Voting as a Matter of Faith

David Domke November/December 2004

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, ushered religion into the center of American politics. In the three years since, President George W. Bush and his administration have made sure it stayed there. And then earlier this year the Catholic Church turned the relationship between faith and politics into a campaign issue. Civil religion is out this presidential election; religious politics is in.

A useful point of reference for the current campaign is the 1960 election, when John Kennedy became the first and only Catholic president. Confronted with concerns that his White House would be a Vatican tool, Kennedy told a collection of conservative Protestant clergy in September 1960 that "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote— where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference—and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him."

It was a winning message then. It is an unheard one now. Virtually all that Kennedy said he opposed has been commonplace in the 2004 presidential campaign. Consider just a few examples:

  • The American Council of Catholic Bishops brokered a compromise between opposing bishops in June when it declared that it was acceptable (but not necessary) for a priest to withhold Communion from Catholics in public office who dissent from church teachings on abortion and homosexuality. At the same time, the council said that politicians "have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws"—those regarding abortion, in particular—"lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good."

  • The Time magazine cover story for June 21, 2004, titled "The Faith Factor," included a poll in which 56 percent of likely U.S. voters agreed with the statement "We are a religious nation, and religious values should serve as a guide to what our political leaders do in office," while 11 percent of likely voters answered yes when asked "Have you ever voted for or against a candidate mainly because of the candidate's religious beliefs?"

  • Rev. Jerry Falwell, in the July 1 issue of his e-mail newsletter and on his Web site, declared, "For conservative people of faith, voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush. The alternative, in my mind, is simply unthinkable." He added, "I believe it is the responsibility of every political conservative, every evangelical Christian, every pro-life Catholic, every traditional Jew, every Reagan Democrat, and everyone in between to get serious about re-electing President Bush." This nexus of religious institutions, public opinion, and leaders, in combination with the omnipresent U.S. struggle against a seemingly growing number of terrorists sustained by Islamic fundamentalism, makes the 2004 presidential election at least unusual, perhaps unique.

In particular, two features of the U.S. political system that have received inadequate attention in mainstream news coverage—which is the basis of political knowledge for most Americans—simultaneously are driving the current religious politics and will go far in deciding who is president in January 2005.

The Bush administration's political fundamentalism

George W. Bush is the most publicly religious president since at least Woodrow Wilson. He speaks often and openly about his "born-again" faith, and regularly references a divine power in public statements. These words have been matched by a number of administration policies and goals that are undergirded by a conservative religious worldview—including the creation of "faith-based" initiatives that allow
religious institutions to receive government funding to engage in social service programs, the call for a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage, and the conception of the "war on terrorism" as an epic struggle of good versus evil.

What distinguishes Bush from the civil religion espoused by many U.S. political leaders, past and present, is that this American president not only asks for divine favor or asserts its presence upon the nation, but also evinces a certainty that God's will corresponds with administration policies. For example, in his address before Congress and a national television audience nine days after the terrorist attacks, Bush declared, "The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them." And in his 2003 State of the Union address, with the Iraq conflict looming, the president said: "Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world; it is God's gift to humanity."

From this place of certitude about divine plan, it is a short theological (and rhetorical) step to justifying U.S. actions. For instance, at a December 2003 press conference Bush said, "I believe, firmly believe—and you've heard me say this a lot—and I say it a lot because I truly believe it—that freedom is the almighty God's gift to every person, every man and woman who lives in this world. That's what I believe. And the arrest of Saddam Hussein changed the equation in Iraq. Justice was being delivered to a man who defied that gift from the Almighty to the people of Iraq."
Further, this view of divinely ordained policy infuses the public discourse of several administration leaders. I systematically examined hundreds of administration public communications—by the president, John Ashcroft, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld—about the "war on terrorism" in the almost 20 months between September 11, 2001, and major combat in the Iraq War in spring 2003. This research showed that the administration strategically converged a religious fundamentalist worldview with nationalistic political language, with four particular characteristics:

  • Binary, zero-sum conceptions of the political landscape, most notably good versus evil and security versus peril
  • Calls for immediate action by other political actors on administration policies as a necessary part of the nation's "calling" and "mission" against terrorism
  • Declarations about the will of God for America and for the spread of U.S. conceptions of freedom and liberty
  • Claims that dissent from the administration is unpatriotic and a threat to the nation and globe

I also found that news coverage of leading media outlets substantially echoed the administration's views. The result was that the administration's political fundamentalism went largely unchallenged by the political mainstream for nearly two years after September 11.

