Even in Battleground State, Religous Voters Seem Stable

Mary Warner | Religion News Service | Monday, October 20, 2008

Even in Battleground State, Religous Voters Seem Stable

October 20, 2008

HERSHEY, Pa. -- A group of twentysomethings at the Evangelical Free Church of Hershey spoke admiringly about Barack Obama's eloquence, his impulse to heal divides and his historic campaign as a black man nominated for the presidency.

But only one of the four in this key battleground state was even leaning toward voting for the Democratic candidate.

John Green, who follows religious voting patterns on a much larger scale for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, put it this way:

"There's this capacity for change, but we haven't seen it yet."

In an election year when lurid fears for the economy have dimmed the culture wars and the Democratic candidate quotes Scripture, Green said he's been surprised to find religious voters lining up, so far, much as they did during the 2004 campaign.

Four years ago, evangelicals were solidly in the Republican camp -- and proved a major factor in President Bush's re-election.

This year, high-profile evangelicals describe a broader political agenda: not just abortion and gay marriage, but Darfur, torture, poverty and the environment. Democrats have made direct appeals to people of faith.

So far, though, polls pick up little change in the political allegiance of evangelicals -- or of other major religious groups, Green said. "Evangelical Protestants are still supporting the GOP, with a little less enthusiasm. Catholics are pretty divided, but they were pretty divided back in 2004."

Mainline Protestants are still divided, too, four years later. And Jews and African-American Protestants are still heavily Democratic -- Jews a little less so than in 2004 and African-Americans more so.

Still, religious voters have been waiting longer this election to make up their minds.

And the economy -- months ago, voters ranked it as a far bigger issue than in 2004 -- has taken a sudden and frightening turn at home and abroad, prompting fears of worldwide recession.

All that means that much could change by the time Green analyzes religious voting patterns in Election Day exit polls. "The real test of all this will be the votes in November," he said.

Dan Zelesko, 28, a divinity student at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Myerstown, Pa., was the sole Obama supporter in the small group that skipped a church young adult class to talk politics with a reporter.

"What I've seen from Democrats is a concern for social justice, distributive justice," and those are biblical values, Zelesko said.

Many evangelicals, particularly young ones, are disillusioned about aligning with Republicans, he said. Abortion and gay marriage, he said, "have been used to manipulate evangelicals to vote for a party and get political power."

But those are the top issues for Melissa Manz, 25, a high school Spanish teacher, and she worries about the judges Obama would name.

"I believe life begins at conception and any abortion is murder. Marriage is between a man and a woman," she said. "I fear moral bankruptcy."

Polls show the hot social issues are far lower on voters' radar this year, but they got a profile boost when McCain named Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Palin is an evangelical who opposes abortion, even after rape or incest. Her 6-month-old son, the youngest of her five children, has Down syndrome -- a fact she knew before his birth.

Comments about abortion by Sen. Joe Biden, Obama's running mate, have also made headlines. Biden is a Catholic -- part of the religious group that Green said is most in play this election.

When Biden told reporters his belief that life begins at conception was a matter of personal faith and should not be imposed on others, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops fired back, saying protecting human life was a "demand of justice."

Obama has the support of some prominent anti-abortion Catholics, including Doug Kmiec, former law dean at Catholic University, who emphasizes the Democrat's calls for reducing abortion through health care, maternity leave and adoption programs.

But a visit to a men's prayer group at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Carlisle demonstrated the challenge Kmiec's argument faces with many traditional Catholics.

To a man, they favored McCain, mostly because of his opposition to abortion.

Jim Sollars, 63, said he used to be a Democrat but could no longer support candidates who support abortion rights. A candidate who divorces himself from his faith is dangerous, he said.

Members of several midstate churches outlined their top issues in recent interviews, they sometimes -- though far from always -- framed them in terms of faith.

"This is not an election about religion, but our faith emphasizes what we do," said Sara Wilson, part of a Sunday school class at Mechanicsburg Church of the Brethren that studies the heritage of the historic peace church.

"God is always on the side of the oppressed and the poor," she said.

Betty Barnes, a retired executive secretary who attends Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg, listed the economy and the war -- which she supports -- as top concerns.

"The people I'm for, I hope they have a faith," she said, but "I try never to look at a political picture from a religious standpoint."

As voters respond to the unfolding economic crisis, religion will continue to play a role at the ballot box, Green predicted.

Evangelicals' emphasis on their personal relationship to Jesus might point toward conservative economic solutions built on personal responsibility, for example, while the Catholic social justice tradition might point crucial swing voters toward a communal solution.

"One could imagine a situation where people are voting their economic interests. We could see a decline in importance of religion at the ballot box," Green said. "But I would be shocked if it vanished."

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