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Sean Everton

Whose Faith-Based Initiative?

A look at the 2004 presidential campaign.

In the fall of 2000 at the Houston meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR), I sat in on a paper presentation by Kraig Beyerlein about a study that he and Mark Chaves had conducted regarding the political activities of religious congregations in the United States. While the results of their study changed somewhat by the time it appeared in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (JSSR),1 the story they told in Houston remained essentially the same: namely, that religious traditions tend to specialize when it comes to political activism. Conservative Protestants tend to do one thing, mainline Protestants another, and Roman Catholics still another. One result, more than any of the others, caught my eye: Black congregations are 7 times more likely than mainline Protestant churches, 24 times more likely than conservative Protestant churches and 42 times more likely than Roman Catholic churches to invite a political candidate to come and speak. Since we were in the midst of a presidential campaign, I could not help wondering who was speaking at more churches – Al Gore or George Bush. I suspected that it was Al Gore. That is, if it is true that Black congregations are more likely than any other type of congregation to invite a political candidate to come and speak, and since African Americans tend to vote for Democratic candidates, then it seemed likely that Al Gore was receiving more invitations from churches to come and speak than was George Bush.

I initially planned to test my hunch on the 2000 campaign, but for a variety of reasons it became easier to wait until 2004 to track where and when the presidential and vice-presidential candidates spoke. My working hypothesis, of course, was that Senators John Kerry and John Edwards would visit and speak at more churches than George Bush and Dick Cheney. As it turned out, my hunch was right.

To track where the candidates visited from March 3, 2004 (the day when John Kerry effectively wrapped up the Democratic nomination) through November 2, 2004 (the day of the 2004 Presidential election) I gathered data from numerous sources.2

I tracked the campaign appearances only of President Bush and Senator Kerry until the latter selected a running mate (July 6). From that point on, I tracked the appearances of Vice-President Dick Cheney and Senator Edwards as well. Into one category—Church Campaign Appearances—I sorted all speaking appearances by any of the candidates at places of worship (Christian or otherwise)3 and grouped them according to broad denominational classification (Roman Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Conservative Protestant, Black Protestant, and Other). In a separate category—Other Faith-Based Campaign Appearances—I sorted candidate appearances at non-church events that had ties to faith-based institutions or movements.

Examples of appearances by President Bush in this second category include his appearance at the Knights of Columbus (Roman Catholic) gathering in Dallas, his via-satellite addresses to the annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals, his meeting with the Pope at the Vatican, his videotape addresses to faith-based gatherings such as the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, and a speech at Concordia University. Examples of appearances in this category on the part of Senators Kerry and Edwards include Kerry's appearances at the Quadrennial Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the annual gathering of the National Baptist Convention, Kerry's various meetings with Black Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy, and Edwards' speech at the Congressional Black Caucus' Annual Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Finally, I coded secular appearances by the candidates into a variety of categories: private venues (e.g., homes, hotels); community centers, parks, fairgrounds; convention centers, stadiums, and arenas; elementary and high schools, colleges, universities, and technical schools; other public venues (e.g., White House news conferences and photo opportunities); and television and radio interviews.

What did I find? On the one hand, I discovered how seldom any of the candidates actually appeared at events that could be construed as religiously based. Less than 2 percent of the combined campaign appearances of all four candidates occurred at houses of worship, and less than 5 percent could be interpreted as faith-related in any way. That is, out of approximately 1,400 total campaign appearances, the four candidates spoke at a total of only 20 churches and made only 43 other faith-based campaign appearances. On the other hand, Senators Kerry and Edwards visited and spoke at far more churches than did President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. The former appeared and spoke at nineteen churches while the latter spoke at only one. Not surprisingly, most of these appearances occurred at African American churches. Indeed, the one time that President Bush appeared and spoke at a church, it, too, was an African American church. Interestingly, the only candidate to speak at a conservative Protestant church was Senator Edwards, who addressed the faithful at First Baptist Church, Canton, North Carolina. (Figure 1 illustrates these findings.)