The Growing Alliance of Catholics and Evangelicals

For Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry—who, like John Kennedy, is a Catholic from Massachusetts—the salience of religion in today's political landscape has presented a sizable challenge. Kerry is by disposition uncomfortable discussing his faith, a point not lost on the public and one that Americans are prone to interpret in less-than-favorable terms. The June Time poll noted earlier found that only 7 percent of likely U.S. voters said they would describe Kerry "as a man of strong religious faith" (compared to 54 percent for Bush). A few weeks later, Beliefnet editor Steven Waldman, in an essay that circulated widely among political and news types, wrote, "If Kerry's uncomfortable with religion, then he's uncomfortable with Americans."

Not coincidentally, Kerry soon developed his religious voice, and Democratic strategists began their first serious outreach to the Religious Left. In his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in late July, Kerry said: "I don't wear my own faith on my sleeve. But faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday. I don't want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side." Thereafter Kerry has regularly talked about "values" and "faith"—language comfortably within the tradition of American civil religion but nonetheless new for Kerry.

And ultimately, Kerry's discomfort with matters of religious faith (or at least his unease in talking about them publicly) might be enough to seal his political demise on November 2—because Kerry not only faces the always-present challenge of reaching beyond his party's core constituencies, but he also must stem the mounting tide of Catholic voters leaving the Democratic fold. In the late 1980s, according to Pew Research Center data, 41 percent of White Catholics considered themselves to be Democrats, compared to 24 percent Republicans. This gap has shrunk over time, and in summer 2003 for the first time more White Catholics identified themselves as Republicans (31 percent) than as Democrats (29 percent), a shift particularly pronounced among those who attend Mass regularly.

The irony, of course, is that this trend has produced a growing alliance of Catholics and Evangelicals—exactly the reverse of what Kennedy faced in 1960. As a result, when Republican Party campaign strategists asked Evangelical clergy for copies of church rosters in spring 2004, so as to make sure all were registered to vote (for Bush), and suggested 22 "duties" that church leaders should follow to maximize the president's support, Catholics were contacted too. Specifically, a number of Catholic churches were contacted with the hope, according to Republican National Committee documents, of procuring parish directories and membership lists so as to "identify and contact those Catholics who are likely to be supportive of President Bush's compassionate conservative agenda."

Notably, though, midsummer polls conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania suggested that Kerry and Democrats were having more success among White Catholics than did Al Gore and his party in 2000. That's good news for Kerry. However, the data also revealed that Bush's support among White Evangelicals was even stronger than in 2000, when he dominated among these voters.

The choice

It is apparent all around us that the American public is much more engaged with this presidential contest than usual. In the Annenberg data 34 percent of registered voters said they had discussed politics with family or friends at least four days in the past week—well more than double the percentage at the same point in the 2000 campaign. These data held across religious and racial groupings. Clearly, other factors besides the nexus of religion and politics have contributed to this reality. Just as clearly, religion is a salient factor in this election.

Indeed, Bush and Kerry present U.S. citizens with a choice of two distinct religious worldviews. The implications of the election are great, and not just for those in the 50 states. In the words of an Afghan journalist whom I met in the summer during his visit to the United States, "Do Americans know that how they vote affects others in the world as well?" In particular, this presidential election will do much to decide the role of religion in the first decades of twenty-first-century politics—at least in the United States, and almost certainly around much of the globe.

David Domke, a former journalist, is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on the relationships among political leaders, news coverage, and public opinion in the United States. He is the author of God Willing? Political fundamentalism in the White House, the "War on Terror," and the Echoing Press (Pluto Press, 2004).

Article Author: David Domke