Of Church and State

The United States is the world's most religious advanced industrial nation. More Americans say they believe in God, go to church regularly, and take the Bible literally than do people in any other Western country. The explanation lies in U. S. history. Many people came to colonial America seeking religious freedom after having been at odds with the state church in their home countries. The immigrants' religious traditions, which stressed piety and personal salvation, have flourished.

The strongest trend in American politics for the past 25 years has been a growing division between religious and secular voters. Religious Americans, including fundamentalist Protestants, observant Catholics, and Orthodox Jews, have become more Republican, while secular voters have moved toward the Democratic Party. Religion now looms larger than economic class as a source of political division.

These days, Democratic officials worry that their party has a religion problem. Last November, according to network exit polls, two-thirds of voters who said they never go to church voted Democratic. But the voters who never go to church represented only 15 percent of all voters. Nearly half of last November's voters said that they attend religious services every week. Most of them voted Republican. The implication? Democrats have to figure out a way to increase their appeal to churchgoers.

Recommended Reading

Actually, both parties have a religion problem. It's not just that Democrats have less appeal to religious voters. It's also that Republicans are seen as bringing too much religion into politics. In a new Time magazine poll, Americans are divided over what role religion should play in politics. The poll asked whether presidents should allow their personal religious faith to guide them in making decisions. Forty-four percent of the public said yes; 46 percent said no. Republicans said yes by about 2-to-1. Democrats said no by nearly 2-to-1.

Do voters see Republican candidates as more religious than Democratic ones?Actually, they don't. Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obama top the list of 2008 candidates whom the public sees as having strong religious faith. Perhaps because of his African-American heritage, Obama sounds comfortable talking about faith. At a presidential forum last month sponsored by Sojourners, a liberal evangelical group, Obama said, "My moral commitments to that vision of what Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr. ] called 'a beloved community' rose out of my faith."

Romney's Mormonism could be a problem for his candidacy. One-third of voters polled by Time, including 30 percent of Republicans, say they are less likely to support Romney because he's a practicing Mormon. Romney is trying to deal with the issue much the way John F. Kennedy dealt with his Catholicism in 1960. Romney told Republicans at last month's New Hampshire debate, "President Kennedy some time ago said he was not a Catholic running for president; he was an American running for president.... The values that I have are the same values you'll find in faiths across the country."

Which candidates are viewed as the least religious? As it happens, the two front-runners, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Rudy Giuliani. Clinton said at the Sojourners forum, "I come from a tradition that is perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faith on their sleeves, so a lot of the talk and advertising about faith doesn't come naturally to me. " Meanwhile, Giuliani, in explaining his support for abortion rights during a Republican debate, said, "We have to respect the fact that there are people who are equally religious, equally moral, who make a different decision about this. Should the government put them in jail?"

Many Americans see a downside to mixing religion and politics. In 2004, according to the Time poll, 49 percent of Americans said that President Bush's religious faith made him "a strong leader," as opposed to 36 percent who thought it made him "too close-minded." Those numbers have reversed. Now 50 percent say Bush's faith has made him too close-minded, while 34 percent believe it has made him a strong leader. The number of Americans who think that Bush has used religion more to divide the country than to unite it has grown from 27 percent in 2004 to 43 percent now.

In the end, both parties have a similar problem with religion: how to talk about it in a way that doesn't alienate potential supporters.