President Bush's victory, the approval of every anti-gay marriage amendment on statewide ballots and an emphasis on "moral values" among voters showed the power of churchgoing Americans in this election and threw the nation's religious divide into stark relief.
"The churchgoers, those who voted along cultural lines, put (Bush) over the top," said George Marlin, author of "The American Catholic Voter."
Albert Menendez of Americans for Religious Liberty, which advocates strict church-state separation, said "Bush could not have won without the evangelical vote."
Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks by Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International showed clearly that the president drew much of his support from religious people:
- The president had the support of 78 percent of white evangelicals, who made up 23 percent of voters.
- Bush won 52 percent of the Roman Catholic vote Tuesday, and had the support of 56 percent of white Catholics, defeating the first Catholic presidential candidate from a major party since John F. Kennedy. In 2000, Bush narrowly lost the Catholic vote.
- Bush was favored by 61 percent of people from all faiths who attend services weekly; they made up 41 percent of the electorate. Democrat John Kerry drew 62 percent of Americans who never attend worship, but they only accounted for 14 percent of voters.
- When respondents were asked to pick the one issue that mattered most in choosing a president, "moral values" ranked first at 22 percent, surpassing the economy (20 percent), terrorism (19 percent) and Iraq (15 percent).
Gay marriage bans were handily approved in all 11 states that held referendums, and analysts said that issue drove up turnout.
"This was a high-stakes election for those who support traditional moral values," said Geoffrey Layman, a University of Maryland political scientist.
A leading conservative advocate, the Rev. D. James Kennedy of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said the voters "have delivered a moral mandate."
"Now that values voters have delivered for George Bush, he must deliver for their values," Kennedy said.
More liberal believers, meanwhile, found the results deeply disconcerting, but also saw them as a call to action.
"This election confirmed that we are a divided nation, not only politically but in terms of our interpretation of God's will," said the Rev. Robert Edgar, a former Democratic congressman and general secretary of the National Council of Churches.
The Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State put it more starkly.
"The culture war may go nuclear," he said, as "millions of Americans oppose the theocratic agenda of the religious right."
Each side courted the Catholic vote aggressively, with Kerry forced to buck the leaders of his own church over his support of abortion rights. A handful of bishops said politicians like Kerry shouldn't receive Communion, and many others emphasized church teaching against abortion.
"To run in the Democratic Party you have to be pro-choice, but the church says you have to be pro-life," said Marlin, a Catholic conservative.
Layman, the Maryland political scientist, said that meant Kerry couldn't "use his Catholicism as a strength to appeal to Catholics. He was put in this box by the bishops."
In the end, the majority of Catholics preferred an anti-abortion, Methodist incumbent to one of their own -- underscoring that today's religious divide cuts across denominational lines.
The election shows that Democrats in 2008 "are going to have to say they are religiously attuned to America and make it stick and make it authentic," said Michael Cromartie, an expert on evangelicalism at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. "All future political consultants are going to have to understand religious sensibilities as part of the resume."