As we head into the election-day coverage, let's all flash back to the story line of the 2000 and 2004 elections that was supposed to fade, seriously, in this election. I refer, of course, to The Pew Gap. Some journalists, including me, often slip and call this the "God gap." The omnipresent folks over at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life even held an excellent press forum with a title linked to that. The alleged closing of the God gap has provided one of the most important religion-news story templates during this White House campaign, as journalists have -- rightly -- stressed that it is wrong to say that Democrats are Godless and that GOP stands for "God's Own Party."
This misses the point in the actual numbers. Forget the "values voters." The key statistic in all of this has been linked to something else -- the fact that the more often voters attend worship services, the more likely they are to vote for culturally conservative candidates, most of whom are Republicans (alas).
This brings us to an amazing trilogy of stories published in the last few days by The Politico. The first ran with the headline "God gap: No gain for Obama with churchgoers." Again, ignore the first part of that headline and focus on the second.
Is this story accurate? That will be an interesting mini-drama tonight, in the midst of Sen. Barack Obama's comfortable win in the electoral college.
Barack Obama has courted white weekly churchgoers as avidly as any Republican-leaning bloc of voters, though it now appears his efforts may fall flat on Election Day.
The Gallup Poll now shows Obama backed by 28 percent of white voters who attend church at least once a week -- a group that makes up a roughly a third of all voters -- which would be no improvement from the 29 percent of these voters who, according to exit polls, backed Democrats John Kerry and Al Gore in the previous two presidential election. ...
No Democratic nominee in the modern day has made more of an effort to court religious voters than Obama. Jimmy Carter, a Southern evangelical, was the last Democrat to narrowly contest weekly church-going voters in a two-man race.
The theme that emerges from these pieces, again and again?
As Julia Duin documented the other day in The Washington Times, the bottom line remains the same -- abortion. Much of the gap seems to be linked to Obama's July 17, 2007, vow:
"The first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act [FOCA]," he said, a statement that got him a rousing ovation at a Planned Parenthood Action Fund gathering.
Thus, the Politico notes, concerning another key moment in a megachurch:
It was at that mid-August event at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., that Obama said it was "above my pay grade" to define when a fetus gains human rights, while McCain quickly replied, "At the moment of conception."
For social conservative leader Richard Land, Obama's response encapsulated why Democrats have failed to make inroads with highly religious white voters.
"It's abortion," Land replied when the Gallup data was read to him. "I think pro-choice people in this culture have absolutely no idea of the depth and intensity of the moral outrage of the people who are pro-life," Land said.
This piece of the trilogy ends with a crucial quote from scholar John Green of the Pew Forum.
"There are three ways Democrats could approach these voters," said Green. "Show respect, and certainly Obama has done that. The second thing is to change policy, and certainly Obama has not done that. The other way is mobilization. And there is some evidence they tried to reach out to these groups."
But Green added, "What we could be seeing is that comfort and campaigning only go so far, and that ultimately it's substance that matters to these voters."
In other words, the key question remains: Can Obama compromise, not on language but on actual policies? Can he even suggest any kind of change in America's abortion regime, which is built on policies that are to the moral and cultural left of, well, Europe.
But hang on.
This is only part of the larger story, which brings us to the second piece of the trilogy, that Politico story with the headline: "Evangelical voters cold to McCain." You see, it's really, really hard to get people motivated to vote AGAINST a candidate, while they are also biting their lip about the candidate for whom they are voting.
In the days before the 2000 election, evangelical voters stoked enthusiasm in their ranks by reminding each other that the Republican presidential nominee was a proud Christian conservative who named Jesus as his favorite philosopher. And in 2004, aggressive, grass-roots organizing by religious right was key to George W. Bush's reelection.
By contrast, in 2008 evangelical voters' final get-out-the-vote push is more of a shove against a candidate they don't want in the White House. They have never trusted Arizona Sen. John McCain, who once called some of the movement's leaders "agents of intolerance," but they see Tuesday's decision literally as a lesser-evil choice -- and for some of them, Barack Obama is worse than Satan himself.
OK, forget the fact that W. Bush was yet another mainline Protestant who seems to have found help at a key moment in his life in a men's Bible study. And I guess, as a pro-life Democrat, I have not been on the "Obama is worse than Satan" mailing list, other than the ravings of the people who do not take seriously his serious, articulate, yet theologically liberal Christian faith.
The key moment in this story comes late:
Many evangelical voters sat home in 2006, when the Democrats gained control of Congress. This year, they had little love for McCain until he selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Yet only in the past few weeks has their political organizing begun to gain momentum. ...
But some movement leaders fear that such get-out-the vote efforts will likely be no match for the enthusiasm Democrats have shown for Obama -- particularly given the deep antipathy many evangelicals have for McCain.
In other words, there was no popular, qualified candidate representing the moral and cultural right, the figure who could unite those voters and still earn any respect from the old-guard Country Club wing of the party. This is a big story, as the Republicans prepare to throw someone under the bus for the disaster that is about to take place (following the second-term White House disaster that has already taken place).
Meanwhile, there clearly are people in some pews who are going to be very excited this coming Sunday. This brings us to the final story in this set: "Religious left rallies for Democrats." Once again, the press is struggling to describe exactly what the "religious left" is and what unites it. Can you hear the struggle at the top of reporter Jeanne Cummings' story?
Ohio's progressive religious leaders, who largely sat out the 2004 presidential election, have mobilized now to counter the political clout of their conservative and evangelical brethren.
"We had been silent too long," said the Rev. Tim Ahrens, senior pastor at First Church in Columbus, who helped found We Believe Ohio, a multidenominational organization that promotes social justice and other progressive causes.
Uh, the "first church" of what? What faith tradition is this pastor anyway?
That statement, of course, also means that conservative religious groups do not want to promote social justice, as opposed to differing on policies for how to achieve this goal. And what about doctrinally conservative voters -- think pro-Vatican Catholics -- who are totally in favor of more progressive economic policies but remain opposed to abortion and the redefinition of marriage? Oh, never mind.
What is striking is that most of this story has little to do with religious groups, but focuses on "Catalist," a new get-out-the-vote mechanism for Democrats. However, this group has found allies in some vaguely described pews:
Through its connection with Catalist and Faith in Public Life, Ohio's Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good has been getting updated data to use for faith voter outreach in Cincinnati and Youngstown. And on Election Day, half of Ahrens' staff will be poll watchers, while others will again provide rides to the polls. "We've shut down the church Tuesday because everybody will be out doing their civic duties," he said.
So here are the story lines for tonight. Will the "Pew Gap" emerge again? Is it shrinking, in part because there are fewer active churchgoers and/or fewer who were willing to vote for McCain? And who, precisely, is in the religious left, once you get past the tiny, rich, world of oldline Protestantism?
More than a year ago, Green told me this: "It seems that all of American politics has boiled down to Catholics in Ohio who go to Mass once a month instead of once a week." In other words, watch more strong, strong divisions to keep forming between cultural Catholics, liberal Catholics and, on moral doctrines, pro-Vatican Catholics.
Tonight, I will be watching to see what happened in Catholic and, to a lesser extent, evangelical pews. How many doctrinally conservative voters will Obama capture? Will there be any change there at all, other than apathy and numerical decline?