "values summit" and working to energize churches and voters. The Family Research Council sponsored a national TV broadcast from Boston Oct. 15, highlighting the same-sex marriage issue and its potential link to religious liberty.
Yet Mr. Perkins of the FRC is well aware of the changing environment. "The core of the Evangelical community sees voting not just as an opportunity, but as an obligation, so they'll vote," he says. "The real question is how many people they'll call and take to the polls with them."
He also acknowledges Democratic efforts. "It's going to have an impact, but to the degree of getting people to switch to the Democratic party, I doubt it at this point in time," he says. If Democrats begin to establish a track record on issues people care about, they could, he adds, "but it's going to take awhile."
Still, it's notable to hear a religious-right leader long wedded to the Republican camp then add: "I think competition is good for our economy, and it's good for our political environment as well."