A Matter of Faith Religion in the 2004 Presidential Election
By David E. Campbell
Brookings Institution Press Copyright © 2007 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8157-1328-9
Chapter One The 2004 Election A Matter of Faith?
David E. Campbell
Few observers of American politics deny that in recent years religion has come to play an increasingly important role in the nation's elections, especially the presidential election. To some, perhaps many, religion may appear to be a new factor in national politics. But today's focus on religion is really just a variation on what has been a common theme throughout U.S. history. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson had to deal with accusations that he was an atheist; in the late 1800s, William Jennings Bryan invoked biblical themes to support economic policy; in 1928, Al Smith faced anti-Catholic mobs on the campaign trail; in 1960, John F. Kennedy too had to forestall anti-Catholic sentiment that, while muted when compared with what Smith faced in 1928, lingered nonetheless.
Religion, then, has long been a feature in national elections. Yet that does notmeanthatthereligiouscleavagesofthepastcorrespondtothoseofthepresent. Rather, the last thirty years have seen a re-sorting of the parties' electoral coalitions along religious lines. No longer are Democrats and Republicans divided along the old lines, defined by whether they are Catholic or Protestant. Instead of religious denomination, the parties are divided by religious devotional style-that is, a way of being religious. People who are more devout-regardless of denomination-are more likely to favor the GOP. Obviously, such a statement is a generalization. There are exceptions; notably, as shown by Eric McDaniel in chapter 12 of this volume, religious devotion among African Americans does not lead them to favor the GOP. And as seen in chapter 13, by Lyman Kellstedt, Corwin Smidt, John Green, and James Guth, there are pockets of support for the Democrats among the devout. Nonetheless, these exceptions almost prove the rule, as Kellstedt and his coauthors also argue that there are few prospects for a religious left movement to rival that on the right.
How did the country reach the point that many voters cast their ballots along devotional rather than denominational lines? How did it get from the denominational fissures laid bare by John F. Kennedy's Catholicism to George W. Bush's "coalition of the religious," which brought together evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics? There are a number of milestones marking the way, with none as prominent as Jimmy Carter's 1976 presidential campaign. Carter's candidacy centered on his identity as a personally devout churchgoer who had been "born again." He did not emphasize the content of his beliefs or his denominational affiliation but simply reassured voters that his religious background meant that he was a moral and ethical person.
It is one of the great ironies of American politics that by injecting his personal religiosity into presidential politics, Jimmy Carter-a Democrat-was at the vanguard of the movement that has come to define the Republican Party. Beginning around 1980, pundits and scholars alike began to speak of the New Christian Right as a movement closely associated with the GOP. Religious conservatives' influence within Republican circles increased to the point that in 1992, delegates at the Republican national convention cheered Pat Buchanan's declaration of a culture war in America. While conventional wisdom holds that the Republicans pushed the rhetoric appealing to religious conservatives too far in 1992, Buchanan's once-prominent role in the GOP is nonetheless instructive. As a Catholic with a strong following among evangelical Protestants, Buchanan embodies the cross-denominational nature of the new face of religion in American politics. There is, perhaps, a parallel between Buchanan's failure to rally the nation in 1992 and Barry Goldwater's landslide loss in the 1964 election. Both showed party strategists the outer edge of support for themes that later came to fruition in more moderate form. Goldwater's harsh libertarianism set the stage for the ascendance of Reagan's sunny version of small-government conservatism in 1980. Likewise, Buchanan's incendiary rhetoric paved the way for George W. Bush's more subtle use of language and references to themes that resonated among the growing evangelical base of the GOP while also attracting social conservatives from other religious traditions.
And then came 2004, when religion took center stage. In the immediate wake of Bush's reelection, the pundits were abuzz with the discovery that exit polls showed that a plurality of voters had selected "moral values" as the most important issue affecting their vote. Of those who gave priority to moral values, a strong majority went for Bush. Similarly, many commentators suggested that Bush mobilized the Republicans' socially conservative base by stressing his opposition to gay marriage, which was the subject of referenda in eleven states on election day-including the critical battleground state of Ohio. The moral values interpretation of the election, however, was quickly contested. Op-ed pages were filled with columns debating whether the election of 2004 turned on moral values or whether it was really about the economy, the Iraq war, and terrorism.
The debate over moral values continues in the pages that follow. In chapter 4, Sunshine Hillygus argues that when the electorate is viewed as a whole, moral values hardly seemed to have been a priority for most voters in the 2004 election; instead, it was largely about other issues. Scott Keeter elaborates on that conclusion in chapter 5 by demonstrating that while moral issues like gay marriage and abortion did not matter to most voters, they were very much on the minds of a crucial constituency for the GOP-white evangelical Protestants.
