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Sunday Division Has a New Equation

Regular churchgoers tend to lean Republican, while the more secular vote Democratic. But the Iraq war is making some of the faithful uneasy.

June 13, 2004|Ronald Brownstein and Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writers

EDINA, Minn. — At 9:30 last Sunday morning, the organ sounded and the congregation rose from the pews in the soaring, sun-splashed sanctuary of Colonial Church, which sits just outside the center of town here.

Some in their Sunday best, others in jeans, they rustled to their feet and joined together in a 285-year-old hymn, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past."

At the same moment about two miles away, men and women in shorts and jogging shoes, their hair rumpled, were filling the fat leather chairs at the Caribou Coffee shop in Edina's quaint downtown.

They settled in with complicated lattes and the morning newspaper. An arts festival beckoned outside and as the smell of kettle corn filled the air, the Lord seemed about the last topic on their minds

This is America on each side of a Sunday morning divide that has long shaped the nation's social and cultural life but now increasingly drives elections as well.

Polls show that Americans who attend religious services regularly are more likely than those who don't to take more conservative positions on matters such as banning abortion or approving gay marriage.

And as values issues have become more prominent in presidential campaigns over the past generation, a stark fissure has emerged: Voters who attend church more regularly tend to favor Republicans, while those who go less often lean toward the Democrats.

In 2000, against the backdrop of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, that divide accelerated, with exit polls showing that about three-fifths of Americans who went to church once a week or more voted for Republican George W. Bush, and more than three-fifths of those who never attended services preferred Democrat Al Gore.

These trends are so pronounced that most analysts think they have become an entrenched part of the political landscape. "I think it will continue for the foreseeable future," said John C. Green, a University of Akron political scientist who specializes in the relationship between religion and politics.

But with the nation so closely divided, this election is likely to be settled by subtle shifts at the edge of each side's coalition -- such as whether Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts can slightly reduce President Bush's commanding margin among regular churchgoers, or whether the incumbent can slightly improve his weak performance among more secular Americans.

Conversations on each side of the Sunday morning divide in Edina show the opportunity and the challenge for the two men.

In this affluent suburb just west of Minneapolis, which has split closely between the two parties in the last three presidential elections, voters in and out of church display ambiguity and conflicted emotion on the role of religion in public life, Bush's extensive reliance on religious themes and the overall course he has set as president.

The interviews did not reveal wholesale shifts in the electorate since 2000. But they did expose thin fractures in Bush's support, primarily opened by anxiety over the war in Iraq. Among those who started their day with Scripture and those who preferred a cappuccino and the crossword, the invasion of Iraq looms as the defining decision of Bush's presidency.

With Kerry still a spectral presence for most in Edina, the ultimate judgment about the war could settle the verdict on Bush's reelection bid.

Four years ago, Bush ran more strongly with voters in every major Christian denomination who attended services regularly than those who did not. His best showing was among evangelical Protestants who regularly went to church -- they gave him more than 80% of their vote.

For many of these voters, who increasingly crowd nondenominational mega-churches sprouting in suburbs across the country, Bush's open expression of Christian faith creates a personal bond that transcends his specific decisions as president.


At the Church

"I like to know that the president has the same morals that I do," said Jenny Ritter, a married mother who attends a nondenominational church a few miles from Colonial. "I am drawn to the fact that he is moral. Look at all the presidents of the past, who succumbed to all of these temptations -- Clinton or [John F. Kennedy]."

Bush may face a greater challenge in maintaining his elevated support among regular churchgoers in Catholic and mainline Protestant congregations where liberal social-justice messages tend to resound more powerfully and the Iraq war has stirred deep ambivalence.

Some of those pressures were evident at Colonial Church, which usually draws about 900 people to traditional and contemporary services on Sundays. Part of the Congregationalist tradition that traces its roots to the Puritans and allows each church unusual freedom to decide its own practices, Colonial is housed in an elegant brown clapboard building that looks as if it were imported from New England, complete with a covered bridge over a pond out back.

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