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Posted February 1, 2004

Our Religion Does Make a “Big” Difference When It Comes To Who We Want To Lead This Country During It Difficult Times. [See article by Frank Pavane on our web site on voting for Catholics.]

The 'Religion Gap'

By Peter Steinfels
Published: January 31, 2004 in the New York Times

Will a "religion gap" be crucial in the 2004 election?

For several years, political analysts and insiders have been using that term to describe a phenomenon in voting patterns that runs right across denominational lines. Weekly worshipers, whatever their religious affiliation, are voting Republican rather than Democratic by margins that were perhaps 6 percent a decade ago but are closer to 20 percent now.

Last fall, John Green, the director of the Last fall, John Green, the director of the Roy C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, and Mark Silk, the director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Connecticut, examined the religion gap in the lead paper at a conference on religion in the 2004 election.

The religion gap, they said, had become "substantially larger than the widely discussed 'gender gap' " that has favored Democrats. In the 2000 Congressional vote, for example, Republicans gained 18 percent more of the voters who attended religious services weekly than did Democrats, while the Democratic advantage over Republicans among women, they said, "was just 10 percent."

Such findings have been translated into new political catchphrases, like "Americans increasingly vote as they pray" or "the best prediction of how people will vote on Tuesday is where they were on Sunday."

Attention to the religion gap has been reinforced by three recent polls showing that, as might be expected, a persistently religious citizenry want a convincingly religious president. All of this has generated insights into President Bush's likely re-election strategy and admonitions for any Democrat hoping to defeat him.

But analysis of the religion gap and what it means for the election is far from complete. "The religion gap is very real," Professor Green, who knows as much about this as anyone, told William Bole in an article this week carried by Religion News Service. But "some people are over-interpreting the numbers," he said.

Professor Green also said that, strictly speaking, what is labeled the religion gap is more precisely a churchgoer or worshiper gap.

When researchers look at other measures of religiosity, such as holding traditional beliefs, praying frequently or regular Bible reading, "there is a bit of a gap," he said, "but it's pretty small." Mr. Bole found something else: "The religion gap disappears, even reverses, when pollsters look at the voting habits of people who go to church a tad less frequently," he wrote. Exit polls in 2000 showed President Bush winning 56 percent of those reporting that they attended religious services every week, against 41 percent for Al Gore. On the other hand, 51 percent of those saying that they attended religious services "a few times a month" voted for Mr. Gore, compared with 45 percent for Mr. Bush.

The religion gap also turns out to be much narrower among Roman Catholics than Protestants. "Weekly Catholic Mass-goers supported Bush by a seven-point margin, in contrast to the 30-point margin among their Protestant counterparts," Mr. Bole wrote.

"When it came to Catholics who reported going to Mass a few times a month, the trend was exactly reversed," he said. "Those Catholics chose Gore by a seven-point margin." That contrasted with the five percentage point advantage that Mr. Bush enjoyed among "few-times-a-month" Protestants. Without qualifications like these, the religion gap concept can lead to the conclusion that only those attending services weekly are influenced by their faith, something not supported by polls and grass-roots observation.

In fact, in an article titled "Do the Democrats Have a Prayer?" in The Washington Monthly last June, Amy Sullivan argued that precisely because Mr. Bush has already "maxed out" his support among conservative evangelicals, it is precisely "religious moderates" who have become "one of the least-appreciated swing constituencies in the country."

"They include Muslims, most Catholics, and a growing number of suburban evangelicals," she wrote, "all of whom are devout" and fairly conservative on social issues - anti-abortion, for example, although not single-issue voters on the question. But they are also uncomfortable, she maintained, with many administration policies on the economy, the environment, Iraq and civil liberties as well as with its ties to the religious right.

Foreshadowing some of the recent criticism aimed at the Democratic candidate Howard Dean, she insisted that Democratic Party leaders were wrong, both pragmatically and in principle, to shy away from Americans' desire for religious cues as to what makes a presidential candidate tick. "Disaffected evangelical and Catholic moderates," in particular, she stated, are "not looking for a tent revival at the Democratic convention. They're just looking for a little respect." Ms. Sullivan's article was not, of course, a neutral analysis but advice for Democrats. It converges, however, with Mr. Bole's report and the paper by Professor Green and Mr. Silk in emphasizing that behind the general notion of a religion gap are a number of religious subgroups in which theology intersects with ethnicity, region and socioeconomic class, and which can be further subdivided between those attending religious services weekly and those attending less frequently.

Because the political loyalties of some of these subgroups are far from settled and because the last presidential election was so close, in 2004, everything will be in play. As the politics get hotter and the analyses become more refined, candidates and their strategists may conclude that there is not just one religion gap but many.