Edwards and the Religion Gap

Terry Eastland | The Weekly Standard | Friday, July 23, 2004

Edwards and the Religion Gap

AMONG THE LEAST REMARKED aspects of John Edwards's resume is that he is a Protestant, a Methodist in particular, a member of Edenton Street Methodist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Edwards's faith was not, strictly speaking, the reason John Kerry chose him as his running mate. On the other hand, religion was not an irrelevant consideration. Kerry is running a "values" campaign, and a value he wants to emphasize is faith.

The reason for the emphasis is apparent. There now exists a "religion gap" that disfavors Democrats, though it is more accurate to call it a "church-attendance gap." The gap lies in exit-poll and survey data showing that voters (other than black Protestants) who go to church services at least once a week tend to favor Republicans by wide margins.

The same gap can be seen from another angle, of course, since those who go less often, or not at all, tend to support Democrats. But because regular attendees are more likely to turn out on Election Day, they are deemed of more value in the eyes of political strategists (though not, one must hope, of pastors and priests).

Last fall, a discussion opened inside the Democratic party about how to narrow the church-attendance gap in this year's presidential election. It was evident, of course, that any attempt to narrow the gap would have to be undertaken by the party's presidential nominee, and that, above all else, the nominee could not afford to radiate the secularism dominant among Democratic activists, especially in Washington.

The Catholic Kerry made intermittent efforts to value faith during the primary season, yet those occurred mainly in black churches whose congregants vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Elsewhere Kerry had, and still has, difficulty with the subject.

His New England reserve may be one explanation. Another may be a hesitation to talk about faith born of the fact that he is at odds on salient issues with his own church: He is for abortion rights and for embryonic stem-cell research. Kerry also likes to invoke the phrase "separation of church and state" in ways that suggest religion should be kept entirely separate from politics, a position that would have required silence on the part of, among many others in American history, Martin Luther King Jr.

A Time poll taken last month found that only 7 percent of Americans regard Kerry as "a religious man." A Pew survey meanwhile reports that 70 percent of voters say they want their president to be a "man of faith." Those numbers suggest a very personal religion gap for Kerry--and help explain his decision to choose Edwards.

The North Carolina Senator grew up in a Southern Baptist church in Robbins, North Carolina, but attended services irregularly as an adult. In 1996, his 16-year-old son Wade was killed in a car accident. Though he is reluctant to discuss it much, the tragic event led him to rethink his priorities. He joined Edenton Street Methodist, where Wade had been active. He became part of a men's Bible study group and served on the church's administrative board. In the Senate he has been co-chairman of its prayer breakfast.

In contrast to Kerry, Edwards speaks comfortably about his faith ("my Christianity informs everything I do," he told the Washington Post earlier this year) and its social implications, especially the "moral responsibility," as he sees it, for government to do more to lift families out of poverty. The Kerry campaign aims to deploy Edwards in more culturally conservative parts of the country, places thick with regular churchgoers, both Protestant and Catholic.

The strategy is hardly witless: Even reducing the church-attendance gap by a percentage point or two in one or two key states in a tightly contested election could produce a Kerry victory.

That said, it is an open question just how much Edwards can help Kerry. In past presidential elections few voters have made up their minds by looking at the face at the bottom of the ticket. Clearly, Kerry has work of his own to do, if more voters who value faith are to value him. In choosing Edwards to run with him on a platform of values that highlights faith, Kerry may be trying to motivate himself to find a way, this late in the campaign, and without straining credulity, to talk about his own convictions.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

Copyright 2004, News Corporation, Weekly Standard, All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.