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Faith is a factor in political equation

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Maybe, at most, $400-million a year in grants are at stake as President Bush decides whether to permit federal funding for research into embryonic stem cells. The tax cut bill that Congress approved this spring committed about 250 times as much federal money a year. But the stem cell debate has inspired much stronger emotions than the tax cut ever did.

It's a sign of the times. U.S. politics today divides along lines of values rather than interests. Issues that pick at conflicting values _ like whether the potential medical benefits of stem cell research justify the destruction of frozen embryos _ now polarize Washington much more than economic disputes. Think of President Clinton's impeachment or the Supreme Court nomination fights over Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. When was the last tax or spending argument that generated as much passion?

In this hothouse climate, the electorate is realigning along an axis of faith. There's always been a link between religious affiliation and political allegiance. The GOP was founded as the party of Northern Protestants; for most of their time in America, Catholics have leaned toward the Democrats. But increasingly, the key to political loyalty is not so much religious affiliation as religious practice. The GOP has become the party of the most religiously observant regardless of what faith they practice, while voters who are less devout or entirely secular have moved toward the Democrats. (The exceptions are blacks and Jews, who remain staunch Democrats in or out of the pews.) In 2000, church attendance was a better predictor of the vote than income.

Today, even within the same religious faith, huge gaps separate the voting behavior of the more and less observant. Take white evangelical Protestants, the religious group that now most favors the GOP. Evangelicals who regularly attend church gave 84 percent of their votes to Bush, according to a post-election survey by the University of Akron; Bush's vote fell off to just 55 percent of evangelicals who attend church less often.

Among Catholics the split was equally dramatic. Nearly three-fifths of those who don't routinely attend church supported Al Gore. Nearly three-fifths of those who regularly attend Mass backed Bush. It's reached the point where observant Catholics voted more heavily Republican than less devout evangelicals .

Some influential GOP strategists think the quickest way for Bush to expand his tenuous political coalition is to pump up his support even more among the faithful, creating what could be called a moral majority. In particular, White House strategists believe one key to Bush's re-election is to increase his share of the vote among observant Catholics from his current three-fifths toward the four-fifths he draws among observant evangelicals. "That's a number we could move up fast, regular churchgoing Catholics," says Matthew Dowd, polling director at the Republican National Committee.

The hard part is to make those gains without alienating less observant voters of every faith and those Americans who don't consider themselves religious at all. (Such secular voters backed Gore by 2-to-1 in 2000.) Some steps Bush has taken to court observant Catholics _ like his systematic meetings with Catholic leaders _ seem unlikely to offend the less religious. And Bush may appeal equally to the devoted and the secular when he uses Catholic social gospel language _ with its emphasis on individual obligation to the poor _ to frame his compassionate conservative agenda.

Yet on many cultural issues, Bush may have to choose between rousing the believers and courting the unchurched. The most important choice will come if Bush gets the chance to name a Supreme Court justice; the inevitable confirmation fight could widen the electorate's cultural divisions to chasm-like proportions if the president picked a polarizing nominee.

Bush's decision on stem cell research could push at these fractures, too. The issue may be too obscure to directly shift many Americans' loyalties. But some Bush advisers fear that if Bush bans funding for the research, the decision will be widely portrayed as a capitulation to religious conservatives _ and compound his problems with socially moderate voters. Conversely, a decision to even partially allow funding could dampen the enthusiasm among religious conservatives that has been among Bush's strongest political assets.

Moral and personal considerations will undoubtedly mingle with the political in Bush's stem cell deliberations. But his decision could also tell us much about whether he wants to bet his re-election primarily on mobilizing a moral majority. One senior White House adviser says that while Bush strategists don't believe they face a mutually exclusive choice between courting believers and nonbelievers, if they had to put their chips with one group they would rather bet "on our side of the equation." The reason: signs that spiritual values are growing more important to Americans, particularly the baby boomers as they age.

But it remains to be seen if Bush can really increase his vote much more among the observant. If anything, the influence of values on voting may have peaked in 2000 because of Clinton's sex scandal. "I don't think Bush can get much higher (among the devout), and absent a scandal he can drift back lower," says John C. Green, a political scientist who directed the University of Akron study. Even while focusing on the observant, key Bush advisers agree he can't lose sight of more secular constituencies _ such as younger working women _ if he's to move beyond his strongholds in the South and Mountain West.

The same is true in reverse for Democrats: They are unlikely to retake any Southern or border states without recapturing more of the devout. Indeed, the experience of the past few years suggests that when culture overshadows economics, the two parties may be trapped in a zero-sum game. For every vote a culturally polarizing message gains the GOP in the pews, it seems to cost them another in the shopping mall _ and vice versa for Democrats. Understood properly, that stalemate could prove paradoxically liberating. Since neither side can gain a decisive advantage by inflaming issues such as stem cell research, both should have an incentive to work for compromises that respect the conflicting values of the world's most diverse society.

Ronald Brownstein covers politics for the Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles Times