- Safe Democracy Foundation - http://english.safe-democracy.org -

Religion matters (a lot) in the American campaign

biblia.jpgThe two rival parties in the United States are bracing themselves for a tooth and nail electoral campaign. On the Democratic ticket are an African American who became a Christian as an adult and a progressive Catholic who defends a woman’s right to choose, whereas a non-fervent Episcopalian and a staunch Evangelist can be found on the Republican ticket. Read on to find out who is who in the complex American political-religious scene.

(From Madrid) RELIGION MATTERS, and it matters a lot, in the American electoral campaign. Three out of every four Americans think that it is necessary that the future president have strong religious sentiments.

For some years, Barack Obama belonged to the Trinity United Church of Christ, the church that he decided to be baptized by. He was born Muslim due to his non-practicing Muslim father, and for some years he received a culturally Muslim education under the wing of his Indonesian stepfather. Trinity is an African American congregation with 8,500 members, affiliated with the United Church of Christ, a run-of-the-mill Protestant Christian church of Calvinist origins that practices a congregationalist church government: each congregation manages its own affairs in an independent and autonomous manner. On May 31 of this year, Obama left this church, after its pastor repeatedly made politically incorrect statements in favor of African American radicalism.

The biracial candidate calls himself religious and at the same time pro-choice, an ambiguous stance that does not win over the the Roman Catholic Church’s loyal followers. Yet Christians have not stopped viewing the senator from Illinois as their candidate, and for this reason he has chosen the Catholic Biden to run with him. A survey suggests that if Obama wins over 10 percent of the believers that usually vote Republican, the balance will shift in his favor.

John McCain belongs to the Episcopalian Church but has never been a particularly devout follower; he is divorced and he has always stated that religion is a private matter. McCain has never really connected with the devout Christians that form the core of Republican support. “Obama has been at a disadvantage for awhile. Not even during his long battle with Hillary Clinton did he manage to win over the Democratic Catholics who supported the former First Lady” Because of this, he has chosen the Evangelist Palin so that she can cover this base for him, since his victory absolutely depends upon the massive mobilization of the aforementioned sector.

Both presidential candidates were interviewed on a television program on the same day, in succession, by Rick Warren, one of the main Evangelical leaders in the United States. Neither one wound up winning over a group that is not willing to negotiate its strongest beliefs: a categorical rejection of abortion and gay marriage. Obama has been at a disadvantage for awhile; not even during his long battle with Hillary Clinton did he manage to win over the Democratic Catholics who supported the former First Lady.

Religious faith is one of the most important issues in the American elections, and due to the separation of Church and State, the candidates are being grilled endlessly about the role that religion plays in their lives, and the influence that it could have during their possible presidencies.

SOME UNITED AND VERY RELIGIOUS STATES

The most recent and thourough study of religion and public life, carried out by the Pew Forum, concludes that almost 80 percent of Americans consider themselves Christians, five percent belong to other religions and 15 percent consider themselves non-religious, atheist or agnostic.

Protestants make up 44 percent of the population, with 26 percent belonging to Evangelical churches and 18 percent being traditional Protestants, while Catholics represent 24 percent. Given that the country’s population is 300 million, it is home to 70 million Catholics and 120 million Protestants. “Many historically black churches continue to combine religious and community functions”

Evangelical churches and religious groups have their roots in the 18th century Protestant renaissance movement in the United States and England. Evangelists stress personal religious experience, individual conversion, Bible study, the role of laypeople in the spreading of religious principles and the need to practice religious morality in public life. The biggest Evangelists in the United States are Evangelical Baptists, Pentecostals and Evangelists without any specific denomination. The churches that form a part of the Protestant Evangelical tradition share the belief that Jesus Christ is the only route to salvation.

Mainstream American Protestantism shares a less exclusionary point of view of salvation than the Evangelists’ strict emphasis on the personal acceptance of Jesus Christ. The most numerous traditional Protestant churches in the United States are the Methodists, the Lutherans, the traditional Presbyterians, and the traditional Baptists. The Episcopalians are a minority of 1.8 percent.

“Roman Catholicism is the biggest individual church in the United States” After slavery was abolished in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, African American Christians began to establish their own churches in order to strengthen their communities, escape discrimination and worship in in their own culturally distinct way. These churches rapidly became the African American community’s main social, cultural and political institutions. Black pastors and preachers, like Martin Luther King Jr., played a prominent role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Nowadays, many historically black churches continue to combine religious and community functions as they promote unique forms of worship and spiritual expression. The most numerous of the black Christian churches are the Baptists and the Methodists.