The question of whether the 2004 election hung on moral values is important, if only because it figured so heavily in postelection commentary and for many observers has become the defining theme of the election. Nonetheless, the role of moral values is only a starting point for understanding how religion was woven into the 2004 presidential election. As a primer for the more extensive discussion in the chapters to follow, the remainder of this introductory chapter briefly examines three other ways in which religion left an imprint on the 2004 campaign. Each provides a window into both the present and the likely future role of religion in shaping the American electoral landscape. The first is George W. Bush's evangelicalism, the second is John Kerry's Catholicism, and the third is Howard Dean's secularism.
Viewed from a distance, George W. Bush's religious background broadly resembles that of most American presidents, including his father's. Bush grew up attending establishment Protestant churches within both the Episcopalian and Presbyterian traditions; on marrying his wife, Laura, he formally affiliated with the United Methodist Church. A closer look, however, makes clear that when it comes to religion, Bush is more like Jimmy Carter than his own father. Bush's faith is better understood through his devotional style than his denomination, for he is an evangelical Christian. Evangelicalism is not a denominational affiliation per se, such as Catholicism or Lutheranism. Rather, evangelicals are defined by their strong emphasis on Bible study and a personal embrace of Jesus Christ, often following a turning point in their life. If there is any doubt about Bush's faith, one need only consult the small library of books and DVDs on the subject that are widely disseminated within the growing evangelical subculture. As detailed in chapter 10, by Geoffrey Layman and Laura Hussey, Bush is widely thought to have a bond with the evangelical community (or at least among highly committed evangelicals); he is seen as "one of their own." No single moment better captures the connection Bush has made with the evangelical community than a well-known comment he made during a debate in the early stage of the 2000 Republican primaries. When asked to name his favorite political philosopher, Bush paused and then said plainly, "Christ, because he changed my heart." I have no idea whether Bush's response was a cleverly orchestrated effort to establish his bona fides among evangelical voters or simply a spontaneous remark. Whatever the motivation, his comment was pitch-perfect to the evangelical ear.
Because Bush's religion has received a lot of attention, one might assume that his public remarks are replete with religious comments. In fact, statements like his reference to Christ in the 2000 primary season are rare. While Bush does use language with a religious theme in many of his speeches, so have other presidents. Indeed, Bush's religious language is often subtle, consisting of allusions to hymns or phrases used in religious discourse that still have meaning when unmoored from their religious context. Most famously, Bush has often used the term "a culture of life," which he borrowed from Pope John Paul II.
In other words, when speaking to the electorate, Bush's use of religious language is not substantially different from that of other recent presidents. Where Bush differs from his predecessors is in the way that the evangelical community has embraced him; as either a cause or a consequence of that embrace, Bush has directed a lot of attention and resources to mobilizing the evangelical vote. In the wake of Bush's popular vote loss to Al Gore in 2000, his chief campaign strategist, Karl Rove, even went so far as to suggest publicly that Bush had failed to capitalize on his evangelicalism by not energizing enough evangelicals to get to the polls. Since Rove's words, spoken during a forum sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute in December 2001, are referenced in multiple chapters, they are quoted here:
We probably failed to martial [sic] support among the base as well as we should have. If you look at the model of the electorate, and you look at the model of who voted, the big discrepancy is among self-identified, white, evangelical Protestants, Pentecostals, and fundamentalists. If they were a part of the voters of what they should have been if you had looked at the electoral model, here should have been 19 million of them and instead there were 15 million of them. Just over 4 million of them failed to turn out and vote. And yet they are obviously part of our base. They voted for us, depending on who they were and where they were, by huge margins, 70 and 80 percent margins. And yet 4 million of them didn't turn out to vote that you would have anticipated voting in a normal presidential election year. I think we may have failed to mobilize them.
This is a remarkable statement given that, as shown by John Green, Lyman Kellstedt, Corwin Smidt, and Jim Guth in chapter 2, traditionalist evangelicals constituted 25 percent of Bush's voting coalition (having given Bush 87 percent of their votes and turned out to vote at a rate exceeded by only Jews and atheists/agnostics, groups that are mere slivers of the population).
However, while evangelicals' identification with Bush is an important aspect of his coalition, its significance at the polls should not be overstated. Just as Catholics had been voting Democratic before John F. Kennedy ran for president, evangelicals had been voting Republican before Bush appeared on the scene. Bush's bond with evangelicals is, then, perhaps analogous to the connection between Kennedy and his fellow Catholics. Such ties are based on a common identity. Because he was universally identified as a Catholic, Kennedy did not need to speak publicly about his Catholicism; because he is widely identified as an evangelical, Bush does not need to say much about his faith.
