Opinion

Religion as Political Issue Extends Beyond Bible Belt

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With the first Southern primaries slated for next week, get ready to hear more about religion from the Democratic presidential candidates. The reason is simple: the demographic research shows that the South has the largest percentage of Americans who identify themselves as religious.

Black evangelical and mainline Protestants alone are expected to account for nearly half of the Democratic primary voters in South Carolina. But that electorate also includes a large group of white Protestants who have not drifted over to the Republican side. 

It's no wonder then that church pulpits are some of the more popular stump spots for Democrats. But even if it were a Republican field contesting the Southern primaries, the focus on religion would be the same: The large number of white Southern evangelicals would see to that. 

In short, if the candidates want to win the hearts and minds of folks in this region of the country, they'd be well advised not to check their God talk at the Mason-Dixon Line. 

Indeed, they should be prepared to continue talking about faith and values even when they campaign in primaries far beyond the Bible Belt, for there's ample evidence that Southern voters aren't the only ones who care deeply about religion's role in politics. 

According to a recent nationwide survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 85 percent of respondents stated that religion was either "very" or "fairly" important in their lives. And nearly 60 percent reported that they attend religious services at least once or twice a month. Despite those impressive figures, unmatched by any of the advanced industrial countries, almost two-thirds of Americans believe that we are still not religious enough. 

Moreover, it is clear from the polls that for most Americans religion is not a strictly private affair. Nearly twice as many respondents say there has been too little reference to religion by politicians (41 percent) as say there has been too much (21 percent). And it's equally clear that those surveyed also want to see religion play a more prominent role in policy-making. 

Case in point: While nearly 60 percent think that President Bush's reliance on religion in policy-making is appropriate, he is still criticized twice as often for taking his faith into account too little, rather than too much (21 percent vs. 10 percent). 

If we inquire into a possible reason for this, we find that nearly 60 percent of Americans--whether fairly or not--think that it is necessary to believe in God to be moral. This might help explain why more than 40 percent of those polled stated that there are reasons why they would consider not voting for an atheist nominated by their own party. 

Although the poll numbers show that the Democratic Party is perceived as less friendly toward religion than the Republican Party, the difference actually is only 10 percentage points. (The corresponding gap between perceptions of conservatives and liberals, however, is 25 percent.) 

In fact, more than 70 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of liberal Democrats hold strong personal religious attitudes. That means that Democrats are more religious than the overdrawn popular perception suggests, and that connecting with a majority of these voters probably will require appealing in a convincing fashion to their religiously informed moral convictions. 

It is not surprising that the two Democrats elected president in the past 35 years were churchgoing Southerners who spoke openly, frequently and naturally about their religious beliefs. Which suggests that despite what some might suppose, religion still matters to Democrats. 

Which brings us back to the South. When nearly 50 percent of Southerners think there is too little God talk from politicians, and 30 percent say they frequently use their religious beliefs to help them decide how to vote, candidates from both parties might want to pay attention. 

The bottom line politically is this: To do well in the upcoming Southern primaries, and the general election in November, presidential hopefuls cannot afford to remain silent on religion's role in their personal and political lives.