The United States has the third largest Catholic population in the world (after Brazil and Mexico). Catholicism is the traditional religion of most Americans with Latino, Italian, Irish and Polish roots. The Religious Landscape Survey indicates that the Catholic share of the U.S. adult population has held fairly steady in recent decades, at around 25 percent. Yet approximately one third of those surveyed that were raised Catholic do not practice the religion anymore. However, this figure has been partially compensated for by the arrival of Catholic immigrants, from Latin America in particular. Roman Catholicism is the biggest individual church in the United States.

CATHOLICS, THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTORAL INFLUENCE

The opinion polls have shown a tight contest for the Catholic vote on the national level, with a slight advantage for Obama. In 2004, the votes of the most important religious minority in the United States provided the final push to George W. Bush in the key swing states. Historically though, Catholics have leaned towards the Democrats. “Opinion polls show that white Catholics are equally split between Obama and his Republican rival John McCain” Republicans used to represent the white and Protestant vote, and the Catholics, with strong ties to unions, tended to vote more progressive. The trend climaxed with Kennedy’s electoral campaign, which was victorious over Nixon’s in 1960 thanks to Joe Kennedy Sr.’s skillfullness and massive support from the Catholics.

The trend changed after the radical shifts of the 70s, and in particular thanks to Reagan. Like Michael Novak, who collaborated with John Paul II, Reagan understood that one of the keys of the Catholic vote was and is family. His emphasis on family gained him some important support from the Catholic voters, which later went to the Democrats, with Clinton, and is now up for grabs once again.

In the last elections, between 47 and 52 percent of Catholics voted for Bush. There are prominent Catholic leaders in both parties (Jeb Bush, a Catholic convert, on the Republican side and Mario Cuomo for the Democrats). “Catholics have voted for the eventual winner in every election since 1932, except for 2000, when they supported the Democratic candidate Al Gore” There are a total of 128 Catholic representatives in Congress, and 24 senators. Bush’s presence in the Cathedral of Saint Matthew to mourn John Paul II’s funeral, and then his appearance at the funeral itself and the eulogy that Archbishop McCarrik gave for the recently deceased Pope, indicate up to what point Catholicism, as Toqueville predicted, has come to form part of the establishment of American society.

Opinion polls show that white Catholics are equally split between Obama and his Republican rival John McCain. Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, believes that very few (Catholics) are following the dictates of the Catholic bishops when it comes to politics, just like in Europe. For example, regarding issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, the opinions of Catholic voters tend to reflect those of the population as a whole. In general, Catholics are not as deeply worried about same-sex marriage and abortion as one thinks would occur among conservatives, he says.

According to the Jesuit Thomas J. Reese, Catholics have voted for the eventual winner in every election since 1932, except for 2000, when they supported the Democratic candidate Al Gore, who lost by only a few hundred, highly contested, votes. Catholics are the country’s most important electoral influence, he claims. Catholics carry a decisive weight in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Texas.

“The nomination of the Catholic Joe Biden as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate is a move filled with paradoxes, whose final outcome is anyone’s guess” John Green, professor of Religion and American Politics in the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, believes that although there are Catholics that form part of the religious right, and many conservative Catholics have the same values, moderate and liberal Catholics have very different political views, and he adds that, to the dismay of conservatives, many of the issues that were on the table in 2006 –the war in Iraq, health care, immigration– that made the Catholics turn to the Democratic Party will, without a doubt, continue to be important in November.

In turn, it is also a very tough race among the Evangelists. A Pew Forum survey showed that 61 percent of the 70 million Evangelical Christians support McCain, a figure that is below the 69 percent that supported Bush in 2004. Their backing of Obama is similar to that which John Kerry obtained in 2004: 25 percent. The difference lies among the undecided, who have tripled: in 2004 they were four percent, but today they represent a full 12 percent.

During the last quarter century, conservative Catholics and white Evangelists have voted more and more for Republicans, turning their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage into their principal political issues, the Religion News Service highlights.

THE CATHOLIC JOE BIDEN

In this tight contest, both candidates have chosen their vice-presidential candidates while paying close attention to the religious factor.

