Religion Becomes a Top Topic in Presidential Election
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
GWEN IFILL: As the candidates enter their final week of persuasion, both Senator Kerry and President Bush have sharpened their appeal to religious voters.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Freedom is not America’s gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty God’s gift to each man and woman in this world.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve, but faith, but faith has given me values and hope to live by.
GWEN IFILL: Senator Kerry, a practicing Catholic, is more likely to take his message to the pulpit, often at black churches in key states, as he did yesterday in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Later, the senator delivered a values-laden speech his aides said was designed to appeal to people of faith. He linked his belief to his Vietnam service.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Faith was as much a part of our daily lives as the battle was. Some of my closest friends were killed. I prayed, as we all did.
And I even questioned how all the terrible things that I saw could fit into God’s plan, a question many people ask. But I got through it. And I came home with a sense of hope and a belief in a higher purpose.
For more than 30 years, as a soldier, as a prosecutor, as a senator, and now as a candidate for president, I have tried to live that belief.
GWEN IFILL: Senator Kerry has been criticized by some Catholic Church leaders for his support of abortion rights.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: I know there are some bishops who have suggested that as a public official I must cast votes or take public positions on issues like a woman’s right to choose or stem cell research that carry out the tenets of the Catholic Church.
I love my church; I respect the bishops; but I respectfully disagree.
GWEN IFILL: President Bush has been outspoken about his own religious faith, frequently making allusions in his policy speeches to the will of the Almighty.
At the third presidential debate, he said religion helps him make tough decisions.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Prayer and religion sustain me. I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency.
I love the fact that people pray for me and my family all around the country. Somebody asked me one time, “Well, how do you know?” I said, “I just feel it.” Religion is an important part. I never want to impose my religion on anybody else.
But when I make decisions, I stand on principle, and the principles are derived from who I am. I believe we ought to love our neighbor like we love ourselves. That’s manifested in public policy through the faith-based initiative, where we’ve unleashed the armies of compassion to help heal people who hurt.
I believe that God wants everybody to be free. That’s what I believe. And that’s one of, part of my foreign policy. In Afghanistan, I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty. And I can’t tell you how encouraged I am to see freedom on the march.
GWEN IFILL: How religious voters view certain issues, from abortion to the death penalty, from gay marriage to the war in Iraq, could determine the outcome of the election.
GWEN IFILL: For more on this story we are joined by: Joe Loconte, a research fellow in religion at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research institution; Amy Sullivan, an editor at the Washington Monthly Magazine, who advises Democrats on religious issues; and Steven Waldman, co-founder and editor- in-chief of Beliefnet, a multi-faith Web site on religious matters.
Steven Waldman, what role has religion played so far in this campaign?
STEVEN WALDMAN: Well, it has been huge. It has probably been a bigger role this time than any election probably since 1960 and that’s partially because the Bush campaign has targeted a huge turnout.
They need a huge turnout from evangelical Christians; it’s partially because John Kerry is the first Catholic presidential nominee since 1960 and all those things are combining together to make it a very important aspect.
GWEN IFILL: Amy Sullivan, what role should religion play?
AMY SULLIVAN: Well, religion is an important part of all Americans lives. For too long it has been sort of assumed that conservatives were religious and liberals were people for whom faith was not that important.
But we know that 87 percent of Americans say that religion is an important part of their life. So it would be kind of odd to hear a presidential campaign that ignored that factor.
GWEN IFILL: Well, it’s more than whether they ignored or paid attention to it. It seems like there is more talk this year than there has been in the past. Am I wrong about that?
AMY SULLIVAN: Well, there certainly is, but that’s because for 30 years now Democrats have kind of responded to the issue of religion by remaining quiet. They didn’t like how it was dealt with in a campaign.
So instead of changing the way that we talked about religion, they just kind of sat in a corner and let conservatives take over the rhetoric.
And what you see this time is really a change in the way that religion is used.
GWEN IFILL: Joe Loconte, what would you say is the difference in the way religion is used and what role should it be playing in this campaign?
JOE LOCONTE: I think what we’re seeing in this campaign is more – this is the negative thing, the politicizing of the pulpit.
That happens with both campaigns you could argue. But I think we are seeing it with the Kerry campaign to the nth degree because he is going in black churches, and essentially getting pastors, ministers to endorse him for president before the congregation in the context of a worship service.
