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Is religion in politics changing?

Since Ronald Reagan, Republican presidential nominees have benefitted tremendously from the support of church-going Americans, especially Evangelical Christians.

Since Ronald Reagan, Republican presidential nominees have benefitted tremendously from the support of church-going Americans, especially Evangelical Christians. This was based substantially on the politics of abortion, but also over recent cycles other social issue hot buttons, such as gay marriage and stem cell research.

Over the last few years, there has been talk — not yet much hard political evidence — that this was changing, that younger religious Americans were more liberal and were broadening the agenda of religious issues.

This year will be a big test of that hypothesis, which was the subject Monday morning forum on “Faith and Politics,” the first of a tremendous series of four-a-day seminars that the Humphrey Institute’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance is staging during the four days of the Republican convention. (Full schedule. (PDF) All events are free and open but advance reservations are recommended.)

Krista Tippett, host of Public Radio’s “Speaking of Faith,” moderated and observed that this year’s presidential nominees have stood on its head at least this portion of the partisan religion and politics stereotype: We have in Barack Obama a Democratic nominee who seems comfortable speaking about his Christian faith, and in John McCain a Republican nominee who seems reticent on the subject.

Rev. Jim Wallis, preacher, author and activist and leader of the “Sojourners” movement, pressed his long-standing theme that religious people care about more issues than abortion and gay marriage. “The monologue of the religious right is over,” he said. “Now it’s a dialogue.” He said that when he used to be identified as a “progressive evangelical,” he was told the term was an oxymoron. “Now, it’s a movement,” he said.

Religious Americans, including evangelicals do care about abortion and gay marriage, and tend to agree with the traditional Republican positions on these issues. But other issues — poverty, protecting the environment, combating HIV/AIDS, addressing the genocide in Darfur and war —  are also religious issues that complicate a simple equation of evangelicals with Republicans because Republicans are the “pro-life” party.

“Iraq is a life issue,” Wallis said. “Climate change is a life issue.”

And, in a tough line that mentioned no names but seemed clearly aimed at both President Bush and John McCain:

“You don’t get to just say you’re pro-life because you go along with the [Republican] platform plank on abortion, and then start four more wars.”

Issues like these, he said, borrowing a cute phrase from a 2007 Time Magazine religion and politics piece, are “leveling the praying field.”  Said Wallis: 

“I believe in the sanctity of life. I don’t think that’s just an issue about abortion. Three billion people living on two dollars a day in this world, half of god’s children — that is a fundamental moral and religious issue. It’s a life issue… I do think there’s a sea change among young evangelicals who think — they do care about sanctity of life — but they think Jesus probably cared more about those 30,000 kids who died yesterday because of poverty and disease than he would about gay marriage amendments in Ohio.”

Dr. Richard Land  of the Southern Baptist convention (he’s currently presidents of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Convention) never quite said so, but seemed to defend the old understanding of both the primacy of the abortion issue among evangelicals, and of the bond that creates between evangelicals and the Republican Party.

Evangelicals care about human suffering in various forms and places, Land said. They are interested in an expansion of the agenda of issues that motivate religious voters. But they are not going to allow that to lower the priority of the “pro-life cause.”

He dismissed those who try to trivialize the abortion issue. Quoting one rabbi whom he heard say that people are tired of “pelvic politics,” Land replied:

“The reason abortion is such a compelling issue: It’s anything but a sexual issue. It’s a question of who is a human being? What is a human being? And when does a human being deserve the protection of society? That’s a pretty mega-ethical question…. I don’t know how you could have a more fundamental ethical question in a society, any society.”

Land was skeptical of Wallis’s new paradigm of religious voters. “We’re going to see how radical a shift there has been in the electorate,” he said, “but so far it hasn’t happened in the polls.”

A month ago, Land said, a Time Magazine poll found that 70 percent of white evangelicals planned to vote for McCain, compared with 19 percent who planned to vote for Obama, with the rest undecided. That compared with a 78-22 breakdown for President Bush over John Kerry in the last election.

He noted that of those who planned to vote for McCain, only 15 percent would do so enthusiastically. Despite his pro-life voting record, McCain has not been beloved among religious conservatives, many of whom “will never forgive him” for the McCain-Feingold Act, which they believe interferes with their freedom of expression.

But that low “enthusiasm” ranking was measured before McCain’s hour-long televised Aug. 16 interview with the Rev. Rick Warren at the Saddleback Forum, which got boffo reviews from evangelicals. And even more important, the low enthusiasm poll preceded McCain’s surprise choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Four weeks ago, when Palin’s name was not being mentioned on the “short list,” Land said in an interview that Palin was his top choice for McCain’s running mate.

Since the Palin pick was announced, Land said: “I can tell you that my email and my phone messages have gone absolutely off the charts, from evangelical and social conservative friends of mine who are, I don’t know any word to say other than ‘ecstatic’ about the pick of Sarah Palin, most of them women.”

Steven Waldman, editor of the online religious news site, brought to the panel a specifically political analysis of the two parties’ platform statements about abortion.

The Democratic platform statement on abortion (here’s the before and after) underwent substantial change, but some of the changes seemed to strengthen the party’s traditional position.

The statement begins: “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion.” The word “unequivocally” is new this year. And the Clinton-era formulation, that “Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare,” was dropped.

But the new platform adds three new long sentences that emphasize the goal of reducing abortion by providing alternatives. Those sentences read:

“The Democratic Party also strongly supports access to affordable family planning services and comprehensive age-appropriate sex education which empower people to make informed choices and live healthy lives. We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions. The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre and post natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.”

Wallis believes those kinds of measures to reduce abortion are the perfect meeting ground for pro-choice and pro-life voters.

Land felt that the sum of the changes was that the Democratic Party — unbelievably, in his view — had moved further away from a pro-life position.

Waldman, who covered the platform deliberations, was more mixed. He called the new sentences “a baby-step in the direction of a more pro-life position,” and said his understanding was the strong pro-choice elements of the party got the countervailing language, strengthening the language about support for Roe, so they could be comfortable with the new sentences.

Waldman bluntly described what he saw as the political logic behind the changes:

“There are two electoral groups that Democrats are going after — moderate evangelicals and centrist Catholics — who agree with the Democrats on most positions. They favor bigger government; they’re against the Iraq war; they want national health care. They are people who ought to be Obama voters. But they’re strongly pro-life and they’re tripping over that as they look at Obama and it’s keeping them from supporting Obama.

“So the Obama campaign realizes that they will be losing an electoral opportunity if they don’t find some of at least showing those groups that they are not pro-abortion extremists…”

But Waldman added: “If you have to look with a microscope to find the change [in a party platform that no one reads], it’s not going to have a big impact… What matters now is what Obama does with it. If he takes it and drives it — and it has to be repetitive — then it will become a real change in the Democratic position.”

Waldman noted that the Republican platform writers also considered trying the same appeal. A draft of the new platform language said that Republicans should look for ways to reach across party lines and find ways to reduce the number of abortions. But the full platform committee stripped out that language. (Waldman didn’t say this, but it must have been for fear of offending the pro-life hard-liners.)

He also noted that McCain has, in the past, favored a change in the Republican platform to state that a ban on abortions should include exceptions for case of rape, incest or those in which the life of the mother is at stake. He didn’t ask for that language in the new platform, and has chosen a running-mate who does not favor any exceptions.