(AFP) – Oct 12, 2008
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.
Looking back at 2004, US experts have discerned little change in the religious landscape and electoral preferences in the past four years.
A sweeping investigation by the Pew Research Center this summer found "a remarkable stability in the candidate preferences of major religious groups when compared with those at a similar stage in the 2004 campaign."
But John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute and senior fellow in Pew Forum on religion and public life said all religious communities were increasingly concerned about the economy.
None of the two presidential candidates -- Republican John McCain and Democrat Brack Obama -- have really focused on the social issues that ordinarily divide Americans into two passionate camps: abortion, sexual education and gay marriage.
Protestants still represent a majority, with 51.3 percent of them -- or 26.3 percent of the adult population -- calling themselves evangelical Christians, 18.1 percent describing themselves as "classical" Protestants and 6.9 percent belonging to black Protestant churches.
The ranks of Catholics, who represent 23.9 percent of Americans, continue to grow thanks primarily to immigration from Latin America.
Meanwhile, Jews represent 1.7 percent of the population and are as numerous as Mormons.
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.
According to a poll at the beginning of September when Palin was picked, 48 percent of evangelicals said they would vote for him, compared to just 24 percent before her nomination.
At the end of September, according to a Pew poll, 69 percent of registered white evangelical voters expressed readiness to vote for McCain and only 21 percent for Obama.
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.
According to a Pew poll taken in late September, 44 percent of classical Protestants would vote for McCain and 43 percent for Obama.
However, the Democratic candidate, the first black American nominated by one of the two major parties in the White House contest, attracts the support of no fewer than 96 percent of black Protestants, according to the poll.
But the group that can spring a surprise are the Catholics.
"It's true that white Catholics have been a very important voting bloc in recent presidential elections because they divide their votes between the parties and move their support from one party to the other," Green pointed out.
"In most polls, we see a pretty even division among Roman Catholics with a very slight edge for McCain."
The survey shows Obama does a lot better than his predecessor, 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, among Catholic Hispanics, but McCain has a lot of support among moderate Catholics.
At the end of September, according to the Pew poll, more Catholics were ready to vote for McCain (52 percent) than for Obama (39 percent).
As for Jews, traditionally a Democratic constituency, they were showing "a certain skepticism" with respect to Obama, according to Green.
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