Religious Groups More Politically Involved

In voter registration drives, sermons and voter guides, religious groups from across the ideological spectrum have intensified the level of their political activity this year, prompted in part by right-left culture clashes and the legacy of the tight presidential race in 2000.

America's churches have always been involved in public policy debates, from abolition to temperance to civil rights. But this campaign has seen many religious groups in a different role — starting their first major voter registration and turnout drives.

Among conservatives mobilizing voters are the Southern Baptist Convention (search), the nation's largest Protestant denomination, and the Promise Keeper's men's renewal movement.

From the liberal side, the National Council of Churches (search), which represents mainline Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations, is mounting 16 or more rallies in its first registration and turnout effort, called Let Justice Roll.

Some groups are going low tech (bus tours) and some high tech (the Internet) to find voters. But all factions speak of 2004 as a watershed.

They say the presidential result in 2000 proved the cliche that every vote counts and underscored believers' responsibility to vote. That sense of civic duty has been heightened by the war on terrorism, since many conservative and liberal religious leaders are at odds over how the United States should react to the security threat.

"There is an intensity to this election generally," said Corwin Smidt, an expert on religion and politics at Calvin College. "The Iraq war, unease about that, contributes to some of that intensity. After all, human lives, American lives, are involved in this."

This year has also seen unprecedented outreach by the Republican campaigns to voters who regularly worship at their church or synagogue. In 2000, an exit poll done for The Associated Press and other news organizations showed that George W. Bush beat Al Gore by more than 15 percentage points among white voters who attended church weekly or more.

However, many congregations have needed no outside prompting to get involved this year.

The debate over gay marriage and abortion has energized some religious leaders, and analyst Steven Waldman, who follows religion and politics as editor-in-chief of the Web site Beliefnet, also sees broader issues at play.

"Re-electing Bush is viewed as a major battle in the larger culture war," Waldman said. "Even if you don't agree with him on everything, it's clear among religious conservatives who the right candidate is."

The Southern Baptists are sending an 18-wheel mobile registration truck around the country. The Focus on the Family media ministry has joined the Baptists' "I Vote Values" drive. Call to Renewal, a network of churches focused on fighting poverty, plans a 12-city October bus tour spotlighting that issue.

Many are using the Internet, Howard Dean-style. Redeem the Vote, an evangelical clone of Rock The Vote, estimates 50,000 people have registered through its Web site and another 20,000 through appeals on 600 religious radio stations.

Among black religious leaders, Bishop T. D. Jakes of The Potter's House in Dallas is asking especially for those under 25 to cast ballots.

Priests for Life, an anti-abortion group, is addressing abortion alone, spending $1 million on newspaper ads, training 1,000 get-out-the-vote volunteers and faxing all U.S. parishes, urging Roman Catholic clergy to preach about the election.

Even the American Tract Society of Garland, Texas, is getting involved. The group, which has existed 179 years solely to distribute evangelistic leaflets, is now disseminating "The Choice is Yours," its first tract that preaches citizens' duty to vote alongside the usual appeal to choose Jesus Christ.

All the registration campaigns profess to be nonpartisan, in line with IRS rules for tax-exempt organizations.

Richard Land, who leads the Southern Baptist program, insists that it's election-year activity is "scrupulously neutral in terms of who people should vote for. It's up to them."

Separate from the voter campaign, however, the denomination warmly welcomed President Bush's video appearance at its June meeting and takes Republican-friendly stands on issues like gays and abortion.

The Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who monitors religious politicking, said the registration drives are inherently partisan.

"Churches on the right hope they're registering more Republicans, and those with a more progressive agenda hope to register more Democrats. Any comments to the contrary just defy logic," Lynn said.

Why build efforts around churches? Political scientists say active churchgoers vote more regularly than others.

"There's really no match for those types of organizations in terms of reach into neighborhoods and legitimacy as a non-partisan vehicle," says Jerry Jones of the non-religious Center for Community Change voting project, which targets low-income and minority citizens and counts the National Council of Churches as an ally.

Still, the practical impact of these efforts are unclear. The Baptists, for instance, report 20,000 visitors to the truck and 91,000 Web site hits but only 4,671 visitors actually registered or downloaded registration forms.

Waldman expects that, in the end, evangelical voter drives will have more success. Liberal groups, he said, began organizing later than the conservatives and may have less money behind their efforts.