Religious Matters

Faith plays a larger role in Democratic presidential politics
Sunday, February 8, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:48 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

The Democratic Party has recognized that religion will play an important role in the 2004 presidential election and is attempting to rally support from the “religious left.”

John Petrocik, MU professor of political science, said “there has always been a religious left,” but it is often overlooked because “the right is currently more energetic and influential” in demonstrating faith.

Because “the display of religious sentiments is more visible on the conservative side, the Democrats are tagged with being un-Christian,” Petrocik said.

That matters, at least to the faithful, because President Bush is recognized as one of the most overtly religious presidents in recent times. In 2000, Bush won in every Bible Belt state, including Missouri and neighboring Arkansas and Kansas.

Majority of Democrats are religious

Petrocik said it is important that Democrats demonstrate that “I, too, have religious beliefs and am not of a hedonistic character” because America is a religious nation. Last year, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press reported that 70 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans say they are strongly religious.

Apparently recognizing the importance of catering to religious voters, the Democratic Party in 2001 created the Clergy Leadership Network, a group made up of liberal and moderate clergy. Part of the organization’s stated goal is to topple the political power of religious conservatives.

John Paget, founder of Christians for Dean, recently told the Washington Post, “I don’t think a Democratic candidate can win unless he can convince people in the church.”

In Boone County, home to about 450 religious institutions, voters are historically Democratic. The Boone County Clerk found that in the 2000 presidential election, a resident was 34 percent more likely to vote for a Democrat than a Republican.

Petrocik — co-author of “The Changing American Voter” — said that within Columbia’s religious community, African-Americans and Jews will primarily be Democrats while Christians will have a wider array of political views, with Evangelicals typically being Republican. Non-fundamentalists, who do not interpret the Bible literally, are predominantly Democratic, he said.

He noted that although Catholics had more affinity with the Democratic Party 30 years ago than they do today, the odds that a Catholic will be a Democrat are still quite high.

Religious still more likely to be Republican

Petrocik emphasized that, regardless of an individual’s particular religion, the more religiously observant a person is, the more likely he’ll be a Republican. The Pew Research Center found in 2003 that 63 percent of Americans who attend church are Republican, whereas 62 percent of people who do not attend church are Democrats.

The Rev. Fred Thayer of Calvary Episcopal Church said that all political views are present in his congregation, although the Episcopal Church as a whole is generally liberal. Calvary is a member of the Episcopal Church, which supports gay and abortion rights.

Thayer does not usually discuss political matters while preaching, but he said it is “the church’s responsibility to equip people to make decisions in light of Scripture, tradition and reason.” Thayer said his beliefs have not yet led him toward a specific candidate.

The Rev. Micah Ernst of the conservative Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, said “when it comes to actual candidates, I never tell my views too much.” But with issues such as abortion, “obviously God says sanctity of life, so I inform members of its importance,” he said.

Ernst said he does not think the Democratic Party has taken a big enough stand on religious issues because “those are things they don’t hold as important.” He did stress, however, that within the party, there are Democrats with high morals.

Kerry Hollander, executive director at the Hillel Foundation, MU’s Jewish student center, said that within the center, there are as many political opinions as there are people. She does not think it is the job of a religious institution to direct people’s political decisions.

Jews, Catholics more likely to be Democrats

Although according to the Pew Research Center, most Jewish people are Democrats, Hollander said that seems to be changing, which “might reflect changing economic status more than differing religious beliefs.” An exit poll conducted by Beliefnet after the 2000 presidential election indicated that 81 percent of Jews voted Democratic.

The Rev. Michael Burt, who leads the conservative Baptist Grace Bible Church, said that as a pastor, he will “tell someone something is right or wrong according to Scripture” but does not endorse a candidate or platform.

“Moral issues often become political issues,” said Burt, who regards himself as politically independent and “always votes split ticket.”

The Rev. Joseph Offut of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Centralia said the Catholic Church should not endorse a candidate but should express its opinion on political issues “in terms of justice, mercy, ministry to the poor and helping the helpless.” He said taking a stance against abortion is an instance of helping the helpless.

Offut said that although historically the Catholic Church is Democratic, today most people are liberal on some issues, conservative on others. However, he noted that Latino Catholics still vote primarily Democratic.

The Rev. Fred Brandenburg of the liberal-leaning Columbia United Church of Christ, said all churches should be involved in political issues. He said that his church has discussions about various aspects of politics where different perspectives are weighed but that he never promotes his opinion from the pulpit.

Brandenburg describes his church as having an “openness towards understanding,” which is reflected in its support of abortion rights and gay rights.

Asked his opinion on the recent expressions of faith made by the Democratic presidential candidates, he said that how much a politician talks religion does not matter.

“The proof,” Brandenburg said, “is in living.”

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