Don't Preach for the Polls

John Kerry is getting a lot of unsolicited advice these days. And a growing number of commentators are advising Kerry to start talking about religion more. Because of the "church attendance gap" – the fact that one of the best predictors of how you'll vote is how often you attend religious services – Kerry is being warned to beef up his religious bona fides or else. But if Kerry takes their advice too far, he could be making a big mistake. In fact, the church attendance gap isn't a problem for him – it's a problem for President Bush

Kerry seems fairly religious – he goes to Mass every Sunday, which is one more church appearance per week than President Bush puts in, for instance. But his religion, and the way he is comfortable talking about it, don't fit in with what some believe to be the appropriate campaigning style. Writing recently in Slate.com , Steven Waldman, the editor of Beliefnet.com (and no relation to the author) lamented the limited number of religious references in Kerry's speeches. "If Kerry's uncomfortable with religion," Waldman wrote, "then he's uncomfortable with Americans." Similar counsel has come in the pages of other newspapers and magazines from commentators such as David Brooks and our own Amy Sullivan.

What these writers miss is that there is a big difference between being "uncomfortable with religion" and being uncomfortable shouting your faith from the rooftops. The problem seems to be that Kerry's faith is too personal, too quiet, not out front enough. You may be a Catholic, Kerry is being told, but you'd better start talking like a Southern Baptist.

Looking for the "real" America

As in many areas, there's an underlying assumption here, that the codes and modes of certain kinds of Americans (usually conservatives) are "American," and the ways of the rest of us are aberrational. And it's when the chattering class – an elite culture, both the liberals and conservatives – finds something outside of their experience or habits that they are most likely to label it "authentically" American. NASCAR is thought to be more American than John Kerry's favorite sport of hockey, country music is supposed to be more American than jazz or rock, and the places where there are lots of Republicans are supposed to be more American than the places where there are lots of Democrats. No presidential aspirant would get in trouble for being unfamiliar with, say, the New York subway system, but the candidate who admits that he has never been to a cattle auction will be branded as "out of touch" with regular Americans.

And nowhere is this clearer than on the issue of religion. Forget about admitting you just don't believe in God (all faiths may command respect in the public sphere, but not believing is an instant disqualifier). Candidates are supposed to bring up the topic of religion regularly, go into detail about their beliefs, and pepper their public statements with religious references. Those who don't are chastised for being unconcerned with "morality" and "values" and failing to "connect" with religious voters.

But the fact is that the particular style of public religiosity pundits ask candidates to adopt is not characteristic of most people's faiths. Joe Lieberman may invoke God every time he opens his mouth, but most Jews don't. Catholics like John Kerry seldom feel the need to discuss their beliefs with anyone who'll listen. And adherents of some Protestant denominations are more reticent than others when it comes to bringing God into the conversation.

Recall that Howard Dean was slammed for saying he was going to talk about religion more, because it obviously wasn't true to his own feelings. Yet we are now told that Kerry has to start acting like an evangelical, whether he believes it or not. So George W. Bush seems to have become the model of appropriate religious expression.

But there are millions of Americans who are discomforted by Bush's in-your-face proclamations of belief, his plain certitude not only that his faith is the true one (and yours is therefore a false one unless you share his) but that his own decisions are all but approved by God. Most of us, even those who are religious, are not adherents of the variety of faith that says that my religion is your business, and vice-versa.

Whose majority?

But aren't Americans demanding more religious talk from their politicians? A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 41% said politicians don't mention faith and prayer enough, while only 21% said they mention religion too much. Yet in a poll taken by the New York Times , 42% said they welcomed politicians discussing the role of religion in their lives, while a majority (53%) said religion should "not be a part of a presidential campaign." As always, the answer you get depends on how you ask the question.

Ironically, it is often commentators who themselves are not particularly religious (Steven Waldman and Amy Sullivan notwithstanding) warning Democratic candidates that they'd better start shouting hosannas on the stump, whether it's true to who they are or not. But seldom does anyone warn that an overtly religious candidate like Bush makes a lot of people uncomfortable, too.