And I think the IRS is probably going to have something to say about that. You had a pastor down there in Florida who called Kerry Moses leading African Americans out of slavery into the promised land of the Democratic Party. That’s a dangerous thing. It is bad for the Church and it’s bad for the state. It’s bad for the Church because it will always divide a congregation.
No matter how monolithic a congregation is there are always going to be people who don’t agree with the pastor in his political choice, so that’s going to create disunity in a congregation; it’s a bad idea for the Church and it’s a bad idea for the state because it makes politicians look like, whether they intend to or not, look like they’re manipulating religion for partisan purposes.
And we’ve seen more of that in this campaign than I can recall in the last 20 years of presidential politics.
GWEN IFILL: Steve Waldman, you have been following this. Does it seem to you as if there has been more of this than in previous years?
STEVEN WALDMAN: Yeah, I think the Bush campaign has made the energizing of churches such a central part of their campaign strategy.
In fact our Web site Beliefnet just ran a story that they had hired a fellow named David Barton and sent him into hundreds of churches around the country. He is an advocate of the position that the separation of church and state is a myth.
I think both campaigns have done things that have gone over the line or come real close to what’s appropriate.
GWEN IFILL: Amy Sullivan, describe for us what it is that John Kerry is talking about when he gives speeches like the one he gave yesterday when we haven’t heard a lot from him during this campaign about his personal religious beliefs and how he applies it to his – how he would govern — how… what do you think he was trying to do yesterday?
AMY SULLIVAN: Well, it really started during the convention when he first talked about religion and the fact that faith is important to him. But he thinks about it in a different way than George W. Bush does.
And we have seen distinctions between these two candidates on all sorts of issues and it certainly doesn’t end when it comes to faith; they talked about it in very different ways during the debate, and yesterday, I have to say, listening to the speech, I felt like I was back in divinity school sometimes in my Catholic social teaching class.
He used the phrases, the good society or the common good, which are very Catholic phrases, at least five times during the speech. He talked about the shiny city on a hill which was a phrase that John Winthrop first used but that Reagan picked up very famously during his campaigns. And it was just, it was a chance for him to explain his faith, to say you know, these are values that we all share. That we need to be responsible for each other; that the question is not are you better off than you were four years ago, but is your neighbor better off?
And this is what I value but I want to explain to you why I value this. It’s important because far too often politicians just sort of put their religion out there and say, well, either take it or leave it; you’re either with me or against me on this.
What Kerry is doing is really explaining to voters, telling them why it should be relevant that they should even hear about his faith and drawing connections between his faith and the policies that he is pursuing.
GWEN IFILL: And what is George Bush doing when we hear him talk about the power of the Almighty and linking that to the need for freedom, what message is he sending?
JOE LOCONTE: Well, I think he’s standing very much in the presidential tradition. I mean, every president since Washington has talked about America’s destiny in the world, to be a beacon of freedom.
And so Bush’s rhetoric about the connection between faith, democracy, freedom, you hear that in Washington’s farewell address.
You certainly hear it in Abraham Lincoln; you hear it in Franklin Roosevelt, right up to John Kennedy in his inaugural; very similar language with John Kennedy about the rights of man, the yearning for freedom, not being something the state grants you but a God given gift.
So certainly Bush is trying — in the sense he is articulating the American creed, the coming together of the political and the religious in a distinctly political way.
GWEN IFILL: But in a personal way as well.
JOE LOCONTE: Also in a very personal way because of his own faith journey and you see Senator Kerry trying to do more of that as well.
But I think what’s fascinating, when Bush was asked that question about the connection between faith and public policy, the first answer he gave was his faith-based initiative, which is counterintuitive in a lot of ways for many conservatives.
Bush is saying to many of his conservative base, he’s saying, look, I want you to come alongside as good Samaritans to serve the poor and the needy.
That has not been traditionally a Republican message or a Christian conservative message but Bush has made it part of the platform and that’s pretty impressive and pretty important now.
GWEN IFILL: Steve Waldman, help us – those who have not been following this campaign — to understand the distinction that John Kerry makes between religion as kind of a public policy initiative and George W. Bush’s description of a public testimony almost when he describes religion.
STEVEN WALDMAN: Well, Senator Kerry is trying to walk a careful line. He wants to show people that he is a person of strong faith because if you are viewed as not a religious candidate, you are going to have trouble bonding with most Americans who are religious.
