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."
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."
As for the smaller Tarrytown United Methodist Church in Austin, where the president worshipped during his years as governor, "By the standards of Texas Methodism it would be moderate," Mr. Tooley said.
Conservative evangelical leaders like Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention acknowledge that, while they consider the president one of their own, his church background has left him with some questionable beliefs, including suggestions that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
"We must remember President Bush is Commander in Chief, not Theologian in Chief," says Mr. Land, who heads the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "He is a man of strong religious faith, he has been going to Methodist churches for 20 years. How good can his theology be? I mean, just what is the theology of modern Methodism? It's like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree."
Still, Mr. Land says, the president's political beliefs are strongly shaped by religious beliefs that are anathema to most Methodist leaders. He regularly turns for advice to prominent evangelicals such as Franklin Graham and Tony Evans rather than the hierarchy of his own church. "This president is a thoroughgoing evangelical himself, and there are a lot more thoroughgoing evangelicals around him. Let me draw a contrast: In the Reagan administration, there were a lot of people around him to keep Reagan from being himself. There are no such people in significant roles in the Bush administration."
In his own way, Sen. Kerry, too, bucks the leadership of a church that frowns on some of his beliefs. When some parish priests across the country announced this summer they would not serve communion to politicians who supported abortion, Sen. Kerry simply stopped attending Mass many Sundays on the road. At his nominating convention in Boston, he broke with tradition by refusing to invite the local archbishop to give an invocation.
Sen. Kerry passed over Sean P. O'Malley, Boston's outspokenly pro-life archbishop. Instead, Sen. Kerry's far more liberal priest, John Ardis of the Paulist Center, a largely autonomous congregation operated by the Paulist Fathers, gave the benediction that closed the convention. Sensitive to controversy over Sen. Kerry's pro-abortion stance, his priest offered a prayer to the candidate's liking. "Help us to seek unity in diversity; give us the courage to embrace each person as our neighbor, regardless of gender, race, or ethnic origin, regardless of sexual orientation, religious tradition, or age. . . . Give counsel to world leaders so they may never again declare an unjust war."
Besides, perhaps, the simple fact that he is allowed to take communion there, Sen. Kerry attends the Paulist Center because "he aligns himself with the social justice aspects of our ministry which we've become well known for," Mr. Ardis says.
James Carroll, a Boston Globe columnist who has often attended Mass with John Kerry, wrote on Sept. 28 that "across the years I have observed the senator at prayer, and I have some sense of the seriousness he brings to his devotion." The columnist claimed that Sen. Kerry's positions "mark him not as a renegade Catholic" but as one among "Catholics who understand that moral theology is not a fixed set of answers given once and for all . . . but an ongoing quest for truths that remain elusive. In the area of sexuality, for example, from which so many hot-button issues arise, it is clear that the human race is undergoing a massive cultural mutation, posing excruciating problems that human beings have never faced before."
In other words, Sen. Kerry seeks a respite from the socially conservative teaching he might get at his local parish church. "The Paulist order tends to be very liberal, and the Paulist Center in Boston tends to represent about as far to the left as you can go and still call yourself a Catholic," says Phillip Lawler, editor of the conservative Catholic World Report. "It's sort of a halfway house for lapsed Catholics."
Sen. Kerry may not be lapsed, but he doesn't appear very faithful to millions of pro-life, pro-family Catholics. Mr. Bush, meanwhile, espouses social views that endear him to many conservative Catholics while alienating many liberal Protestants. The denominational politics that influenced the Kennedy election in 1960 seem long gone. More influential now is the divide between those with faith in a fixed theological constitution (although believers differ about specific interpretations and ways to arrive at them) and those who believe that social changes over the centuries make ancient teaching less important than contemporary "progressive" thought.
-with reporting by John Dawson