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Religious Outreach in Elections


Political analysts say President Bush, a born-again Christian, and Senator John Kerry; a Roman Catholic, both consider faith a vital part of their lives. Mr. Bush's beliefs have been widely discussed and Mr. Kerry has in recent weeks cautiously begun to use more religious references in his campaign speeches.

In the past, Democrats have been careful about not blurring church and state, and therefore have shied away from religious rhetoric. Mike McCurry, spokesman for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, says that perception arises from the Democratic Party striving for inclusiveness and not wanting to offend certain members.

"We have a more diverse coalition that includes a lot of people of the Muslim faith and the Jewish faith," he says. "Sometimes trying to be too overt in wearing evangelical Christianity on your sleeve might drive some people away and make them not feel they were included."

Melody Barnes is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. She says the misperception that Democrats only religious outreach is to the black community is similar to the misperception that all evangelicals are closely aligned with Republicans.

"In fact, you have many evangelicals who hold very firmly to their religious beliefs," she says, "but have values that are in fact progressive. And I think if you burrow deeply and ask conservatives about that, if they're honest, they'll tell you that's a secret that they want to have kept a secret."

Evangelicals are expected to vote in large numbers for President George W. Bush again this election. Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

"Four out of five Southern Baptists who voted in the last election voted for George W. Bush against a Southern Baptist, Al Gore, with whom they disagreed on the abortion issue. My suspicion is that George W. Bush will get more than four out of five evangelical votes this year," Mr. Land says.

The Republican Party is also openly courting the Catholic vote, which is heavily weighted against abortion rights. In addition to organizing voter drives, and writing about the subject, a group of bishops is circulating a booklet called The Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics that states the Church's moral stance on five critical issues, including abortion.

Chester Gillis is chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University. He says those who follow the bishops' application of the principals will likely do so out of a sense of obligation.

"If they were to vote on this singular issue against Mr. Kerry, and maybe they're not even so much pro-Bush as they are against Kerry on this issue, then part of that would certainly be because this is what the church has taught them consistently," he says. "But part of it would be that it would ring true in their own convictions. This is such a grievous offense and such a serious sin that their conscience dictates that they must oppose someone who would permit it to happen."

But Eric McFadden, president of the grassroots group "Catholics for Kerry 04", says Catholics should not vote solely on one issue.

"There are so many other issues out there that are also life issues as well that are important to Catholics," he says. "The issues of social justice, equality of opportunity and international diplomacy."

Tara Wall is press secretary for outreach for the Republican National Committee. She says the party is also increasing efforts to reach voters of other faiths.

"We have an aggressive outreach program where we are working with and getting our message out and getting feedback from a number of different constituencies including religious constituencies such as Catholics, Jewish, Americans and Muslims," she says.

Democrats are also making concentrated efforts to reach religious constituencies. Mr. McCurry says their outreach include coordinators in every state and many cities.

"They are reaching out to other people of faith within their churches or their synagogues or wherever they gather to enlist people to be supportive of the campaign," Mr. McCurry says. "It's not unlike how you would organize at work or at schools or other places where people gather in a community."

As election day draws closer, specific efforts to appeal to religious voters have become a vital component of the political parties' drive voters to victory at the polls.