God looks on

Sistine Chapel fresco Creation of the Sun and Moon by MichelangeloEarlier today I was pondering the differences between the 2008 presidential election and the 2000 presidential election. Religion and religious issues were a big deal in 2000. Also different in 2000 was the fact that the nation's economy wasn't completely tanking, and the country wasn't involved in two major wars thousands of miles from home. In 2004, the country was at war, but the economy was relatively stable, at least it appeared to be. Again, religion was a significant part of the national conversation, particularly after the election. Now things are different. Religion and religious issues are hard to come by in the national conversation, particularly in the presidential debates.

The French news agency, Agence France-Presse (AFP), noted as much early Monday in an article detailing religion's "lesser role" in this year's presidential election:

WASHINGTON (AFP) -- Scratch the surface of any US elections, and religion can usually be found not far below. But this year it seems to be playing less of a determining role than in the past, experts say.

Religion divides the electorate and weighs heavily on a society in which eight of 10 Americans say they believe in God. In 2004, evangelical Christians were seen to have helped President George W. Bush win a second term.

But with just three weeks left before the November 4 vote, economic concerns have taken center stage in this White House race, pushing morality-related issues to the sidelines.

The article cites the Pew study as evidence that the "religious landscape and electoral preferences" have changed little over the last four years. The big difference, according to the article, is that neither candidates, Democrat Barack Obama nor Republican John McCain, have focused on "abortion, sexual education and gay marriage." There is no real good answer for that other than the fact the economy is on everyone's mind. But does anyone think that if the economy was just fantastic McCain or Obama would be talking about abortion, sex ed or gay marriage?

The article gives readers yet another example of a curious description of that tricky term "Evangelical Christians." I wish I knew where the author of the article gathered this information since it's not entirely inaccurate. However, that's not to say that it is entirely accurate either, if that's even possible anymore in a news article when it comes to defining evangelical Christians:

Evangelical Christians, who favor a strict interpretation of the Bible and include Baptists, Mennonites and Pentecostalists, formed the core of an electoral coalition that was at the heart of Bush's 2004 reelection. Seventy-eight percent of evangelical whites voted for him.

"These voters very strongly supported President Bush in 2004, and in our 2008 survey, they are supporting Senator McCain at almost the same level, a little bit lower, but almost the same level," Green pointed out.

The choice of conservative, devout Christian, Sarah Palin as his running mate has boosted McCain's support among the religious right.

Favoring a strict interpretation of the Bible could mean so many things and yes, Evangelical Christians include those groups, but as a Presbyterian who considers himself an evangelical in the broad sense, I feel a little left out. (Also, Pentecostalists? Oh those Europeans. Generally we call it just Pentecostals.)

The article also contrasts the political views of evangelicals and mainline Protestants with an interesting description: they're "classical Protestants." Here's more:

However, opinions are a lot more divided among classical Protestants.

"Mainline Protestants are very evenly divided between McCain and Obama in our 2008 survey, much as they were in 2004 and 2000," Green said.

That is due to the fact that Obama is himself a Protestant belonging to what he describes as the classical branch of the church.

There's nothing wrong with the term classical Protestants, but the reader is left to assume the article is referring to mainline denominations, whatever that means.

To get a better, more nuanced sense of how religion plays a role in politics, check out this NPR interview with Christopher Bader, an assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University, on how a person's image of God's personality influences the way people vote (see more here). Perhaps it's time to do away with these labels and start describing people's views with regard to how they view God personally?

Image of a detail of the Sistine Chapel fresco Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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