- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2005

When Democratic senators sent a letter to President Bush opposing his Social Security plan in February, they punctuated it with strong moral language. “Our country needs to get back to following the teachings of Romans 13:8, which says we should ‘let no debt remain outstanding,’ ” they sermonized.

Last week, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California reminded CNN correspondent Kyra Phillips that the Gospel of Matthew implores us to “love one another,” then turned the other cheek and blasted Mr. Bush for his response to Hurricane Katrina.

Including sacred text in political epistles and interviews appears odd for a party whose leaders often treat religious beliefs like private property. “Their political consultants also told them to end every press conference with ‘amen,’ ” a former congressional GOP leadership aide jokingly told me. But like donkeys in the deep end, their awkward cadence and discomfited tactics display how religion continues to confound the party.

Quoting from the Bible is one way Democrats attempt to exorcise their secular demons, trying to curry favor with the “values voters” who helped re-elect Mr. Bush. Yet recent research suggests God-talk isn’t getting Democrats closer to the political Promised Land. And a paper presented at the recent American Political Science Association meetings in Washington helps explain the political cartography of the battleground for religious voters and why it may take a miracle for Democrats to improve their standing with them.

The Washington Post reported earlier this month that a Pew Research Center poll found only 29 percent of the public sees the Democratic Party as “generally friendly” toward religion, down from 40 percent a year ago and 42 percent in 2003. This suggests the party turned to the wrong page in the hymnal by just adding God-talk to its lexicon.

Research by political scientists James Guth, Lyman Kellstedt, Corwin Smidt and John Green, in a paper titled “Religious Mobilization in the 2004 Presidential Election,” highlights the challenges that lie ahead for the Democrats in attracting voters using a more overtly religious message. In this pioneering paper, and in previous work, these scholars go well beyond simple classification of voters as Protestant, Catholic or Jewish. Studying a mix of affiliations, beliefs, and practices together better captures the electoral impact of religion and a much clearer mosaic of the American political landscape.

Using this combination of attitudes and behavior, the authors categorize religious groups into “traditionalist, centrist, and modernist” camps. The size and power of the Bush “traditionalist” coalition is impressive. Mr. Guth and his co-authors demonstrate that evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and white Catholics made up nearly two-thirds of potential voters in the 2004 election. And not surprisingly, the “traditionalists are far more prone to vote Republican than their modernist co-parishioners.” But it’s the magnitude of the president’s advantage, the size of the “traditionalist” coalition, and its turnout rate that should daunt Democrats.

For example, Mr. Bush bested Sen. John Kerry by 38 percentage points more among evangelical traditionalists compared to modernist evangelicals and a whopping 54 percentage points more among traditional Catholics compared to modernist Catholics. Among these three major religious groups, the traditionalist bloc represents about a quarter of the total proportion of all potential American voters, compared to religious modernists, which represent only around 12 percent of the total electorate. And the traditionalists also win with boots on the ground, besting the centrists as well as the moderates in overall turnout.

Looking at the other end of the political spectrum underscores the Democrats’ dilemma. Their current friends are not helping the problem, “the major elements in the Democratic coalition are secular voters (almost 22 percent of their total votes),” Mr. Guth and his colleagues write. This group is so large, they say, “that in 2004 secular voters contributed a larger proportion of the Democratic ballots than did white Catholics, certainly a historic development.”

These results paint a discouraging landscape for the Democrats. Just quoting the Bible or ending press conferences with “amen” won’t sway these traditionalists and may even turn off others, as the Pew Research findings suggest. So, right now Democrats might have to rely on the left wing and a prayer to win the White House — a congregation with far fewer and active parishioners.


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