Sunday, October 31, 2004

Battle Cry of Faithful Pits Believers Against the Rest

The New York Times
October 31, 2004

Battle Cry of Faithful Pits Believers Against the Rest

ALLENTOWN, Pa., Oct. 27 - With one Sunday left before the election, conservative churches and Christian groups are rallying their members with a singularly intense battle cry: that this presidential race, more than any before, is a contest pitting faithful of all kinds against unbelievers.

"I see it as a spiritual divide between true believers and seculars," said Neil E. Kulp, pastor of First Baptist Church, echoing comments made in dozens of other interviews. "I think we as a nation are more divided now than we were just prior to the Civil War," Mr. Kulp said.

The news service of the Christian Broadcasting Network, citing polls, recently summed it up another way: "Those who pray a lot tend to vote Republican. Those who don't tend to vote Democrat."

Inspired by that conviction and by the closeness of the presidential race, conservative pastors are preaching sermons about voting, distributing millions of pointed voter's guides for Protestants and Catholics, organizing phone banks and mass e-mailings, and improvising more innovative tactics. A Hispanic Pentecostal church here set up a practice booth for novice voters, and a Florida mega-church is passing out rubber wristbands labeled W.W.J.V., for "Why Would Jesus Vote?"

At a prayer meeting here Wednesday night, Mr. Kulp led a dozen parishioners in thinly veiled prayers for President Bush's re-election. He prayed that God might do "whatever it takes on Election Day," including keeping some voters away while "bringing certain people to the polls." One parishioner prayed that members of other churches, synagogues and houses of worship turn out as well. "Lord,'' another prayed, "for Mr. Kerry, I don't know whether he knows you or not. I pray he would know that being in a relationship with you is more important than being president.''

Pollsters, political scientists and conservative organizers say the election is the strongest manifestation yet of a two-decade-old shift away from the allegiance of different religious groups to each party toward an overriding gap between ardent traditionalists and the more secular. Rhetoric pitting the most observant against the least is spreading beyond a core of white evangelical Protestants to other denominations, conservative Catholics, black and Hispanic Protestant churches and even some Jewish groups.

Many conservative Christians say part of the reason is the contrast between Mr. Bush's openness and Senator John Kerry's reticence on the subject of faith. They say another reason is the confluence of social issues like same-sex marriage and embryonic stem cell research with the expectation of vacancies on the Supreme Court. But pollsters and political scientists say that, more than in any other presidential election, the Bush campaign and its allies have tried to capitalize on what some call "the God gap." Although Mr. Bush often emphasizes tolerance and inclusiveness, the grass-roots campaign has in some ways fulfilled the conservative Pat Buchanan's widely panned description at the 1992 Republican convention of a "religious war going on in our country for the soul of America.''

Here in Allentown, the most closely contested district in a major swing state, a Bush supporter independently took out a billboard reading simply, "Bush Cheney 04 - One Nation Under God." Republican party mailings in two Southern states suggested that Democrats would ban the Bible, and the party has retained David Barton, a proponent of the idea that America is a "Christian nation," to speak to groups of pastors.

About a week ago, Mr. Bush met with Cardinal Justin Rigali, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia, in his latest attempt to shore up Catholic support in Pennsylvania, and earlier this month officials of his campaign met with African-American pastors in Toledo, Ohio. At the Republican convention, the party was even host to its first gathering explicitly for Orthodox Jews, a sliver of the electorate that has now swung decisively in Mr. Bush's favor.

"It is a very, very concerted effort from the Republican side like we have never seen before," said Luis E. Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, of the efforts to take advantage of the religious-secular divide. "There is no question that Bush and his people have played up and helped to solidify that trend."

Some religious groups like non-Orthodox Jews and black Protestants largely retain their longtime loyalty to the Democrats. But Corwin Smidt, a political scientist at Calvin College, a major evangelical school, said he worried that this election was a step toward the "culture war" dynamic. "If you emphasize that one side is the party of God and the other side isn't, there is less stability because the stakes seem so much greater," Mr. Smidt said.