That Bush himself may not say much about his religion hardly means that religious themes have been absent from the appeals made by the Bush campaign, particularly in 2004. Because religion can be an explosive topic with the potential for alienating voters uncomfortable with overt religious rhetoric, the Republicans narrowly targeted only those voters most likely to respond positively to such appeals. As Quin Monson and Baxter Oliphant demonstrate in chapter 6, in 2004 the parties employed new technology to accomplish a timeless political strategy-delivering the right message to the most receptive voters. In years past, precinct captains knew their party's supporters in the neighborhood and made personalized appeals to ensure that they turned out on election day. In a telling sign of the times, technology has replaced the neighborhood precinct captain. The parties draw on extensive databases to learn everything they can about voters: their party registration, marital status, magazine subscriptions, and even church membership. That wealth of information means that direct mail can be designed-the term of art is "microtargeted"-to match voters' interests. Voters profiled as likely social conservatives because of, say, the church that they attended or the magazines to which they subscribed were targeted to receive campaign mail that highlighted "morality issues," such as abortion and gay marriage. Even on those potentially inflammatory topics, however, the ad copy is much like the speeches in which Bush invokes religious language: subdued and inclusive. In chapter 7, Quin Monson and I describe how Bush's ads never described him as opposing marriage for homosexuals; rather, they emphasized his support for traditional marriage. Never was anything derogatory said about homosexuals per se.
The reason for the subtlety is no secret. While Bush received strong support from social conservatives, that single constituency was not enough to win a presidential election. He also needed support from voters for whom social issues take a backseat to economic or, especially in 2004, national security issues. These other Bush voters are likely to be social moderates. Even within the social conservative camp, the GOP needs to cast as wide a net as possible, which is why Bush typically avoids specifics on the subject of religion. He can attract the widest possible coalition by finding common cause with those who think of themselves as "religious" rather than adherents of a particular religious tradition. Indeed, the creation of a new coalition that transcends denominational boundaries is what James Davison Hunter originally meant by the term "culture war." Hunter was speaking of alliances that link people of orthodox beliefs across denominational lines-whether Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, or followers of other traditions. Take the example of evangelicals and Mormons, which is particularly revealing. These two groups seem to compete for the distinction of being the religious group with the highest level of support for the GOP, even though they have deep theological differences and a history of mutual antagonism. The Republicans have also managed to win considerable support from traditionalist Catholics, who are more important numerically. To think that groups with such long-standing disagreements could unite politically represents a historically remarkable development that is not fully appreciated by many political observers.
Owing to its coalition of the religious, the Republican Party faces a difficult balancing act. On one hand it has at its base a core of evangelical supporters who have been fully incorporated into the internal party apparatus of the GOP and play a role not unlike the role once played by labor unions in the Democratic Party. It is thus extremely unlikely that anyone could ever win the Republican nomination for the presidency without receiving, as it were, the blessing of key evangelical leaders. On the other hand, evangelicals alone do not make for election victories. Successful Republican candidates must also appeal to voters who, while perhaps socially conservative, are not evangelicals themselves. As of this writing, each of the leading contenders for the 2008 Republican nomination has his (to date, they are all men) own particular challenge in achieving a balance between shoring up the evangelical base and reaching beyond it to other voters. John McCain, for example, must convince evangelicals that he did not really mean it when, during the 2000 campaign, he said that certain leaders of the religious right were "agents of intolerance." Similarly, Rudy Giuliani must play up his heroic post-9/11 image and play down his social liberalism and marital history. Perhaps the contender with the rockiest religious road to travel is Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Such a statement may seem puzzling, as Romney would appear to have a lot going for him. After all, he has held firm on gay marriage by convincing the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that same-sex nuptials should be limited to residents of Massachusetts only; he opposes stem cell research; and, over time, he has become increasingly pro-life on abortion. When his positions on those issues are combined with his business background, his turnaround of the once corruption-ridden Salt Lake City Olympics, and his squeaky-clean private life, it would seem that he deserves a place on the top tier of Republican presidential hopefuls. But whether his bid for the presidency has legs rests on whether evangelicals in the GOP primaries are willing to vote for someone of Romney's faith. He is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons. Even though evangelicals and Mormons share a lot of political ground, in religious terms they are miles apart. To see the gulf that Romney needs to bridge, walk into almost any Christian bookstore, where you will find a shelf of books disparaging his faith as a "cult." Many of the devout Christians who shop in such bookstores also vote in Republican primaries. Romney's candidacy therefore will be an interesting test of how far the Republican coalition of the religious extends. Only time will tell whether he will become the Mormons' Al Smith (who suffered an ignominious defeat, thereby reinforcing the perception that Catholics were viewed with suspicion by the Protestant establishment) or John F. Kennedy (whose victory marked the official acceptance of Catholics into the American mainstream).
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