Religious Groups will Play Major Role in Outcome of Election (Video)

October 13, 2008 at 8:20 am Leave a comment

With election day drawing near, the Rev. Manny Torres has a dilemma. Four years ago, he voted for George W. Bush. But this year, he’s fairly disgusted and isn’t sure which candidate, Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain, has solutions to the country’s ills.

“Politics is the art of lying with a lot of eloquence. I don’t trust them,” he said recently.

Torres, pastor of Primera Bautista Iglesia Voz de Salvacion, a bilingual Southern Baptist church in Lakeland, is a Latino Protestant, one of a few religious groups that might hold the key to the election.

“My heart is pointing more to Obama. My church feels the same way,” he said. “We’re paying so much taxes. And the economy, all these bad loans. People are losing their property. People are disappointed they voted for Bush. He knew the economy was falling apart.”

In 2008, religion has played a prominent role in the presidential election, perhaps more than it ever has. From evangelical suspicion of Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith to outrage over the twice-divorced Catholic Rudolph Giuliani, to former Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee, faith and morality have been major topics.

But now, polls indicate those concerns are being pushed aside by the nation’s economic crisis. Or, the crisis may add a twist to the moral debate.

Political scientists say there is no more reliable indicator of how a person will vote than their religious affiliation. A survey conducted by the University of Akron between June and August divided voters according to 12 “tribes,” or religious groups. The survey showed that although there are more undecided voters than there were four years ago at the same time, the preferences of these groups have remained fairly stable.

“The differences between religious groups are pretty firm. It takes a lot to change them,” said John Green, the professor of political science at the University of Akron who directed the study.

But Green’s survey and another recent poll have shown some important shifts. One is McCain’s difficulties with conservative religious voters.

McCain is not given to talking about his faith, but he chose as his running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has a foot in both Pentecostal and evangelical camps and has revived enthusiasm for his campaign among the party’s religious conservatives. Yet according to Green, McCain is drawing less support among groups that supported Bush strongly in 2004: the religious right, conservative Catholics, conservative mainline Protestants and moderate evangelicals and Catholics.

Lynne Breidenbach of Lakeland, a local political activist and co-pastor with her husband, Bill, of Family Life Fellowship, said her fellow religious conservatives in the Republican Party are discouraged.

“McCain didn’t excite most evangelicals I know. Sarah Palin did. Now there’s a traditional woman who’s accomplished a lot. But the second thing that motivates us is we’re scared to death of Barack Obama. We see him as a threat to religious liberty,” she said.

Obama has spoken openly of his Christian faith and courted religious voters of all stripes, including traditionally Republican evangelicals. A poll released Wednesday by Faith in Public Life, an interfaith nonprofit group, found the efforts are paying off. Obama is supported by 60 percent of voters who are moderately committed, attending religious services once or twice a month. That’s an 11-point increase over support for Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

The shift away from the Republican Party has been just as dramatic among Latinos, and especially Latino Protestants. In 2004, 45 percent of Latinos and 63 percent of Latino evangelicals voted for Bush. According to Green’s survey, only 22.9 percent of Latinos support McCain, and a Pew Hispanic Center survey found Obama is favored by Latino evangelicals about 2-to-1.

“We don’t know where they’re going to end up, but one of the big successes for Bush in 2004 was Latino Protestants. John McCain is having some real problems, and that could be a factor in Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado,” Green said.

For Torres, the economy and the war in Iraq changed his mind about who to vote for.

“I’m scared to have the same policy for the next four years,” said Torres, who was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in Connecticut. “I feel the party has left us, and I come from a generation of Republicans.”

Torres’ concerns point up another difference from 2004, according to Green.

Even as recently as the spring, political activists had assumed that the campaigns would give the same attention to the “culture-war” issues of the past 20 years – abortion and gay marriage, for example. Now, with just 23 days to go before election day, the economic crisis has altered the political landscape, rendering social issues nearly invisible.

Even before the latest financial meltdown, the Akron survey showed 61 percent of adult Americans rated the economy as the No. 1 issue, compared with just 12.9 percent who said social issues. That’s a 13.2-point drop for social issues from four years ago, and among conservative Catholics and Protestants – the “Heartland Culture Warriors” – the drop was almost 20 points. A Sept. 23 Fox News poll indicated just 4 percent of registered voters said abortion was the most important factor in deciding who they would vote for, compared with 46 percent saying the economy was most important.

Breidenbach said she is hearing similar sentiments in conversations with local religious conservatives.

“They say, ‘I’m pro-life, but (Obama) is going to be better for my family’s economic future.’ I find that a disturbing trend. I’m very concerned people are making decisions based on immediate needs rather than values, and I think that’s a dangerous shift,” she said.

Evangelicals tend to see the economic crisis in terms of personal responsibility rather than public morality, Breidenbach said. But for some religious traditions, the economic crisis is itself a moral issue.

The Catholic Church has been noted in recent years for its opposition to abortion, but the church has carefully worked-out positions on a wide range of social issues, including economic justice. In a Sept. 26 letter on behalf of the U.S. Catholic bishops to administration and congressional leaders, Bishop William Murphy wrote, “Sadly, greed, speculation, exploitation of vulnerable people and dishonest practices helped to bring about this serious situation. … Protection of the vulnerable – workers, business owners, homeowners, renters, and stockholders – must be included in the commitment to protect economic institutions.”

Because Obama has made similar remarks, there is controversy inside the church whether a Catholic voter can in good conscience cast a ballot for a candidate who supports both economic reform and abortion rights, as Obama does (see accompanying article, page A10). The Faith in Public Life survey showed Obama beginning to move ahead of McCain among Catholics, largely on the strength of a 15-point lead among younger Catholics.

Black Protestants also have a long tradition of placing emphasis on the Old Testament prophets who railed against economic oppression. This group already heavily supports Obama – almost 79 percent in the Akron survey and 96 percent in a Sept. 29 Pew Research Center poll – but to hear Frank Kendrick talk, Obama’s candidacy resembles a holy mission.

“Most Americans agree our economic policies haven’t done well for people as a whole. Reaganomics was tax relief for the wealthy. Most African-Americans are falling in the lower tier. Unfortunately, the divide between those who have and those who don’t is getting greater and greater,” said Kendrick, owner of NuJak Companies in Lakeland and founder of a grassroots campaign group, Polk for Obama. “All throughout the word of God it says we’re to provide for widows and orphans. Our fundamental responsibility is to take care of our own citizens.”

Kendrick, who attends both Covenant Community Church in Haines City and Victory Church in Lakeland and is studying for a ministerial degree at Southeastern University, says he has heard his fellow believers call Obama’s positions in support of abortion rights and gay rights immoral.

“There is a school of thought that you can’t be a Christian and support Sen. Obama. … God gives us the opportunity to make choices. Sen. Obama has said abortion is wrong and gay marriage is wrong, but he has said it’s not up to government to regulate that choice,” he said.

Green noted his survey was taken over the summer and that there could be changes in the preferences of America’s religious “tribes” before election day. But he and other observers agree that even though the economy is driving the current political debate, it doesn’t mean that people have changed their views on basic moral and social issues because religion affects a person’s view of the world.

“It shows how religion matters,” Green said.

Source: The Ledger

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