WASHINGTON – Regular attendees of religious services are more likely to vote Republican while those who infrequently attend services or belong to no assembly at all are more likely to vote Democrat, a growing body of polling indicates.
And while these figures come as no surprise to those watching the trends, it does suggest a serious "religion gap" going into the 2004 presidential elections. Critics say that spells bad news for Democrats if they can't convince voters they aren't afraid of the "R" word.
"They are conceding religion to the Republicans. I think that is a fundamental mistake on behalf of Democrats," said Jim Wallis, president of the anti-poverty Call to Renewal (search), a national coalition of churches and faith-based organizations.
"They will never win politically," without bringing religion into their campaigns, specifically on the issues of poverty, the war in Iraq and even the environment, Wallis said. "Their failure to do so will continue to result in polls like these," he said, referring to a November poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (search).
That poll revealed that 63 percent of people who attend services more than once a week vote Republican, while 37 percent of regular attendees vote Democratic. On the flip side, 62 percent of those who attend a religious service only once a year or not at all vote Democrat, while 38 of these voters align themselves with the GOP.
The gap in voter preferences begins to close among occasional churchgoers — 52 percent said they are more likely to vote Republican while 48 percent said they prefer Democrats.
Marking a change from the 1996 presidential election in which President Clinton beat Republican opponent Bob Dole among weekly churchgoers 54 percent to 31 percent, according to the National Opinion Research Center (search) at the University of Chicago, the religious divide has turned around.
In 2000, President Bush, a Methodist who is popular with evangelical Christians, beat Democratic opponent Al Gore, a Southern Baptist. In that election, voters who attended religious services weekly or more frequently backed Bush. Gore won among those voters who worshipped once or twice a month, a couple times a year, or not at all.
Pew poll associate director Scott Keeter said it isn't a voter's denomination, but how religious one is that determines how he or she will vote.
"Increasingly, the split in our society is between the observant and the pious and the non-observant, regardless of their denomination," Keeter told Foxnews.com. "It's not about Catholic versus Protestant, it's the intensity of religious beliefs and practices."
He added that the exceptions are black Baptist and Protestant churchgoers, who attend services frequently, but vote nearly 100 percent with Democrats.
Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster, said too often people talk about the "Catholic vote" or the "Jewish vote" without thinking that there are liberals and conservatives among them with different views on the issues and a tendency to practice their respective faiths differently.
"You have to understand, a voter who happens to be Catholic and a Catholic who wants to vote are two different things," she said, noting that the beliefs of the latter go way beyond opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage and support for prayer in schools. She said the conservative religious voter tends to believe in less government and often backs free market ideals.
"It's a very important bloc of voters, people of faith, true believers" Conway said. "They are of significant numbers and they have a higher propensity to turn out to vote more than the average individual."
But some religious individuals say actual attendance in a house of prayer does not determine religiosity or voter preference. And another poll conducted by Pew in October suggests they may be right. In that poll, 62 percent of those surveyed said religion played a "very important" role in their lives, but only 27 percent said they attend a religious service at least once a week.
Marcus Welty, a researcher with the National Council of Churches (search), said mainline Protestants may not equal the numbers of their Evangelical counterparts, and their members may not be as churchgoing, but they do lead religious lives demonstrated by their volunteering for causes like reducing poverty and championing certain issues in communities.
“There is a lot of disconnect between reality and what the polls tend to find,” Welty said.
Still, the November Pew poll showed that among the individuals surveyed who identified themselves as mainline Protestants, 35 percent said they voted Republican while 27 percent voted Democrat.
Of the nine Democratic candidates, only Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an Orthodox Jew, has not hesitated to tie his faith to policy. But former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri have all been inclined to treat religion as a private matter, a big mistake, according to Wallis.
In a recent campaign stop in Houston, Texas, Dean, a Christian Congregationalist, told a crowd, "We've got to stop voting on guns, gods, gays and school prayer."
Wallis said some Democrats tend to be dismissive and disrespectful of religiosity when they should be using their faith to underscore Bush's failures on important issues like poverty and faith-based initiatives.
"The Bush administration's failure to deal with poverty among families is a religious failure. Similarly, to fight an unnecessary war is also a religious failure," Wallis said. "Democrats are wrong when they say faith is a private matter."
Observers say Bush has figured out that lesson and is seeking to emphasize the gap by energizing religious voters.
Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (search) for the 16.3 million-member Southern Baptist Conventions, said evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews are among Bush's staunchest supporters on foreign policy and domestic issues, and are mobilizing for a fight in November.
"Evangelicals look out there and see the vitriolic attacks on the president, whom they hold in high regard," Land said. "You will see a maximum effort to re-elect George Bush."