Republicans have a Mormon whose religion gives some people pause and a Catholic who supports abortion rights. Democrats have front-runners who are turning Scripture into sound bites. And Christian conservatives are threatening to back a third-party candidate.
The civic union of God and politics is stepping back up to the altar of presidential elections. But this time around, the powerful evangelical vote may be up for grabs.
“It really is an interesting moment in the role of faith and politics,” said Burns Strider, who directs faith-based operations for the 2008 presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
The biggest change is that after more than two decades as a voting bloc for the GOP, white evangelical Christians are showing signs of buyer’s remorse and a greater interest in matters beyond abortion and traditional culture-war issues.
Three years ago, more than 80 percent of evangelicals who attend church weekly cast their vote for President Bush’s re-election, according to polls conducted for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It was the culmination of a bond going back to 1980, when Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority helped put Ronald Reagan in the White House.
But this year’s Pew polls show the Christian right’s support for Republicans shrinking to 60 percent. The slide is deeper among other religious voters who supported Bush – down to less than 40 percent among practicing Catholics and 20 percent for other Christians.
“That’s really quite a dramatic change,” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and a senior fellow in religion and politics at the Pew Forum.
A significant number of religious people “are ready to make a change and consider voting for a Democratic candidate” in the 2008 presidential race, Green said.
An important dynamic, he said, is that many conservative Christians are increasingly expressing concerns about such things as the war in Iraq, AIDS in Africa and global warming.
“There’s pressure to broaden the agenda . . . to apply the Gospel to a broader list of questions,” Green said.
But disenchantment with the top Republican presidential contenders and the party’s performance appears to be the prime reason why, politically, evangelicals seem an unsettled lot.
As Green was speaking to the Religion Newswriters Association convention in San Antonio last month, more than 50 Christian conservative leaders were heading for a meeting in Salt Lake City to consider backing a third-party candidate.
At that meeting, participants overwhelmingly voted that “if neither of the two major political parties nominates an individual who pledges himself or herself to the sanctity of human life, we will join others in voting for a minor-party candidate,” wrote James Dobson, head of the influential Focus on the Family organization in Colorado Springs, Colo., in an op-ed piece in The New York Times.
“Those agreeing with the proposition were invited to stand,” Dobson wrote. “The result was almost unanimous.”
The principal target of the conservatives’ angst is Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who supports abortion and gay rights. Giuliani, a Roman Catholic, ranks high in popularity polls, though many people surveyed said they weren’t certain of his positions.
“As horrifying as it seems, Hillary Clinton would be a better president for the pro-life movement than Rudy Giuliani,” Randall Terry, founder of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, said in a recent statement. “Therefore our mission is simple: Deny Giuliani the Republican nomination. Failing that, we must deny him the White House at all costs – even if it means Hillary becomes president.”
Many evangelicals also are lukewarm about GOP front-runners who are considered more conservative and friendly to their causes than Giuliani.
They seem to have backed away from Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee. Among other complaints is that Thompson, who lists his religion as Church of Christ, admittedly doesn’t go to church much.
Then there’s Mitt…