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THE REPUBLICAN CONVENTION

Keeping the Faithful

Bush's convention has reached out to his party's evangelical base, which could be crucial in November

August 04, 2000|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — The well-known and controversial preachers have been all but invisible at this Republican convention, but the theme of religious faith and the language of Christian evangelicals has been intertwined into the GOP pageant in a way that seems all but certain to help George W. Bush win back much of the evangelical vote that the Republicans lost in 1996.

Four years ago, Bill Clinton won 37% of the evangelical vote--a remarkably high number for a Democrat and all the more so because he had been demonized by Christian conservatives as one of the most amoral men ever to run for president.

This time around, Bush is using his own religious experience and the language of evangelicals to energize conservative Christian activists as well as to win the ear of more moderate evangelicals and open the door to African American evangelicals.

"Bush is really harnessing the churches very well," said Bill Emery, the outreach director of a Virginia-based Christian group that works to get gang members off the streets and into church.

"I'm 43 years old and I've never voted in a presidential election, and I'm voting for George Bush," said Emery, who came to Philadelphia for a forum on getting churches more involved in social service work.

At the convention, choreographed by Bush operatives, religious language provided the political equivalent of a backbeat to the program. The speakers--from foreign policy advisor Condoleezza Rice to former presidential contender Elizabeth Hanford Dole, not to mention a steady stream of ministers and rabbis--talked often of faith. Rice talked about her grandfather, who became a Presbyterian minister.

Dole spoke about Bush as a man who would "use words to inspire, not to inflame . . . he understands that there is power and there is higher power."

Evangelist Jack Cowley, who runs a prison ministry in Texas, told the hall how faith-based programs change even hardened criminals "one heart at a time."

To be sure, few Americans heard most of the convention speeches, but for the party regulars who filled the hall the message was designed to send them home eager to recruit friends and neighbors to vote for Bush. Although this is soft-sell religion compared to the bald and dogmatic messages that came from the likes of Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson or the Moral Majority's Jerry Falwell at past conventions, it strikes a chord both with GOP activists and with a loosely knit group of advocates who work with churches.

The activists are also energized by a series of subtle signals that Bush has sent about such key issues as abortion restrictions, school vouchers and public prayer--he strongly supports all three.

"He knows who he is and what he believes," said Tom Moon, an alternate delegate from Texas. Moon was particularly pleased by Bush's statement that he admires Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, both of whom are very conservative and religiously devout. "That will motivate me to go out and get 15 of my friends to vote with me in November," Moon said.

Others note that Bush talks comfortably about his relationship with Jesus and of being a daily Bible reader. He has proclaimed a "Jesus Day" in Texas for the last couple of years and has encouraged the creation of church-based drug rehabilitation programs and an array of other services run by faith-based organizations.

"At the beginning of the campaign, evangelicals thought he would be more like his father," who rarely spoke of religion, said John Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron's Bliss Institute for Applied Politics. "They were surprised by George W.'s profession of his faith. . . . Phrases like 'Jesus is in my heart' come very naturally to him."

A Trait Shared With Clinton

Similarly, Clinton's style made evangelicals comfortable. A Southern Baptist himself, he made the rounds of evangelical gatherings in his campaigns for governor and was an enthusiastic participant in the presidential prayer breakfasts. In times of personal trouble, he turned to preachers, not to therapists or anti-depressants.

Evangelicals make up roughly one-quarter of the U.S. population, which is slightly more than mainstream Protestants, who represent 20%, and about the same as Roman Catholics.

In a survey of 4,000 Americans taken earlier this year by the Bliss Institute, Bush won approval from 77% of traditional evangelicals and 63% of less-traditional evangelicals. Bush has been careful to position himself between those who espouse the most fundamentalist views and more moderate evangelicals, steering clear, for instance, of espousing the teaching of creationism in public schools.

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