Seven myths about the religious right.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Oct. 10 2003 12:42 PM

How Prayers Poll

Debunking myths about the religious right.

I heard about this guy who called himself "evangelical," said he lived a "Bible-centered life," had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ … and voted for Al Gore over George W. Bush.

A confused, lonely, iconoclast? Actually, in 2000, at least 10 million white "evangelical Christians" voted for Gore.

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Many people, especially secular liberals, misunderstand the nature of religion in politics—which is, to be fair, ever shifting. To them, if it's not about Jerry Falwell or Joe Lieberman, it's kind of a blur. So, just in time for another religion-packed election, here is a guide to sorting through some common myths about God and American politics:

Myth 1: Evangelicals all vote Republican. People often confuse the words "fundamentalist" and "evangelical." Fundamentalists are very conservative and almost entirely Republican because they view the deterioration of traditional morality as the primary public policy crisis. But fundamentalists are a subset of evangelicals, which is a more diverse group.

John Green, a professor at the University of Akron and the foremost scholar of evangelical voting behavior, spliced and diced data some time ago and managed to delineate a group of moderate evangelicals. I like to call them "freestyle evangelicals" because they are socially more liberal (they don't vote strictly for pro-life candidates, for example) and politically "in play." There are about 8 million to 10 million of them. This group went for Bill Clinton 55 percent to 45 percent over Dole in 1996 * and 55 percent to 45 percent for W. over Gore in 2000. That's a swing of about a million votes.

And that qualifies them as a serious voting bloc in 2004.

Myth 2: The religious right flooded the polls for George W. Bush in 2000. Turnout among the members of the "religious right" (that's the goofy way pollsters make people self-identify) was 56 percent, says Green, only slightly higher than the national average—and actually lower than that of devout Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Jews. The "religious right" gets a lot of attention because a) to liberals, they are verrrrrrry scarrrrrry and b) their turnout has been on the rise in the past few decades.

But Bush's political folks view this as a huge target of opportunity. They were able to increase turnout among religious conservatives in the 2002 congressional elections through aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts. The 2004 election may turn in part on whether religious Christians behave more like they did in 2000 or 2002.

Myth 3: Bush's religion talk has appealed to his base but has alienated moderate swing voters. Actually, 56 percent of independents think he mentions his religious faith just the right amount compared to 20 percent who say he does it too much, according to a Pew Religion Forum study. Even most Democrats agree. Attacking Bush's religiosity will not be politically fruitful; alternatively, a Democratic candidate unable to discuss his own faith will place himself defiantly outside the mainstream.

Myth 4: In this era, no candidate would lose votes just based on his or her religion. The same Pew study tried to assess which religions carried the most electoral baggage. When they asked people if they would be less likely to vote for someone because of religion, the big losers were not Jews or Catholics. Rather, the groups with the most political baggage were atheists, evangelicals, and Muslims. (Interestingly, many even atheists didn't like the idea of voting for an atheist.) We have become a much more tolerant country, but that doesn't mean we don't hold religious biases.