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VOTER 2004: WHOSE SIDE IS GOD ON?

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As President George W. Bush gears up for the 2004 election, he wants God on his side, or at least the God-fearing. Bush, himself a born-again Christian, has taken firm stands on social issues considered critical to religious conservatives. In late October, he supported his younger brother Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, who signed a directive for doctors to resume life support for a comatose woman. Days later, he signed a bill banning late-term abortions. And later in the month, after the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld the decision on same-sex marriages, Bush reportedly considered backing a constitutional amendment banning such unions.

Bush made headlines, but he may not win over a significant number of political converts. Still, in a race that's expected to be won or lost by a narrow margin, Bush needs only to recruit enough voters to tip the scales in favor of the Republicans. In a nationally representative survey of 1,202 adults conducted exclusively for American Demographics by Zogby International in mid-November, a majority of Americans (56 percent) say their religious beliefs play some role in how they vote and 61 percent say religion should influence public policy. So, if Bush and the GOP can draw Christian conservative voters to the polling booths, they may be able to retain control of the White House and Congress.

John Zogby, president of the Utica, N.Y., polling firm, says religion will play a more prominent role in this year's presidential campaign than it did in 2000. During that race, Bush emphasized his religious beliefs, saying that Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher and promoting so-called faith-based initiatives. However, the religious right weren't well organized as a voting bloc. ‚ÄúThis time around, the president has openly consolidated his core supporters with the Christian right,‚Ä? Zogby says. ‚ÄúEssentially, we have a president running from the right and a Democrat running from the left. It'll be the Christian right versus the non-Christian right.‚Ä?

Zogby says the survey shows that Americans are becoming increasingly divided on core values and more politically partisan. Although 23 percent of the respondents say their religious beliefs ‚Äúvery much‚Ä? determine political choices, 42 percent say they do ‚Äúnot at all.‚Ä? And 33 percent say their religious beliefs ‚Äúsomewhat‚Ä? determine their political choices. Asked when Americans last seemed so polarized, Zogby says, with a note of hyperbole, during the Civil War, adding that a more apt, and recent example would be the Kennedy and Nixon campaign in 1960. ‚ÄúThis is a 50-50 nation and one of the things that separates us is spirituality,‚Ä? he says. ‚ÄúThe role of religion is quite large in Americans' lives and in their political lives.‚Ä?

Without question, more timely issues will dominate the 2004 election: the economy, the war in Iraq, terrorism, health care and education. But many Christian fundamentalists and political conservatives say a candidate's stance on religious issues will determine how they vote. That's what happened in the 2002 mid-term election. Although national security was touted as the most important issue, following 9/11, Christian leaders said religious concerns drove their members to the polls in key races. Rev. Jerry Falwell even credited Bush's courting of the religious right for the GOP victory: ‚ÄúNo one in the world would deny that the religious conservatives certainly played a major role in regaining Republican control of the Senate.‚Ä?

Zogby's survey reveals that Americans think the wall separating church and state should be porous: 20 percent think that religion should ‚Äúvery much‚Ä? play a role in public policy. And 41 percent think that it should ‚Äúsomewhat‚Ä? play a role. Taken together, 61 percent believe religion should play some role. In contrast, 36 percent say it should ‚Äúnot at all‚Ä? play a role in public policy.

While Americans may differ dramatically over the role religion should play in matters of the state, most consider themselves pious. Nearly 2 in 3 (63 percent) say that their religion is ‚Äúvery important‚Ä? in their daily lives. A little more than 1 in 4 (27 percent) says that their beliefs are at least ‚Äúsomewhat important.‚Ä? As a result, 90 percent of Americans say religion plays a significant role in their everyday lives. Only 10 percent say that religion is ‚Äúnot at all important.‚Ä?

Religious beliefs don't weigh statistically more heavily in favor of either Democrats or Republicans. Sixty-four percent of those who consider themselves Democrats say that religion is ‚Äúvery important‚Ä? in their daily lives, while 10 percent say it is ‚Äúnot at all‚Ä? important. By comparison, 70 percent of Republicans say it is very important and 7 percent say it is not at all important. Taking into account that there are more Democrats, the margin of difference is negligible. ‚ÄúReligion doesn't give one side the edge over the other,‚Ä? Zogby says.

Clashing views on religion's place in politics are most pronounced among differing age segments, ethnic groups, political affiliations and religious organizations. It follows logic that almost 1 in 4 (23 percent) of those who say that religion is ‚Äúnot important‚Ä? in their everyday lives also characterizes their own ideology as ‚Äúprogressive/very liberal.‚Ä? However, 16 percent of single adults and adults who have household incomes of $75,000 or higher, also say it's not important. And 14 percent of college graduates, liberals, city dwellers, suburbanites and those who live in the West think that religion is not important. Men are twice as likely as women to say it's not important (13 percent versus 6 percent).

In contrast, 85 percent of African Americans, 88 percent of born-again Christians and 94 percent of those who describe their political ideology as ‚Äúvery conservative‚Ä? say that religion is ‚Äúvery important.‚Ä? Between 70 percent and 75 percent of Hispanics, Southerners, people over the age of 65, conservatives, high school graduates, divorced adults, widows, separated adults, women and people with annual incomes less than $35,000 say religion is very important in their lives.

Forty-two percent of born-again Christians, 37 percent of African Americans and 70 percent of political conservatives say that their religious beliefs ‚Äúvery much‚Ä? determine their political choices. About one-third of Republicans, Southerners, conservatives and people with household incomes between $25,000 and $34,999 agree.

Respondents with less education and lower household incomes are more likely to say that religion should ‚Äúvery much‚Ä? play a role in public policy. Of those who, at the most, have a high school diploma, 62 percent think that religion should very much play a role in public policy. In contrast, of those with at least a college education, 50 percent think religion should ‚Äúnot at all‚Ä? play a role.

Public debate over same-sex marriage dominated headlines in late 2003, yet respondents didn't put it at the top of their list of issues. Eighty-one percent thought abortion was ‚Äúvery important‚Ä? or ‚Äúsomewhat important;‚Ä? 80 percent considered school vouchers important; 71 percent thought euthanasia was important and 66 percent thought same-sex marriage was important. That was just slightly ahead of cloning, which 64 percent believed important.

Of course, it makes sense that about 90 percent of those who say religion plays a very important role in their lives would also think that abortion is a very important issue. In addition, almost 9 in 10 Republicans, 18- to 29-year-olds, singles, Hispanics, parents with children under 17, rural residents, born-again Christians, women and people with household incomes between $15,000 and $34,999 agree.

About 20 percent to 25 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds, adults who have less than a high school education, men and adults who have household incomes less than $15,000 or greater than $75,000, think that abortion is ‚Äúnot at all important‚Ä? in how they vote. Just 30 percent of those who say religion is not important in their lives also say abortion is ‚Äúnot at all important.‚Ä?

As Zogby says: ‚ÄúWe will see the politics of culture clash, the politics of hate and intense partisanship.‚Ä?

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