However, in this time of war (especially an unpopular one) and economic woes, the church-state issues are somewhat less likely to sway large voting blocs, in comparison to the "values voting" that contributed to George W. Bush's narrow reelection four years ago.
Church-state issues are usually included under the rubric of social issues to differentiate them from economic and foreign policy questions. These issues are often said to be most important to the party bases. Political analyst E. J. Dionne, Jr., reckons that about 15 to 20 percent of voters favor the "accommodationist" side while another 15 to 20 percent lean to the "separationist" point of view. That leaves 60 to 70 percent of voters who hew toward the center, or are not particularly concerned by or interested in social issues.
Positions on church-state issues are often directly related to religious affiliation, or, more recently, to frequency of attendance at worship services. Pew survey data released in February (the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey) breaks down American adults into a number of categories: Evangelical Protestants (26 percent); Roman Catholics (24 percent); mainline or nonevangelical Protestants (18 percent); religiously nonaffiliated (16 percent); members of historically Black Protestant churches (7 percent); all others (9 percent). Evangelicals have been strongly conservative and Republican, while Catholics and mainline Protestants are divided, depending on the issue. Catholic voters are classic swing voters who usually end up supporting the winner. Mainline Protestants, once the most loyal ally of the GOP, have moved toward the Democrats in recent elections, making them a potential swing vote. The nonaffiliated and most of the "other" category are liberal and Democratic leaning. African-Americans are mainly Democrats but lean to the conservative side of some church-state issues. So far, these leanings have not produced significantly higher Republican levels of support among African-Americans. Some of these issues are losing their salience or ability to convince voters while new issues, such as environmentalism (or "creation care" among evangelicals), are threatening to realign voters.
Issues alone do not determine election outcomes, since charisma, character, and personality are also factors. Candidates' personal religious involvements and commitments, including rhetoric, may influence voters, particularly within the religious traditions that are targeted. Barack Obama has appointed religious affairs advisers for his campaigns and seems much more comfortable in using religious language than most recent Democratic candidates, except Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Senator Obama made frequent references to his religious convictions in his autobiography. He seems to belong to the liberal Protestant tradition.
Senator John McCain has always been more reticent to discuss personal religion and has so far not appointed a religious adviser. But during his campaign he announced his belief that America is a Christian nation, though he later downplayed that statement somewhat. He also apparently cannot decide whether he is an Episcopalian or a Baptist, though his lifelong family affiliation was Episcopalian. His second wife is a Southern Baptist and McCain told audiences in heavily Baptist South Carolina that he is really more of a Baptist, though not officially so. (The Pew survey found that 44 percent of American adults have changed their religious affiliation since childhood, and the changes move in every conceivable direction.)
The church-state issues are important to many voters because they impact society and culture in such broad areas as education, family life, health-care and medical ethics, and social welfare. Here, briefly, are some of the major church-state issues and how the potential candidates and parties are likely to address them in the ensuing campaign and in office.
Despite a string of more than two dozen defeats at the polls over
four decades, advocates of state aid to faith-based and other private schools have not given up hope that some program, usually cloaked in "school choice" rhetoric, will someday be enacted by Congress. John McCain favors vouchers, as have Republican candidates since the Nixon-Ford-Reagan days, and Republican Congresses have enacted or tried to enact a few voucher experiment programs, particularly in the District of Columbia. Democratic candidate Obama opposes vouchers or similar programs, preferring to concentrate resources on the nearly 90 percent of students who attend public schools. Democratic presidents and Congresses are unlikely to support any programs of this kind, and the Democratic majorities in the current Congress will almost certainly reject President Bush's $300 million proposal for Pell grants to private elementary and secondary schools. This has generally been a point of division between the two parties, though Democrat Lyndon Johnson included faith-based schools in his 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The signature domestic program of the Bush presidency, one that supposedly highlights "compassionate conservatism," is the faith-based initiative that has funneled billions of dollars to religious social welfare organizations through several cabinet departments. McCain favors these programs, and so does Obama, though the Democrats have repeatedly stressed the necessity of making hiring practices religiously nondiscriminatory and forbidding proselytizing among recipients of aid programs. These nondiscrimination provisions have never passed Congress, though the Bush administration claimed they are unnecessary. It should be noted that many church-based charities, those run by Catholics and Lutherans, for example, have not engaged in proselytism and participated in government aid programs for years before Bush became president. Bush's officials extended the aid to more conservative evangelical groups by claiming to have leveled the playing field for aid applications, but critics say these programs encourage favoritism toward faith-based groups that lack a heritage of non_discriminatory practices or policies.
Republicans are certain to continue these programs. Senator Obama has made a rather sweeping statement of support for the faith-based concept, so it is unlikely that a Democratic president and Congress will end them but will probably press for non-discrimination provisions.
Abortion, Gay Rights, and the Hot-button Issues
The Religious Right's influence on the GOP has elevated abortion and gay marriage to top tier issues, though polls this year show they are at the very bottom of voter concerns.
While Republican Party platforms for decades have endorsed passage of a Human Life Constitutional Amendment to outlaw abortions, Senator McCain has not supported it, though his overall "pro-life" voting record has earned praise from anti-choice groups. Senator Obama opposes such an amendment and is on record as favoring freedom of choice in the matter. In the primaries Senator Clinton told one pro-choice group that abortion should be seen as a "tragedy" and all efforts should be made, through comprehensive sex education and anti-poverty measures, to reduce the incidence, so that abortion will be "safe, legal, and rare" (echoing her husband).
Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans (55 percent) think abortion should be "mostly or always legal," compared to 42 percent who think it should be "mostly or always illegal." Exit polls from recent elections, however, show that intensity of feeling is greater on the anti-choice side, so there are probably more one-issue anti-choice voters than one-issue pro-choice voters.
While Republicans have held the presidency for 20 of the past 28 years, no far-reaching legislation banning abortion has been enacted. Only the ban on a rarely used lateterm procedure has been adopted and upheld narrowly by the U.S. Supreme Court.
An attempt to enact a federal constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is favored by social and religious conservatives and most Republicans, but not Senator McCain, who says the issue belongs at the state level, where, indeed, it has been outlawed by nearly half of the states. Senator Obama has not endorsed same-sex marriage but seems open to some kind of civil union or domestic partnership arrangement. The issue has been used to inflame the electorate in recent elections, but polls in 2008 show it dead last among issues that engage the attention of voters or that would potentially affect the choice of a president. Democrats are likely to support legislation protecting gay and lesbian Americans from job discrimination and may reopen the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding military service.
Both of these questions are likely to be resolved in the judicial branch of government, which makes the selection of Supreme Court justices a sleeper issue. The next president will likely choose one to three new justices in his first term. Senator Obama has "the right to privacy" concept, which encompasses a number of issues and would be a major consideration in his selection of nominees to the High Court.
The Roberts Court, incidentally, seems inclined to take fewer church-state issues than its predecessors. For example, only two abortion-related cases have been decided during the first eight years of this decade, compared to 13 in the 1970s, eight during the 1980s, and seven during the 1990s.
The last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and legislation making religious freedom a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. Ironically, Republicans have succeeded in depicting Democrats as "anti-religious," an erroneous label that has stuck. This may explain why Democrats are trying to play the religion card as effectively as Republicans have done in recent elections.
Church-state and social issues did not attract as much attention during the primary season as one would expect; the economy, the Iraq war, health care, and immigration have overshadowed them. But the parties are sure to address these issues in their platforms in the general election campaign as both seek to rally their base.
Albert J. Menendez is research director and Edd Doerr is president of Americans for Religious Liberty. They write from Gaithersburg, Maryland, U.S.A.