Political data in the Pew pews

dday 0138Attention all journalists who cover religion, politics or both. Our friends at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have always produced waves of interesting poll materials on issues linked to faith and public policy. And, at least for now, it is the home base for the always candid and insightful John C. Green, the scholar whose work -- back in the late 1970s -- began to put the political power of evangelical Christians on public display.

Now, the forum's tech folks have started putting some of their information into a new form at Religion & Politics ’08. It looks rather simple, at the moment, with short profiles of six candidates -- three in each party. It's the usual faces, with Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama on one side and Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney on the other. Obviously, there are more GOP profiles ahead.

Here is a bit of Hillary Clinton's religious biography:

The daughter of a Methodist Sunday school teacher, Hillary Clinton was raised in Park Ridge, Ill., attended Sunday school and vacation Bible school and was active in her church's youth group. She is a lifelong member of the United Methodist Church, the country's largest mainline Protestant denomination. After her marriage to Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist, she taught Sunday school at First United Methodist in Little Rock, Ark. As First Lady, she regularly attended services at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington.

In her autobiography Living History, Clinton describes her faith as a "crucial, though deeply personal, part of my life and my family's life." Clinton has said that even if she had not been taught by her family to pray, "after I'd been in the White House for a few months, I would have become a praying person." She writes that her faith helped her in the days and weeks following the Monica Lewinsky scandal and President Clinton's 1998 impeachment by the House of Representatives.

That's part of the story, of course. A longer biography would have to address her college years and the impact of feminism on her faith. It will be interesting to see how deep these Pew religious biographies become as the campaign rolls along.

Meanwhile, the site provides lots of information and numbers to all kinds of familiar topics -- abortion, church-state issues, the death penalty, education, the environment, gay marriage, health care, Iraq, poverty, etc. However, what struck me -- the moment I opened up the site -- was the strong mainline Protestant tenor of the leading candidates and the lack of a clear candidate for the conservative side of American religious life.

I mean, I knew that in my head. But it's interesting to see it displayed so openly in this kind of site. With Rudy's status as the official cafeteria Catholic, and McCain acting as a flashback to the silent, establishment Episcopalianism of the George H.W. Bush era, we really are looking at the revenge of the National Council of Churches.

This is especially true in light of the recent Pew study that found key elements of American society drifting toward unbelief, vague forms of faith and/or more liberal stands on moral issues -- all of which helps the Democratic Party and hurts the conservative side of the bitterly divided Republican Party.

Thus, we have an interesting paradox. The world of liberal, mainline Protestantism has, for decades, been in sharp decline at the level of membership (worship statistics can be spun in a number of different directions). However, it appears that the religious left may be gaining power as part of an anti-Religious Right coalition with the growing ranks of hardcore secularists and the vague world of spiritual-but-not-religious voters.

yeste128This raises an interesting question. Politicos have focused a lot of attention on the percentage of GOP voters who claim they would refuse to vote for a Mormon. Has anyone asked how many Democrats would refuse to vote for a conservative, off-the-rack evangelical Protestant? I predict the percentage would be higher than the GOP Mormon number. How about a Catholic candidate who actually supports the teachings of his or her church on moral and doctrinal issues (yes, the whole "Culture of Life" spectrum)?

The Pew Forum will chart all of this, I am sure. We can also hope for an update from the City University in New York, where political scientists Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce should be getting done with an update on their interesting study of "anti-fundamentalist voters" and the Democratic Party leadership. (It appears that The Public Interest's report on their work is not available online anymore.)

But as I looked through the Pew site, I found myself becoming less interested in the politics of the religious left and more curious about the religion of the religious left. It would be interesting to see Pew focus its talented team on a poll probing the doctrinal side of life in this small but very powerful corner of the American religious scene.

May I, perhaps, suggest asking these voters the following questions or some variation on them?

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

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