How enthusiastic are folks in those pews?

In most mainstream news reports, President Bush's campaign is built on a foundation of right-wing religious zealots who want to lock homosexuals in closets, trample women's rights and, what the heck, flirt with a Left-Behind nuclear showdown by building a Messianic Jewish megachurch on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The reality is a tad more complex. Some of that complexity has been making it into the New York Times, via its trailblazing beat dedicated to issues that divide the political, cultural and religious right. That isn't the whole story, but it's one window into a larger story.

More information can be found in the mass mailings that circulate on the right, especially those from the James Dobson camp in Colorado Springs. There are interesting sub-texts and criticisms in some of the commentaries and writings produced by the researchers and staff of Charles Colson. People who speak fluent Baptist can also turn to the waves of news and commentary produced by Baptist Press, on the right, and the Associated Baptist Press, a few ticks to the left of center on the way to mainline Protestant status.

Earlier this week, Baptist Press put out a report on the debate between the vice presidential candidates. Early next week, the second presidential debate will undoubtedly be parsed in a similar manner.

While Dick Cheney draws a chorus of cheers from some conservative choirs, this report was released with A stark headline: "Cheney's defense of marriage proposal lukewarm in VP debate." Here's a chunk of the story by the veteran BP Washington, D.C, correspondent Tom Strode:

Vice President Dick Cheney's tepid defense of a constitutional amendment protecting marriage during his Oct. 5 debate with Democrat John Edwards was certain to make supporters of such a measure glad George W. Bush, not Cheney, is president. ...

When asked by moderator Gwen Ifill of the Public Broadcasting System about the marriage amendment issue, Cheney reiterated a view expressed four years ago that people should be free "to choose any arrangement they want" but states should be the level of government at which relationships are authorized or not. "States have regulated marriage, if you will," he said. "That would be my preference."

Recently, however, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has directed the state legislature "to allow gay marriage," Cheney said. "And the fact is that the president felt that it was important to make it clear that that's the wrong way to go, as far as he's concerned. Now, he sets policy for this administration, and I support the president."

Edwards took the now familiar Democratic Party stance that marriage is between a man and a woman, but that any amendment is "unnecessary" and is simply being used by the right "to divide this country. ... It's nothing but a political tool."

But the soundbite here was the Edwards attempt to damn Cheney with praise for the relationship that Cheney and his wife, Lynne, have maintained with their daughter, Mary, who is a lesbian. In response, noted Strode, Cheney thanked Edwards "for the kind words he said about my family and our daughter. I appreciate that very much."

"That's it?" Ifill asked Cheney

"That's it," he answered.

The Southern Baptist expert on these maters is Dr. Richard Land of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He tried to be kind to Cheney, who was stuck between a rock and a hard place. So this was another chance to cheer for Bush, and remind the administration of the importance of this issue to the leaders of the nation's largest non-Catholic flock. Land was blunt:

"Fortunately for such supporters, George W. Bush is the president, not Dick Cheney, and there's no question where George W. Bush stands on the issue."

So what is this story really about? It's about the quest for evangelical enthusiasm.

This is news. The Washington Post recently published a strange article about what it called the "Enthusiasm Gap" between the base voters in each party. Reporters Richard Morin and Christopher Muste said that many of the "gaps" studied in recent elections -- such as the gender gap -- are not as important this year.

However, Morin and Muste also discuss a "grad-school" gap between brilliant Kerry voters and, well, all those Bush voters who are less educated. Then they found a veterans gap, which favors Bush, and a generations gap, which gives the youth vote to Kerry.

But the key, according to the Post, is a simple "enthusiasm gap" that will affect turnout. The left, supposedly, is not all that enthusiastic about John "Call me JFK" Kerry and Edwards. The right is supposed to be fired up like crazy about Bush and Kerry.

So Kerry is really not a liberal. Check. Bush is really, really conservative. Check.

What interested me was that the Post elected not to discuss one of the most controversial divides in American politics -- the pew gap. Clearly, the gap between religious conservatives and secular and liberal religious believers is also linked to the "enthusiasm gap" in this report. And I would argue that another place to research the "enthusiasm gap" is in the pages of alternative news sources such as the Baptist news services. Pay them a visit. There's news in those sites.

UPDATED: Sure enough, the Baptist Press gang dissected the No. 2 presidential debate precisely as I expected. Check out the "feelings" section of the Kerry quote about stem cells. It's all about feelings, not science. I think the person asking the question wanted to discuss factual material. Sometimes, if you want the full unedited quotes on the religion issues, you need to turn to the religious press. Sad.

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