The nomination of the Catholic Joe Biden as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate is a move filled with paradoxes, whose final outcome is anyone’s guess. As he is known to disagree with the official Catholic positions, especially regarding abortion (and in general with respect to the whole range of issues concerning defense of life), he has not been well received by official Catholicism, the Episcopal Conference and conservative sectors. He is a well known pro-choicer, as is John Kerry, whose nomination four years ago unleashed the so-called wafer war, during which the possibility of publicly denying him communion was brought up. “Biden, the son of Irish workers, with his rosary in his pocket, has always supported Roe v. Wade, which paved the way for legal abortion in the United States”

Biden, although pro-choice, is a practicing Catholic and attends mass every Sunday. A new headache for the American Episcopal Conference, thinks the pro-Vatican John Allen. And it would be drawn out another four years if Obama were to win. Biden, the son of Irish workers, with his rosary always in his pocket, has always supported Roe v. Wade, which paved the way for legal abortion in the United States. He says that he accepts the Catholic Church’s doctrine concerning the creation of life at conception, he voted in favor of a law that prohibits abortion during the last weeks of gestation, but he considers Roe v. Wade to be fair for a society that has different views of abortion. In an interview with Christian Science Monitor, Biden said that he considers his ideas to be completely consistent with the social Catholic doctrine.

But this idea is not shared by the Archbishop of Denver, Charles J. Chaput, who has said that Biden’s support for the so-called right to have an abortion is a grave sin, and for the sake of consistency he should refrain from wanting to receive Holy Communion. Furthermore, from Rome, where he holds the position of Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, another American archbishop, Raymond L. Burke, reiterates the same thing: pro-choice Catholic politicians must be denied communion. Likewise, Michael Saltarelli, a bishop in Wilmington, the diocese to which Biden belongs, expressed the same opinion.

Several Catholic and pro-life leaders in the United States also expressed their disagreement with Biden’s pro-choice stance. George Weigel, a trusted intellectual who has served under the current and previous Pope, indicated that the election of a pro-choice running mate was expected because Barack Obama is radically pro-choice. It is not in the least bit surprising that he has also chosen a running mate who supports abortion in what amounts to the most pro-choice political ticket in history. “American presidential elections are often defined by the undecided swing states. Catholics have been undecided for years”

Austin Ruse, head of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, warned that selecting Biden is a slap in the face to faithful Catholics. First, they have nominated the most pro-choice candidate in history. Then they refuse to invite the Archbishop of Denver to even lead a brief payer at their national convention. And now they choose a pro-choice Catholic as vice-president. Only self-loathing Catholics would vote for this ticket.

But there is also a pro-choice group among American Catholics that will be attracted to Biden’s position, which is also shared by other Catholic Democratic leaders like Nany Pelosi. Biden’s strong support for the right to have an abortion could help him with the more liberal Catholics, whereas his opposition to the termination of an advanced stage pregnancy could attract those who do not feel comfortable with the procedure but do not completely reject it.

Adding Biden to the Democratic bid was an extremely intelligent move, thinks Michael Lindsay of Houston’s Rice University. Biden has connections in a very important swing state, Pennsylvania, where Catholics are the largest electoral group. American presidential elections are often defined by the undecided swing states, and Catholics have been undecided for years.

THE EVANGELIST SARAH PALIN

The Republican response has been spectacular: McCain has chosen as his running mate the Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, a devoted wife and mother of five children, the oldest of whom will be deployed to Iraq in a few days as a volunteer, and the youngest of whom was born with Down syndrome, after his parents’ express decision to not have an abortion, despite the diagnosis having been made prenatally.

“Sarah Palin is the second woman to aspire to the vice-presidency in the country’s history, after Geraldine Ferraro” The vice-presidential candidate is going to mobilize the conservative Christian base. This is so good that I can’t believe it, said Ralph Reed, former president of the Christian Coalition. Sarah Palin is not someone who says she is against abortion in order to win our votes, rather she is a person of profound Christian faith who practices what she preaches.

Her ultraconservative credentials have totally reinvigorated the Evangelical base that Karl Rove led for years. The man often referred to as Bush’s brain cemented his victory through the network of Evangelical churches that had traditionally steered clear of politics. In that way, the Republican strategist was able to pick up 16 million votes. And after the close results, which left Al Gore only 534 votes away from victory, Rove decided that three million Protestant Christians had failed him at the polls, so he spent the next four years working on the Protestants, and as such was able to achieve Bush’s reelection in 2004, in spite of the invasion of Iraq.