But on the other hand, he doesn’t want to be perceived as pushing the agenda of the Catholic Church. And yet he is also trying to explain why he is pro-choice, which is at odds with the Catholic Church. He is juggling a lot of different things.
Now, the way he has tried to thread this needle is to say I’m Catholic and my Catholicism has helped create my views and my values, but I’m not going to impose those values on the electorate. It’s a very similar position that President Kennedy had done in 1960.
But it’s really harder to pull off now because while President Kennedy was being accused of listening to the Vatican too much, John Kerry is being accused of listening to the Vatican too little.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you a little bit more about the Catholic vote because it seems to me that that’s not something at all that President Bush has ceded to Senator Kerry and it’s up for grabs, is it?
STEVEN WALDMAN: Yeah, and I think one of the common threads that the two states you talked about today, Pennsylvania and Colorado, is that they are both have a lot of Catholic voters in it.
The Catholic vote is hugely important. It’s about one out of four voters. And something happened about two weeks ago after the third debate. All of a sudden in a few polls, white Catholic voters started to shift to Kerry for the first time in the campaign.
All throughout the rest of the campaign they had been sticking solidly with President Bush. If that holds, that’s a huge development for John Kerry; I think that had to do with in part his answers in the third debate, which related to explaining his personal Catholic views and also importantly specifically responding to attacks from the bishops.
There may be in fact a backlash effect that when the bishops criticized John Kerry for not being a good Catholic because he’s pro-choice, well 55 percent of Catholics are pro-choice.
They may feel that they’re being implicitly criticized and that when John Kerry is defending himself, he is indirectly defending them.
GWEN IFILL: Amy Sullivan, it seems like there’s lots of potential for backlash here, not only backlash for Catholics who are complicit about Church doctrine but also about people who don’t want to hear all this God talk in their politics. Is that a real risk?
AMY SULLIVAN: I am not sure it’s as much of a risk as it might have been a few years ago. I think what Democrats have done over the past few years in trying to assess what is going wrong with the party is look at the record of the past few decades.
And one of the things they noticed is that the two successful democratic presidential candidates were Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
And they have a lot of things in common but one thing they really share is that both of them were the two Democrats who were most comfortable talking about religion; who sounded very genuine and who knew how to tap something that’s not just pandering. It’s a really important part of people’s lives. And it sounds odd.
You know, earlier in the campaign during the primaries when John Kerry was asked about religion, he would say what he has been saying for years, which is I’m John Kerry Catholic and I’m John Kerry senator and the two are very different, which sounded very odd to a lot of voters because they don’t compartmentalize their faith that way. They just can’t relate to that.
GWEN IFILL: The Bush campaign, Joe Loconte, has — a couple months ago, there were some questions about their being — campaigning too much in churches — that is, soliciting church directories as a way of getting voters. Is there a line here that should not be crossed?
JOE LOCONTE: I mean, I think there is. Whenever you act in such a way politically that the pulpit seems to be manipulated by political leaders – and I think it has been in this campaign.
GWEN IFILL: For both sides.
JOE LOCONTE: For both sides, although I think the Kerry campaign has been much more guilty of it frankly with the open endorsements of Kerry from the pulpit.
That’s just been happening regularly now in the Kerry campaign. And that’s a dangerous thing for the reasons we discussed. It seems to me though where Bush has taken some good advice and been very involved with Christian conservatives in a very positive and constructive way have been on issues no one has been talking about, which is like, the AIDS pandemic, his AIDS initiative, sex trafficking, the issue there, and genocide in Sudan.
Christian conservatives have been involved in all those issues in a very intimate way with this administration. I think most would say that’s a good mixing of religion and politics.
GWEN IFILL: Steve Waldman, I’ll give you the final word: What is the good mixing of religion and politics?
STEVEN WALDMAN: Well, I think one of the things we have to remember is that when candidates talk about their own faith, they are not just appealing to religious voters. President Bush, I think, by being viewed as a person of strong religious conviction, he was also viewed as a person of conviction in general.
Religion and faith talk has a very powerful indirect effect on the general sense that a person is a person of conviction and belief.
And I think that’s the other reason why Senator Kerry is now talking so much about faith. It is not just about policies. It’s about the sense that they have strength of character.
GWEN IFILL: Steve Waldman, Amy Sullivan and Joe Loconte, thank you all very much.