- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2000

National curiosity about the religious beliefs of presidential contenders has already peaked, but a profile of which candidate is getting the "religious vote" is starting to emerge.

Exit polls show that Gov. George W. Bush has gotten his edge from religious conservatives while Sen. John McCain does best among Catholic voters.

Democratic front-runner Vice President Al Gore, according to surveys and past trends, is likely to find his strength in a coalition of religious believers who are liberal and an emergent bloc of "secular" voters.

By contrast, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, an evangelical as a college athlete, has refused to label his faith in a political race that focused on religion from the start.

"It's much more widely discussed than in recent campaigns," said John Green of the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio.

While the appeal to religious voters once was wrapped in "pro-family" symbols, this election has focused on character, Mr. Green said.

"These character issues cut across traditional voting blocs, and that may create new coalitions," he said. "This is especially apparent in the GOP, where the coalition is diverse religiously."

That diversity surfaced when social conservative Gary Bauer, having ended his bid for the Republican nomination, endorsed Mr. McCain.

Religion became an important issue in the wake of polls showing a high religious and "spiritual" interest in America, said pollster George Barna in a new study, "The Faith Factor."

Of registered voters identified as "born again" defined as any Christian who claims a personal relationship with Christ 35 percent are registered Republican and 35 percent are Democrats.

"The born-again group looks like it will cast 45 percent of the votes" this year, the Barna study said. That has given importance to religion in the campaign rhetoric, he added.

It has ranged from the brisk "God and morality" speeches of Republican contender Alan Keyes, a black Catholic, to Mr. Bush's choice of Jesus as his favorite philosopher in a televised debate.

Mr. Gore, a liberal Baptist, last year appeared at a Salvation Army center to ally with "faith-based" groups and recently in Newsweek he extolled religious diversity and said even an atheist could be a good U.S. president.

There is plenty of cynicism about the rush to religion. The Rev. Andrew Greeley, a liberal Catholic commentator, cheered Mr. Bradley for his "refusal to discuss his religion at a time when all the other candidates are parading their piety."

Despite the uncertainties of how religious Americans will vote, the most recent analysis suggests the so-called "religious right" participation has not declined, the Catholic vote has polarized, and "secular" voters are a new predictable bloc.

While a good economy trumps all other voting issues, the 1996 election for the first time showed a major and perhaps lasting divide over values.

In 1996 exit polls, religious belief was the strongest predictor of how people voted, twice as strong as income or sex.

The election revealed that "functionally secular" Americans, or 28 percent of the electorate, voted as a bloc for Democrats. The GOP won the "traditionalist" vote of evangelicals, Catholics and others.

Last fall, a report by the Interfaith Alliance, which opposes the so-called "religious right," argued that religiously active people vote equally for both parties.

But Steven Wagner, a Republican pollster at QEV Analytics who has done two major surveys of American Catholics, disagrees. He said regular churchgoers vote differently than inactive believers.

In his surveys, "religiously active" Catholics who attend Mass weekly think and vote similar to conservative Protestants. "If you are a Catholic voter who actually goes to Mass, your concerns are about the same as an evangelical," he said.

The true nature of the "Catholic vote" was an election-year debate in two Catholic journals, America and Crisis. Mr. Wagner disagreed with Father Greeley's claim that Catholics are "the largest component of the Democratic coalition," almost a third.

He said the McCain camp's charges that the Bush campaign harbored anti-Catholic bigots did help the pro-life McCain to win the Michigan primary.

The charge grew out of Mr. Bush's campaign speech in South Carolina at Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist school that views Catholicism as heretical.

Meanwhile, strategists see the Democrats in Congress prolonging a controversy over the House leadership not appointing a Catholic chaplain as helping suggest anti-Catholicism in the Republican Party.

"There is a historic suspicion among Catholics about Republicans," Mr. Wagner said.

Otherwise, surveys show that active Catholics link Democratic policies to the nation's "moral crisis" and abortion, and that Mr. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" and Mr. McCain's "reformist and pro-life" image have Catholic appeal.

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