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Religion playing critical role in presidential election

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–It may not be front-and-center, but religion is taking on an ever-increasing role in this year’s presidential campaign.

In an effort to boost the prospects of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, the Democratic National Committee launched a website Oct. 7 aimed at religious voters. The website, www.KerrySharesOurValues.com, includes information about ethical and moral issues — including the hot-button topics of abortion and same-sex “marriage.”

President Bush’s campaign has long considered evangelicals a significant part of his base and has attempted to keep them in the fold by signing the partial-birth abortion ban and supporting a constitutional marriage amendment. He spoke via satellite to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in June and is trying to boost the evangelical turnout from 2000, when several million evangelicals sat out the election.

Polls show that Kerry is facing a religion gap.

An Oct. 4 Pew Research Center Poll showed white evangelicals supporting Bush by a margin of 73-21 percent and white Catholics supporting him by a margin of 49-33 percent. People not identifying themselves with any religion favored Kerry by a margin of 55-31 percent.

Kerry, who has struggled to be as open about his faith as Bush has, is trying to close the faith gap. Part of that includes a reframing of the values debate by focusing less on abortion and same-sex “marriage” and more on the environment and poverty.

“John Kerry has a plan to lead our country in a new direction, a plan built on his deep faith, his life of service, and concern for our neighbor.” Alexia Kelley, the DNC’s director of religious outreach, said in a statement. “People of faith are ready for a change and are ready for real compassionate leadership. John Kerry not only shares our values, he is ready to put those values into action from creating good jobs to providing a real health care plan.”

The DNC website asserts that Kerry would be better on issues such as jobs, poverty, homelessness, the environment and war.

On abortion, it says that Kerry “is personally opposed to abortion” — even though he is pro-choice and has been endorsed by ever major pro-choice organization. On same-sex “marriage,” the website says that the Democrat would “support marriage between a man and a woman, while protecting all Americans from discrimination.” Kerry opposes but Bush favors a constitutional marriage amendment.

The Kerry campaign encourages its supporters to host a “people of faith potluck” meal and discuss Kerry’s positions with undecided voters. Part of the strategy involves a letter from Kerry touting his beliefs.

“My faith has always been a guidepost that has informed my values and persists as a powerful source of strength in my life from Vietnam to today,” Kerry writes. “My wife and I are practicing and believing Catholics. John and Elizabeth Edwards come from the Methodist tradition. However, it is not because of our profession of faith that I hope you will decide to give us your support, but because of how we will put our faith and values into action.”

But Kerry has had his problems, including among fellow Catholics.

Fellow Democrat Raymond Flynn, a Catholic took out an ad in The New York Times Oct. 10, criticizing Kerry for saying he would nominate only pro-choice justices to the Supreme Court. The Catholic church is pro-life.

“Why do you, Senator Kerry, have a ‘litmus test’ for judicial candidates that discriminates against Faithful Catholics?” Flynn wrote.

An Oct. 7 article in The Times asserted that part of Kerry’s problem is his reserved nature regarding his faith.

“Aides attribute Mr. Kerry’s visible discomfort in discussing religion to his Catholic upbringing in reserved New England, a contrast to Mr. Bush’s spiritual rebirth into the more confessional tradition of evangelical Christianity,” the article said. “Also, pollsters say that the secular liberals, including many Jews, who make up part of the Democrats’ base often recoil at blending religion and politics.”

Bush’s evangelical faith has been well documented, most recently in two books released this year — “God and George W. Bush” by Paul Kengor and “A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush” by David Aikman.

“George W. Bush believes that God charts his ultimate course, and that his duty is to accept God’s calling and forge ahead,” Kengor writes about Bush’s view of terrorism. “In so doing, he says that he relies on his faith for guidance and forbearance in a battle against what he views, unequivocally, as pure evil.”

During a primary debate in 1999, Bush was asked what “political philosopher or thinker” he most admired. His response: “Christ, because he changed my heart.”

More recently, Bush told CNN’s Larry King that his faith is inseparable from the rest of his life. King asked Bush about his faith and noted that Kerry received applause at his party’s convention when he said, “I don’t wear my own faith on my sleeve.”

King then asked Bush, “Does [your] faith come to the office?”

“You can’t separate your faith from your life,” Bush responded. “I make decisions on what I think is best for the country, but my faith is important to me. A lot of times my faith comes up because I thank people for their prayers — and I mean people from all religions.”

During an interview with religious journalists in May, Bush said he reads Oswald Chambers every morning and also reads a devotional by former Senate chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie.

“People say, ‘When do you pray?’ I pray all the time. All the time,” he said. “You don’t need a chapel to pray, I don’t think. Whether it be in the Oval Office, I mean, you just do it. That’s just me. I don’t say that to try to get votes. I’m just sharing that experience with you.”

He also said he realizes the position he is in to be a good influence.

“I just think that I have a fantastic opportunity to let the light shine, and will do so however, as a secular politician,” he said. “It’s really important that you know — I say to our fellow countrymen that my job is not to promote a religion but to promote the ability of people to worship as they see fit.”

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