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Religion played unprecedented role in presidential election


Mannie Garcia

U.S. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney wave to supporters after Bush gave his victory speech at the Ronald Reagan Center in Washington Nov. 3. Despite exit polls predicting a victory for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, Bush won a second term in office by a 51-to-49% margin.

(RNS) The 2004 presidential campaign will go down in history as one in which Democrats and Republicans battled tooth and nail while God ran unopposed.

Never before has religion played such a central role in American presidential politics, as both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry sought to wrap themselves in the mantle of faith and convince voters that they, not their opponent, could be trusted to lead the country in trying times.

While many lament this mix of the spiritual and the secular, the interplay between the candidates and the reactions of the electorate revealed important truths about the state of faith in America today, and about the future of politics. Among the lessons that will have crucial ramifications:


1) Secularization is dead; God is not.

A famous Time magazine cover in 1966 asked, "Is God Dead?" For years, the answer seemed to be in the affirmative. Supreme Court rulings barred government-sponsored prayer in schools, and a series of books, notably Harvey Cox's 1965 best seller, The Secular City, promoted the thesis that society was outgrowing the need for religion.

The rise of the religious right in the late 1970s and 1980s was a reaction against secularization theory, but the phenomenon was confined to the Republican Party.

While Kerry bumbled the faith issue at almost every turn and failed to improve on Gore's numbers, it wasn't for lack of trying. As the campaign wore on Kerry increasingly visited pulpits, trotted out parables and Bible verses, and offered personal testimony of his Roman Catholic faith. He defended traditional marriage (while supporting some form of civil unions) and even signaled a willingness to back "faith-based" programs, though under stricter terms than Bush envisions.


More of Obama?

In the messy election post-mortem, Democrats admitted they have to do better on the morals-and-values agenda that voters said - to the surprise of too many Democrats and pundits - was their priority. That may push party leaders to turn to the likes of Barack Obama, Illinois' newly minted senator, who proclaimed in his widely hailed convention keynote speech: "We worship an awesome God in the Blue States."


2) The battle between "faith alone" and "good works" continues.

The rift in America is not so much between secularists and pietists as it is between differing views of how religion should work to alleviate society's ills: Is religion principally a matter of personal morality leading to social uplift through individual conversion (Bush), or is it about social progress through faith-inspired policy changes (Kerry)?

That drama is playing out as Christian conservatives want to use government to enforce rules on personal behavior and belief - barring homosexuals from marrying, reining in abortion, keeping religious mottos on coins and in the Pledge of Allegiance - while taking a free-market approach to social justice by, in Bush's words, "unleashing the armies of compassion."

Liberal Christians, on the other hand, are trying to revive the lapsed "social gospel" tradition of government progressivism by claiming it is "God's work" - Kerry's phrase - to eliminate poverty, fight for equality and protect the environment.


3) Divisions are within denominations, not among them.

Politics makes strange bedfellows, and now, so does religion.

Today it is more important for religious conservatives that their allies be fellow social conservatives, and it is of little import whether they are Protestant or Catholic or Jewish. Pluralism reigns, for both the left and the right, while theology takes a back seat.

Thus the campaign saw Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians joining forces on some issues while mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics were forging alliances on others. Likewise, Bush, a nominal Methodist, was castigated for his policies by leaders of his denomination, while Kerry faced his harshest attacks from conservatives in his own Catholic Church - most of them lay people rather than clerics.

The polarization that afflicts the country's political discourse is just as virulent within religious communities, and schism, rather than unity, rules.