In our daily lives, lengthy public discussion of personal belief is usually the province of adherents of proselytizing denominations, those who view the conversion of non-believers as a calling. People whose faith calls them to proselytize sincerely believe that when they try to convert you to their views, it's an act of the greatest kindness, since your soul is in jeopardy and they have the key to save it. As true as that may be, however, those attempts are rather insulting to those on the receiving end. As a result, we've all found ways – usually through avoidance of the topic – to navigate the treacherous ground of religion and maintain good relations with our friends and family members who believe differently than we do.

Of course, the rules are different for politicians. But it is far from clear that dropping in some God-talk would do Kerry much good. As Trinity College professor Mark Silk observes, talking about your own religious beliefs isn't necessarily the way to appeal to religious voters. A look at recent history bears him out: Bill Clinton could speak the language of the pulpit better than anyone, even George W. Bush, yet the "church attendance gap" was wider during his elections than it had been in the years before (and it's wider still now). Bush may warm the hearts of hard-core evangelicals with his religious talk, but most of them were going to vote for him anyway, and Kerry isn't going to win their votes by dropping a few references to hymns into his speeches. Different people's faith leads them to different conclusions about what government should and shouldn't do; Kerry can talk all he wants about Jesus' concern for the poor, but if you think the prospect of two women getting married is clear evidence that Armageddon is right around the corner, you're not voting Democratic.

Which brings us to the question no one seems to ask: Could it be that the real victim of the church attendance gap is not the Democrats but the GOP? According to the latest Pew poll on religion and politics, 39% of Americans say they attend religious services once a week or more, while 45% say they attend a few times a year or less. These two groups are mirror images of one another, with the infrequent attendees just as firmly in the Democratic camp as the frequent attendees are in the Republican. Yet the church attendance gap is never described as a "problem" for the Republicans that might demand a shift in their rhetoric. There is an assumption that frequent church attendees are "good" voters, the kind every candidate wants to win over and must pander to, while those who don't attend are "bad" voters - you'll take them if you have to, but you'd rather have the other kind.

But a candidate with greater appeal to infrequent attendees has something on his side: There are probably a lot more of them. Evidence indicates that polls significantly overstate the frequency of church attendance. Researchers call this the "social desirability bias" – just as 70% of Americans will claim they voted in the last election (when the actual number was closer to 50%), many say they attend services more often than they actually do. Studies indicate the overstatement may be as high as 50%, with only half as many people showing up in the pews each weekend as polls would suggest. And by any measure, attendance at religious services has been steadily declining since the early 1960s.

From faith to values and back again

While Kerry has been mentioning faith lately – just mentioning it, not discussing it – the real shift in his rhetoric has been that he's now framing all sorts of issues in terms of "values." With his new values talk, Kerry seems to have put his finger on the real problem. In American politics today, opposing gay marriage is supposed to reflect "values," but supporting equal rights for all does not. Opposing abortion rights shows someone's "values," but supporting them doesn't. Republicans have managed to propagate the bizarre notion that only conservative positions reflect "values," while liberal positions don't.

Like many of the political developments of recent decades, it was accomplished with the cooperation of timid Democrats. Unwilling to get into a piety contest they knew they would lose, Democrats left all discussion of morality to the GOP. Like many of the strategic moves made by the Democrats in this period, the abdication of any discussion of the morality of public policy was, in the words of Thomas Frank , criminally stupid.

The corollary to the idea that the GOP is the "values" party is the similarly widespread notion that conservative voters have values, while progressive voters don't. As Kerry talks about values, you'll notice that it's often described by reporters as an attempt to reach out to voters in the South and in rural areas. Because obviously, if you live in the Northeast or in a city, you don't care about values.

If Kerry wants to assure voters that he has a moral center and a set of strong values, the best way is to describe them – and talk about the values reflected in Bush's decisions. He doesn't need to do it by turning every speech into a sermon; all he needs to do is say, for instance, that it is a moral failure for a president to do nothing about the fact that 44 million Americans have no health coverage. It is every bit as immoral (more, actually) to lie to the public about matters of war as about who has shared your bed. Rigging the tax system to serve corporations and the most fortunate among us shines a bright light on your value system.

In short, every issue is a values issue. That's something that all Americans, religious and secular, could agree on.

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