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The God Gap

Republicans and Democrats talk about the religious gulf between the parties.

7:20 PM, Sep 1, 2004 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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DURING THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION the Wesley Theological Seminary (in Washington, D.C.) sponsored a discussion of "Red God, Blue God: The God Gap in Presidential Politics: Is It Real?" So it was only fitting, since Democrats are on one end of that gap and Republicans on the other, for the seminary to host another confab in Gotham during the GOP convention. Mike McCurry, Bill Clinton's best press secretary, moderated a discussion at WNET Channel 13 (not far from Madison Square Garden) among Shaun Casey of Wesley Seminary, Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and John Podesta, a Clinton chief of staff and now head of the new Center for America Progress, which bills itself as a progressive think tank and has been trying to activate religious progressives. The panel was tilted, Cromartie being the only conservative, but he held his own and more, and McCurry, a Methodist who's on Wesley's governing board, wasn't shy about criticizing secular trends in his own party. The event was civil and also, in my case, provoked several thoughts, among them:

First, that it would be good for those who do the surveys on religion and voting behavior to conduct one after November 2 that would tell us how religious "traditionalists" and "progressives" voted. Past surveys, as the panelists here noted, have regarded the electorate in terms of church affiliation and undertaken to discern the relationship between church attendance and votes cast. The general point emerging from those surveys is that the more often someone goes to church, the more likely it is that the person votes Republican. A problem with the surveys is that they don't tell us enough about the voting behavior of those within a particular religious group. Take mainline Protestants, for example. While they belong to denominations that are, in their governing boards and seminaries, theologically liberal, many hold theologically conservative beliefs. Some would accept the label evangelical. (The best example: the United Methodist George W. Bush.) The theologically conservative mainliners differ from their liberal brethren by taking a high view of the Bible. I'd call them traditionalists, over against the "progressives" in the mainline churches, who, dominating their leadership, see the Scripture not quite as sola. I'd like to know how those traditionalists vote this fall, just as I'd like to know how traditionalists within the Catholic church (defined as those who take seriously the church's teachings) cast their ballots.If we knew these things, we might have a better idea of how actual religious beliefs correlate with voting preferences--of whether, to borrow from the event's title, there is a "Red God" and a "Blue God."

Second, that religious progressivism doesn't have much prospect, at least not in terns of influencing the election. Cromartie, citing familiar data, pointed out that there's a substantial bloc in the electorate that you can fairly describe as "secular," and it votes overwhelmingly Democratic. Kerry appeals to them, for sure. But as Podesta conceded, Kerry comes from a tradition where "my beliefs are mine alone" and he doesn't show them in public (remember what he said at the Boston convention: that he doesn't wear his faith "on his sleeve.") Podesta noted the "moral fire" of religious progressives back in the Sixties and early Seventies and how it blew into the Democratic Party. But he said the party had lost that fire. Even if it were to be recovered--you really think John Kerry could bring it back, in nine weeks?--the party would still face a numbers problem, since theological liberals are not a growing, but a shrinking, bunch. There aren't many votes in them thar hills.

Third, that the most serious charge you can lay against the Bush campaign is that it disrespects the church. Casey and Podesta complained about the campaign's effort to get Bush supporters in Pennsylvania who go to conservative churches to send back to Washington church directories that would then be mined for names and addresses of people who are presumptively likely to vote for Bush, assuming they are registered to vote and got out to vote on Election Day, things the campaign would be delighted to help you with, starting now. Casey objected on grounds that the church ought to be left to be the church, and that a campaign shouldn't be encouraging members of a church to see it as an instrument of partisan politics. Richard Land, the Southern Baptist and one of Bush's most ardent supporters, has made the same objection. Of course, more than a few Democratic politicians have taken an instrumental view of black churches. And you could say that in these endeavors both parties are acting politically, which is what you'd expect them to do. Still, a due respect for churches qua churches would counsel against such efforts. It would be interesting to know what Bush knows about the church-directory project, and also what his view of the church is.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.