Acton Commentary

Religion and the Vote


For those who closely follow politics, the connection between religious identity and voter allegiance is a bracing reality. The reality is this: A decisive sector within the American public votes not on matters of public policy but rather on religious identity.

On this score, the Republicans have a huge advantage. Its grass roots and its leadership are at home with open expressions of faith. George Bush spoke openly about his conversion to Christianity during his campaign. This solidified his position with voters who have been his most consistent source of support.

By comparison, the topic tends to make the Democratic leadership squirm. When asked about his religion during the 2004 presidential race, John Kerry could never seem to speak from the heart.

Well, it seems that some people within the Democratic Party see this as a problem and are seeking change. One person who tried to work with Kerry to get him to speak more openly about his faith was Mara Vanderslice, who now heads the consulting firm Common Good Strategies. Her advice was rejected during the campaign, and Kerry lost.

But look what happened in 2006. The candidates who took her advice did 10 percentage points better than other Democrats who didn't. Now she is widely seen as a prophet who needs to be heard. So Hillary Rodham Clinton has hired her to help her image among religious voters. Other candidates will surely follow.

Which religious voters? The conventional wisdom says that evangelical voters are rather hopelessly tied to Republicans, at least as a voting bloc. So the swing group here is made up of Catholic voters who are less dogmatic on issues of policy. If they can be convinced of the good intentions of candidates, intentions growing out of sincere religious faith, they will perhaps be persuaded to switch parties.

Yes, this new trend will rub some Democrats wrong. After all, the attachment to the idea of the separation of church and state is very strong in their ranks. They were all consistently against Bush's idea of making religious charities eligible for public funds. And they've been skeptics on the idea of permitting religious schools to receive public vouchers.

Nonetheless, in politics, what counts is winning, and if the ticket to winning means that Democrats have to adopt “God talk,” so be it. And truly, there is a point here. If you think back to politically successful Democratic presidents like Clinton and Carter, they were open about their faith commitments. They spoke at churches and prayer gatherings, and felt comfortable with the language of faith.

But you know how much of this strikes me? It smacks of a grave cynicism. Yes, I know that comes with the territory. Politics corrupts just about everything it touches — which is why it is a good idea to shield sectors of society and economy from politics. Still, if faith is to be real at all, it can't be something that is generated by polling firms or dictated by consultants. Real faith comes from within. It is not a political strategy but a life commitment from which emerges social impact, indeed at times, revolution. The resistance to Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, and the eventual fall of communism was, in large measure, a movement animated by deep religious faith.

Far too many Republican operatives seem to regard religion as an arrow in their quiver rather than a serious matter of the heart. It is something of a tragedy that voters can be so easily manipulated on these grounds. It is understandable but it is still tragic.

We talk about the importance of separating church and state, and we all agree (surely) that this principle is essential to the idea of religious freedom and freedom in general. Yet this need not mean a separation of church and society. We live in an age in which the power of politics is overwhelming. It touches all our lives. It should hardly surprise us to see that politicians believe that they can use something so close to home and hearth as an instrument of gaining power.

Personally, I would rather be ruled by good policies than good intentions, sound laws and governance rather than political manipulation dressed up in religious clichés. It was Martin Luther, I believe, who said something to the effect that he would “rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.” It disturbs me to see a Catholic politician who fails to defend his own religion when asked about it, indeed, who doesn't even seem to know what his own religion holds. But I would like to think that we could all mature a bit and understand the difference between “what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar.”

The lesson is that there are two distinct realms, each with a legitimate claim. Only one has an ownership claim on our hearts.