Voters wary of campaigns playing on religion, poll finds

But strong faith believed important in presidential candidates, results show

August 25, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

With religion playing a more visible role in this year's tight presidential race than at any other time in recent memory, Americans want a president with strong religious beliefs, but are also leery of injecting too much religion into the campaign, according to a poll released yesterday.

The national survey by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that voters see Republicans as friendlier to religion than Democrats, but the public is also turned off by attempts to use churches as surrogate political organizations, as some have accused the Bush campaign of doing.

"In the here-and-now, [faith] issues favor the president," said Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center. "But sometime between now and November, we could see them helping Kerry more."

This year's campaign has witnessed some of the most aggressive religious political outreach in many years - and according to the poll results, most people aren't happy with it. Almost 70 percent of respondents said it was improper to ask for church directories as a part of voter registration drives, as the Bush campaign did in Pennsylvania.

President Bush, an evangelical Christian, put his faith out front in the 2000 race, but new issues have emerged this season, including gay marriage, stem cell research and the faith of Democratic Sen. John Kerry, the first Catholic nominee since John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Although the debate is not new in the Catholic church, the issue of refusing Communion to abortion rights advocates ignited this year when Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis took aim at Kerry, saying he would deny the sacrament to the Massachusetts senator.

About 64 percent of those polled rejected such attempts to deny the sacrament to politicians whose views disagree with church teachings. Among white Catholics, opposition was 77 percent.

"I think these numbers ought to demonstrate to candidates in both parties that efforts to ensnare churches in their political campaigns will meet with great resistance," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.

Another contentious issue with religious overtones - stem cell research - could play to Kerry's advantage, the poll found.

A majority - 52 percent - believe that the potential benefits of stem cell research are more important than preserving embryos that would be destroyed by the experiments. That's a jump of nine percentage points since voters were asked a similar question in March 2002.

Pollsters attributed the increase in stem cell research support to the issue's growing visibility - especially after the death of Ronald Reagan, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Reagan's family members have campaigned publicly for stem cell research to fight the disorder.

Although the poll did not explore how intensely voters feel about stem cell research, it suggested that the issue could help Kerry against Bush, who has limited funding for such work to cell colonies created since 2001.

"The Democrats clearly see this as one of those issues where they can get some traction," said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum.

The survey also found that gay marriage, an issue with strong religious resonance, is unlikely to attract many swing voters to the GOP, as some strategists had hoped. When it exploded on the political scene last year after the Massachusetts high court legalized same-sex marriages there, some analysts predicted gay marriage would become a "wedge" issue for the GOP.

But in the Pew survey, only 26 percent of swing voters said it would be "very important" in their decision. Most ranked the issue far below the economy, health care, terrorism and the war in Iraq.

"On balance, religion is not going to be a deciding factor for swing voters," said Keeter.

Even so, he said, an anti-gay marriage message still plays well among white evangelical Protestants, 55 percent of whom say it's very important. They provided Bush's core support in 2000, and GOP organizers are expected to use the issue to fire them up this fall in swing states such as Michigan and Ohio.

On issues of faith in general, 72 percent of the respondents said they wanted a president with strong religious beliefs.

Mirroring earlier polls, more people (52 percent) considered Republicans friendly toward religion than Democrats (40 percent).

This reflects a trend that began in the mid-1970s, when white evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics began embracing the GOP because of its opposition to abortion and stance on so-called "moral issues."

In fact, although it is receiving more media attention this year, religion has long played a significant role in American politics. In the 19th century, evangelicals propelled the anti-slavery and prison reform movements.

"The Republican Party of the 1850s was an alliance of evangelicals and the business community," said James L. Guth, a professor of political science at Furman University, who has studied the impact of religion on voting for three decades. "In a way, things haven't changed that much."

The Pew survey of 1,512 adults was conducted Aug. 5-10 and has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

For a link to the complete poll results online, visit www.baltimoresun.com/religion/

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