But until yesterday devout Christians felt quite a bit betrayed. While it is true that Bush did not allow the advancement of laicism or the horror of same-sex marriage, they would have liked more commitment. During the Bush administration the Evangelists have discovered their political strength and they now know that they are a fundamental part of that silent majority capable of deciding who will occupy the White House. “McCain’s choice of Palin is directed at his party’s conservatives, but that does not stop it from being a gamble”

Let us now put Sarah Palin under the microscope and find out just what type of Evangelical Christian she is. She is part of a rapidly expanding group called post-denominational, in which Evangelical and Pentecostal elements fuse together in infinite combinations that defy all labels and do not fall under any specific denomination. It is a growing tend, since a third of American Protestants do not rule out attending other churches in the future, and only one out of every four considers it important to not change his or her denomination.

According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, a fifth of the 2.2 billion Christians worldwide form a part of what is already being called independent Christianity, types of faith and worship that are separate from historical denominations. They simply consider themselves Christians; they place special emphasis on a literal reading of the Bible and have an unwavering belief in the supernatural.

On a different note, Sarah Palin is the second woman to aspire to the vice-presidency in the country’s history, after Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s running mate on the Democratic ticket in 1984. At 44 years of age, the governor makes up for McCain’s 72, and even though she has only held her political post for two years, she is the only one on the two hopeful teams with governmental experience, since Obama, McCain and Biden are simply senators.

Palin could turn into an important magnet for attracting female, Hispanic and middle class votes that would have gone to the Democrat Hillary Clinton. Besides, she criticizes ecological dogmatism, she is in favor of drilling for oil even though it is bad for the environment, she is married to a union worker belonging to an ethnic minority (the Eskimo/Inuits) and she carried out a model fight against corruption within her own party. And two more facts: she is a member of the National Rifle Association and a hunter, and she belongs to Feminists for Life, a neither right nor left association, to which pacifist liberals and radicals against the death penalty, euthanasia and abortion also belong. “If Obama was more popular than McCain, Palin could balance the party, as opposed to Biden”

She is exactly who I need. She’s exactly who this country needs, McCain stated upon introducing her at an electoral ceremony in Dayton, Ohio. She can help me shake up Washington, he added in a clear reference to the fact that Obama, who has made change his slogan, chose in Joe Biden a running mate who, on the contrary, has been in the Senate for 34 years, while Palin governs a poor, forgotten State, the second furthest state from Washington, after Hawaii.

The former Republican presidential candidate, Pat Buchanan, has called McCain’s decision the biggest gamble in American political history. John McCain’s campaign has gambled that the governor’s profile as a self-sacrificing and religious woman will attract Latino voters: Latinos are going to find in her someone to identify with, hopes Ana Navarro, co-chair of the McCain campaign’s National Hispanic Advisory. She is the mother of a family with great faith. Navarro specifically cited her decision to have her son Trig, in April, knowing that he was suffering from Down Syndrome. Palin is opposed to abortion. Navarro recognizes that Palin is little known outside of Alaska, but she believes that as her personal path and history are revealed, she will captivate voters. She adds that Latina women will like to see how Palin has been able to juggle her work and family life.

Peter Baker’s analysis in the New York Tims recognizes that Palin will help McCain among the anti-abortion evangelical Christians, a part of the electorate that he too believes will be decisive for whichever of the two candidates moves into the White House. Baker highlights that McCain’s choice of Palin is directed at his party’s conservatives, but he admits that that does not stop it from being a gamble. And it could turn out well or badly.

MIRROR IMAGES

So it would seem like John McCain showed keen acumen with his choice of Palin, in contrast to Obama choosing the veteran Biden. And by avoiding the rivalry and joint-leadership problems that choosing Hillary Clinton would have implied, he could have cost himself the White House. If Obama was more popular than McCain, Palin could balance the party, as opposed to Biden. The November 4 elections are still not decided, no matter what Obamamania believers might think.

Bearing all of this in mind, it looks like the religious aspect of the next American elections is pretty complicated, as none of the four candidates is easily classifiable. The Democratic party has defied simple classification and consolidated as an option for progressive Christians, just as the Republican party is such for conservative Christians. This comes as no surprise; both parties satisfy their natural electorates, while they intend to attract indecisive voters with the inclusion of running mates with more specific profiles on their tickets. Biden complements Obama, and Palin does the same to McCain.