Cover Story

Wooing worshippers

When it comes to faithfulness to the home church, neither candidate is a party man-but Kerry must grab religious voters to win

Issue: "Kerry praying for votes," Oct. 9, 2004

If the latest poll is right, John Kerry may not have a prayer.

In a Sept. 27 survey of 969 registered voters, 60 percent of respondents said George W. Bush is a man of strong religious faith, compared to just 18 percent for John Kerry. Should that be troubling to the Democratic nominee? The same Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 7 percent of voters named "strong religious faith" as the single most important character trait for a candidate-more important than qualities such as "honest and trustworthy" or "strong leadership."

Democrats are scrambling to appeal to that 7 percent, plus the many more who consider religious faith one important trait among others. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Sen. Kerry insisted his party welcomed "people of faith" and added, "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."

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Sen. Kerry is sprinkling his speeches-and even his ads-with religious references. A search of the speeches section of the official John Kerry for President website shows 81 references to God. (Example: "Our responsibility as Americans is to protect and preserve God's gift to humankind.") A major television ad buy in July included the senator's musings about faith and war. "In Vietnam I think most of the time I wore a rosary around my neck when we went into battle," he said. "So I believe. I still believe."

Sen. Kerry is the first Roman Catholic presidential nominee of a major party since 1960, but polls show he is no more popular with Catholics than Al Gore was, even though Mr. Gore was a former Southern Baptist seminarian. That's hurting Sen. Kerry's chances in a number of swing states-Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire, for instance-where Catholics make up more than a quarter of the population.

Trying to increase his standing among Catholics, the Kerry campaign let it be known that the senator carries a rosary and a prayer book with him on the campaign trail, and has reporters tag along with the nominee for Sunday Mass. In July, the Democrats even named their first-ever director of religious outreach, charged with nurturing support among "faith communities." But, just days after she was named with great fanfare as the DNC's religious outreach director, Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson, a Disciples of Christ minister, was forced to resign when party officials learned she had supported removing the phrase "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.

The push for more deity among the Democrats came largely from Mike McCurry, a former Clinton spokesman who warned the Kerry campaign against ignoring the growing "God gap" among voters. Despite the party's secularist base, Mr. McCurry told Sen. Kerry he had to address issues of faith or risk accusations that he was outside America's religious mainstream. That message was "met with discomfort by some party leaders," Mr. McCurry admitted to WNET-TV shortly before joining the Kerry campaign as a top adviser. He also said that for his candidate "it's just not a natural thing to talk about a faith life, even though in the case of Sen. Kerry, he happens to be a particularly faithful person."

If Sen. Kerry's religious expressions sometimes seem awkward and forced, Mr. Bush's appear as natural and instinctive as draping an arm around the neck of a weary firefighter at Ground Zero. His off-the-cuff religious references-in contrast to Sen. Kerry's heavily scripted allusions-may help to explain why white evangelical Protestants prefer the president over his challenger by a margin of 74 percent to 18 percent. According to a Pew Research poll released Sept. 28, even among Catholics Mr. Bush leads by 10 percentage points.

The numbers are not promising for Mr. Bush among African-American evangelicals, who tend to be liberal on economic issues. But the president has received support from prominent black pastors such as Tony Evans of Dallas, Kirbyjon Caldwell of Houston, and Herb Lusk of Philadelphia.

Ironically, Mr. Bush receives substantial criticism from leaders of his own denomination, the United Methodist Church. "Having a United Methodist in office does not mean the president's policies will reflect those of the church," sniffed the United Methodist News Service shortly after Mr. Bush's election in 2000. Since then the denomination has officially opposed its most powerful member on issues ranging from capital punishment to abortion to school vouchers.

Within a famously diverse denomination, Mr. Bush's home churches are not known for being on the right end of the spectrum. The Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, where Mr. Bush worshipped and taught Sunday school before moving to Austin, is not "a particularly evangelical church," according to Mark Tooley, director of United Methodist Action, one of the groups seeking to reform the denomination. With well over 5,000 members, "the congregation includes liberals and conservatives-corporate executives and liberal members of the [Southern Methodist University] faculty."


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