Democrats Try to Close Evangelical Gap in Tennessee

October 8, 2008 at 6:26 am Leave a comment

choir-singing-evangelicals.jpgDennis Barbee cares about low taxes. He also wants a strong economy and solid national security. Above all else, the registered nurse from Spring Hill, Tenn., is basing his vote this November on moral issues.

“Making sure human beings have a right to live
is important to me,” Barbee says. He isn’t yet sure who he’ll vote for,
but the candidate he backs will be “a godly person that definitely has
Jesus Christ as their savior,” he says.

For conservative evangelical voters such as
Barbee, presidential elections often hinge on social issues such as
abortion or same-sex marriage.

Traditionally, the beliefs of the conservative
evangelical bloc, which includes a diverse number of Protestant groups,
have lined up with the Republican platform, says Marc Hetherington, a
Vanderbilt University political scientist.

Candidates push hard for the evangelicals’ votes
in Tennessee, the South and other states, such as Ohio and Kansas, says
Heather Larsen-Price, a University of Memphis political scientist.

The conservative evangelical vote is still
likely the GOP’s to lose this year, Larsen-Price says. But Democrats
who oppose abortion have tried to close the gap by adding a parenting
plank to the 2008 party platform, Larsen-Price says. While it still
endorses Roe v. Wade, the plank affirms support for women who choose to have children.

Democrat Barack Obama has spoken often about
family values and social justice issues such as poverty, issues that
resonate with a new generation of Christian voters, says James
Hudnut-Beumler, dean of the Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School.

“Moderate evangelicals can swing either way,
particularly in an election like this” where issues such as war and the
economy are critical, Hudnut-Beumler says.

Jessica Kelley disagrees with Obama’s stance on
abortion, but the wife of a United Methodist pastor says she more
concerned about poverty, health care and the war.

“I consider those moral issues … a truly
pro-life culture seeks not only to reduce abortions, but also to save
lives at risk from hunger and lack of adequate health care and from the
violence of war,” says Kelley, who voted for George W. Bush in 2000 but
plans to vote for Obama.

Broad base of support

Republican John McCain led rival Obama in
Tennessee 58% to 39% according to a Sept. 29 Rasmussen Reports poll.
That’s consistent with previous years. Bush won the state with 57% of
the vote in 2004 and 51% in 2000, when native Tennessean Al Gore was
the Democratic candidate. The Democrats last won the state in 1996,
when Democrat Bill Clinton won 48% of the Tennessee vote, beating Bob
Dole, who had 46%, and Ross Perot, who took nearly 6%.

A Middle Tennessee State University poll in
September — which then showed McCain leading Obama 48% to 36% in the
state — found that 54% of “strongly evangelical Christians” from the
state who attend church regularly say they personally consider abortion
an important issue, compared with 31% of people who attend church
regularly who identify less strongly with evangelical Christianity.

It also found that about one-third of the
evangelicals surveyed said they were “strong Republicans” and that 41%
of Tennesseans said they think politicians say too little about
religion.

Still, McCain may have work to do to win over those evangelicals who helped boost Bush to the White House.

“Bush was very much seen by evangelicals as one
of them,” Hetherington says. “McCain on the other hand … his faith is
something that is much more private to him.”

But McCain’s vice presidential pick, Alaska Gov.
Sarah Palin, who is staunchly opposed to abortion, pumped new energy
into many white evangelical Protestants who had been lukewarm about the
GOP candidate. In a September survey conducted by the Pew Research
Center, 27% of McCain’s white evangelical supporters say they almost
wish Palin could be the party’s nominee.

“What makes them passionate about (moral issues)
is the idea of living in a country whose laws permit what they believe
to be immoral,” says Vanderbilt’s Hudnut-Beumler.

Group can ‘make an election’

What makes conservative evangelical voters
formidable, Hudnut-Beumler says, is the fact that they are generally on
the same page politically. If a candidate can connect with them, and
they deliver at the polls, he says, evangelicals can “make an election.”

“I think evangelicals are more energized than I
have seen them in a long time,” says Richard Land, president of the
Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty
Commission. The commission has organized a 40-day prayer vigil that
encourages Christians and congregations to pray for, among other
things, a national turning toward God.

Keeping those conservative voters energized
through November will be a key task for the GOP, Vanderbilt’s
Hudnut-Beumler says. It is doubtful that they would migrate en masse to
the left, the dean says — but if they don’t stay engaged, they could
sit out this year’s election, and that could create problems for the
Republicans in some states.

“It is (McCain’s) to lose,” he says. “The bottom
line on religion and politics in elections is that who wins is often a
matter of who shows up.”

Source: USA Today

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