An adviser to the Bush campaign said it had done nothing to widen that gap, which existed before the campaign. The adviser pointed to Mr. Bush's inclusive comments in the presidential debate: "You're equally an American if you choose to worship an Almighty and if you choose not to. If you're a Christian, Jew or Muslim, you're equally an American."

But Democrats acknowledge that their party is suffering from its reputation in some circles as too secular - a reputation they call overstated and undeserved. "It is very raw and very polarizing," said Mike McCurry, a spokesman for the Kerry campaign and an active Methodist. "God is not aligned on one side of the political spectrum."

In the last weeks of the campaign, Mr. Kerry, a Roman Catholic, stepped up his own religious appeals, repeating that he was an altar boy who carries a rosary and delivering a speech last Sunday expressly about his faith.

On the left, a smaller and less organized faction of Christians has begun speaking out, too. A progressive evangelical group recently released a statement signed by 200 theologians arguing that the church was "in danger of being co-opted by a theology of nationalism and militarism."

Still, neither side disputes a growing correlation between attending church and voting Republican. Of the 4 in 10 voters who attended church at least once a week, more than 60 percent voted for Mr. Bush in 2000, according to voter polls. Mr. Lugo of the Pew Forum said. But among the 4 in 10 who attended church only twice a year or less, 60 percent voted for the Democrat, Al Gore. (In a Pew Forum poll this week, 53 percent of regular churchgoers supported Mr. Bush and 38 percent supported Mr. Kerry.)

Bush campaign advisers refer often to that pattern, and Christian conservatives working to reinforce it can sometimes exaggerate the trend. "I think Bush gets something like 90 percent of the votes from people who go to church weekly, and Kerry gets about 85 percent of votes from people who rarely go to church," the Rev. Don Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association, said in an interview.

Catholics are increasingly joining their conservative Protestant allies in talking of a culture war over the place of religion in American politics. After his meeting with President Bush, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, for example, issued a statement last week decrying "separation of church and state" as "a misinterpretation of the Constitution." He told Catholics that their "highest priority" should be opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research and warned that "the family was under attack" by the efforts to recognize same-sex marriages.

In Allentown, Catholic officials have organized a campaign called "Catholic Values, Catholic Votes," including voter registration efforts, bumper stickers, T-shirts and voter's guides. The diocese has arranged for voter polls to measure the program's effect on how Catholics voted.

Earlier this month, the evangelical group Focus on the Family released "a must-read election message" signed by its influential founder, James C. Dobson, and more than 80 prominent evangelical Protestants arguing that the Bible teaches lessons about proper government, including not only opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage but also support for pre-emptive military action against suspected terrorists and looser environmental regulations.

In Florida, John T. Stemberger, executive director of the Florida Family Policy Council, said his organization had hired three full-time organizers, held about 25 "pastors conferences" around the state, and worked with about 500 churches to organize phone banks.

Last Sunday, Pastor James Henry of the 6,000-member First Baptist Church in Orlando, which is passing out the wristbands, preached the last of four sermons on the theme "Why Would Jesus Vote?," arguing that voting for Christian values is "the answer to America's problems."

At the 1,200-member Bethany United Methodist Church here, Jim Brashear, the senior pastor, said his congregation resolutely opposes abortion, and prays each week for both the president and the military. Social-issue-heavy voter guides from the Pennsylvania Family Institute are stacked in piles throughout the church, and on Sunday Mr. Brashear plans to tell parishioners that Mr. Bush won Florida by fewer votes than his church holds.

Still, some conservatives balk at the idea that there is only one way for believers to vote. Mr. Brashear said a union member recently confided his worries that a Christian should not vote for Mr. Kerry.

"I told him I don't believe that," Mr. Brashear said. "He was really struggling."