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American Voters Split between Religious and Secular Camps - 2004-08-13

This campaign season, experts are calling the “religion gap” the most fundamental divide in the political landscape. Some pollsters have found that an individual’s level of religious commitment is a more significant indicator of voting behavior than education, income level, or gender. VOA’s Serena Parker explores the role religion play in U.S. politics in today’s report.

The new dividing line in American politics isn’t based on gender or race – it’s based on religion. Unlike Ireland – where Catholics and Protestants are often at odds – or India – where Hindus and Muslims frequently clash – the divide in America isn’t based on a person’s creed. According to Jim Gimpel, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, the divide is between those who regularly practice religion and those who do not.

“Most recent studies show that the political division lies between those who are confessionally orthodox on the one hand, regardless of what tradition they are from, and those who are completely secular or who have no confession at all,” he says.

Almost half of Americans attend a weekly religious service – a rate that is much higher than in other advanced industrialized countries, although lower than in Africa and Asia. Whether or not an American regularly attends religious services is now the leading indicator of how they’ll vote. Polls show that if they attend religious services regularly, they’ll probably vote Republican by a two-to-one margin. If they never go to church, they’ll likely vote Democratic by the same margin.

The University of Maryland’s Jim Gimpel says this is a relatively new dividing line in American politics. “I believe that people are politicizing their religion in ways that they didn’t in the past,” he says. “So if we go back to a previous presidential election that was highly competitive, say the 1960 Nixon – Kennedy election, even though Kennedy’s Catholicism was an issue in that race, religion was not politicized nearly as much as it is today.”

Some scholars suggest the culture wars of the 1960’s split Americans into religious and secular camps. In more recent times, the battle over school prayer, legalized abortion and gay rights has further polarized people. While the Republican Party has positioned itself as the champion of conservative religious values, the Democratic Party has largely retreated from any public discussion about religion.

Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says Democrats make an exception to this secularism when they are campaigning for African American votes.

“The two most highly religious communities in this country by all our measurements are the African American community and white conservative evangelicals,” he says. “Those happen to be two critically important constituencies for the two political parties. So come every presidential cycle both the Democrats in seeking to mobilize, energize, and get out to the polls the African American community and the Republicans doing the same with white evangelicals – both of them must in a sense speak the religion language to appeal to those voters.”

President George W. Bush frequently speaks about his religious beliefs and he has made faith and conservative religious values a central theme of his reelection campaign. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry is often reluctant to speak about his Catholic faith on the campaign trail – except for when he visits black churches or meets with African American organizations.

According to Luis Lugo this is a mistake because the majority of Americans are comfortable with politicians who speak openly about their faith. “When we ask people about their level of comfort in bringing religion and public life, including politics, together we get a high degree of positive response on the part of the American public,” he says. “Something like 70% in our latest poll indicated that we either have the right amount of religion in politics or should have more of it.”

Given how much importance Americans place on religion, some Democrats are hoping to change the perception that they are not religious or even anti-religious. John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton and head of the Center for American Progress, recently launched a new project on faith and progressive policy. It remains to be seen whether the Democrats will have any success in wooing church-going voters away from the Republicans before the November elections.