Key West, Fla. This country is divided along lines over how we live, love, tax, vote -- and pray. And now that we're about to enter a political year in which we will help decide how we will live, love and tax, there's increasing attention on how we pray.
Three years ago, when the country was divided narrowly over whether to elect Gov. George W. Bush of Texas or Vice President Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, one of the biggest gaps was over religion. In the 2000 election, Bush swept more religiously observant voters by large percentages -- and in the case of white evangelical Protestants, by a margin of more than 5-to-1.
This would matter in any nation at any era; much of British and French history, for example, is the story of religious struggle, and the role that religion has played in the politics of the Middle and Far East, in Africa and in Latin America is well known. But though we commonly argue that we live in a secular age, the United States today is engaged in a bitter national-security struggle with strong religious overtones -- even as the nation itself is moving toward stronger religious belief.
Today, 81 percent of Americans agree to some extent that prayer is an important part of their daily lives, an increase of 5 percentage points in the past 16 years, according to a national survey undertaken by the Pew Research Center. But a more important finding may be that 51 percent COMPLETELY agree that prayer is an important part of their daily lives -- an increase of 10 percentage points in that period. Some 87 percent of the public says it never doubts the existence of God.
This has critical social and cultural implications. In the past decade and a half, political and religious viewpoints have become increasingly interconnected and increasingly important. Indeed, the connections between political conservatism and religiosity have grown ever more robust in recent years. A telling finding: The Democrats had an 18 percentage-point advantage among white Catholics who said in the late 1980s that they attended Mass daily; today the Republicans have a 2-point advantage over voters who say the same thing.
The flight of white evangelical Protestants and religious Catholics from the Democrats to the Republicans is one of the signal political events of our time, but it is not occurring in a vacuum. Supreme Court decisions on issues such as school prayer and abortion contributed to the politicization of religion, helping to transform the role religious Americans play in American politics.
That impulse prompted the Rev. Pat Robertson to run for president in 1988. The television evangelist came in second in the Iowa caucuses, outpolling President Bush's father, but faded soon thereafter. Today Robertson is regarded as having been more on a fool's errand than on God's errand, but he still is credited with bringing droves of outsiders into the political process and nudging into the GOP some evangelicals who had been Democrats since the Franklin Roosevelt era.
The result was one of the great transformations in American politics. In the past, evangelical voters were more Democratic and less active than the rest of the population. Today they are less Democratic and more activist. "Evangelicals now worry less about theological liberalism and more about multi-culturalism, post-modernism and the general secularization of public life," Mark Noll, a professor of Christian thought in the history department of Wheaton College in Illinois, told a conference on religion and politics underwritten here by the Pew Foundation.
All of this provides a subtle but important advantage for the president as he prepares for re-election. Despite the great advantage evangelical voters provided to Bush in 2000, the White House believes that many religious conservatives stayed home from the polls three years ago, in large measure because they were distressed over late-breaking reports about Bush's arrest in Maine for drunken driving at age 30 in 1976. At the same time, GOP strategists are hoping, perhaps in vain, for small breakthroughs among black evangelical voters they believe are attracted to the president's faith-based initiative.
Now we approach a national election in which the issue of gay marriage is almost certain to be a major issue. The Democratic front-runner, former Gov. Howard Dean, signed into law Vermont's statute recognizing civil unions. This is an issue that gay activists and religious conservatives alike are eager to engage, though for different reasons.
This issue is likely to provide one of the most dramatic flashpoints of the 2004 election. But it may be best understood in terms of religion.
About one-fifth of Americans take a literalist view of the Bible, believing it is the inspired word of God. Another fifth of Americans regard it as an ancient book of legends, history and principles recorded by men. The Survey on American Political Culture taken by the Gallup Organization shows that 87 percent of those with a literalist view of the Bible oppose granting the right to marry to homosexual couples. Only 33 percent of those who believe the Bible is an ancient book written by men agree. (Talk about polarization!)
This issue is the fire next time -- and religion is the key to understanding its implications in American politics.
David Shribman is a columnist for Universal Press Syndicate.