Of course, one could argue that although Bush and Cheney did not speak at churches, they did speak at other religiously based events and that is how they reached out to their conservative base. Such an assertion would be true. As I have already noted, George Bush met with religious leaders, addressed faith-based conventions and conferences, and even spoke at a church-related university. However, so did John Kerry and John Edwards. As Figure 2 illustrates, while Bush and Cheney made 18 non-church faith-based campaign appearances, Kerry and Edwards made twenty-five.

What are we to make of these findings? They certainly challenge the widespread perception that Christian conservatives are the most politically active religious group in the United States. Ever since the born-again Jimmy Carter ran for and was elected President in 1976, largely because of the support he received from conservative Protestants, academics and the media have been fascinated with the political activism of religious conservatives. At the same time, however, they have virtually ignored the political activities of other religious groups.

Kenneth Wald, for example, in his introductory text on religion and politics, devotes an entire chapter to the political activism of conservative Protestants, but then devotes only one additional chapter to summarize the political activism of other religious groups such as Roman Catholics, Mainline Protestants, Black Protestants and Jews.4 Wald also provides a very helpful chart that summarizes the major organizations of the Christian Right along with groups opposed to the Christian Right, but he provides no similar chart for organizations with ties to any other religious constituency (e.g., the Christian Left), even though they certainly do exist.5 Perhaps just as telling is the coverage that George Bush's addresses to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) received as compared to the coverage of John Kerry's address to the General Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. To be sure, Kerry's visit came on the day that he announced that he had chosen John Edwards as his running mate, so it is not surprising that the media did not devote too much space to his visit. But then again, Bush did not even attend the SBC's annual meeting. He addressed the delegates via satellite. Kerry, at least, showed up.6

While the standard perception of religion and political activism in the United States is undoubtedly driven, in part, by the role that conservative religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and James Dobson have played in shaping the Republican Party's political agenda, it also probably reflects the fear of many on the political Left that the goals of conservative Protestants threaten the very core of American democracy. For example, Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman are convinced that conservative Protestants are waging "a guerrilla war on our private thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, on our nation's timeless values and historic freedoms."7 Similarly, Sara Diamond contends that while it would be a mistake to regard the Christian Right as a monolithic movement, it appears "to be united in a single overall effort: to take eventual control over the political and social institutions in the United States and—by extension—in the rest of the world."8

And Christian Smith tells the story of an acquaintance who, while attending an Ivy League graduate program in the social sciences, heard a professor remark in class that "If American evangelicals had had political power during the McCarthy Era in the 1950s, there would have been another holocaust." Smith's friend noted that in response to this remark, not "one student … raised an eyebrow. The idea appeared perfectly credible to the class, and the discussion moved on."9

Yet, how credible is this idea? Are conservative Protestants as "dangerous" as many believe? Christian Smith's study of American evangelicalism suggests they are not. He notes that "many of the conventional assumptions about evangelicals and politics … are misguided and simplistic. When it comes to politics, evangelical views are replete with diversity, complexity, ambivalence, and incongruities."10 For instance, while he found that most evangelicals believe that Christians should be involved in politics, by this most of them simply meant "informed voting." "Politics for the majority of evangelicals," Smith writes, "is not a trumpet call to take sides in the much-ballyhooed 'culture wars,' but a matter of basic citizen responsibilities and rights."11 To be sure, Smith encountered evangelicals who wanted to impose their morality on others, but they accounted for only a small percentage of the evangelicals he interviewed; indeed, they accounted for a smaller percentage of those he interviewed than those who believed that Christians should stay out of politics altogether.

While we cannot generalize Smith's findings to all conservative Protestants, they are consistent with other studies that indicate that while conservative Protestants share certain theological views, they can hardly be regarded as a monolithic voting block and may not be as committed to the Republican Party as they are often portrayed.12 Furthermore, apart from handing out Christian Right voter guides, when it comes to most forms of political activism, conservative Protestants are remarkably inactive. Beyerlein and Chaves found that conservative Protestant congregations are the least likely group to tell people at worship about opportunities for political activity, to form groups to organize a demonstration or a march, lobby elected officials, discuss politics, or register people to vote. In fact, even when it comes to handing out voter guides, they are less active than Black Protestant congregations.

By contrast, Black Protestant congregations score high on almost every measure of political activity. They are more likely to tell people at worship about opportunities for political activity, to form groups to discuss politics or organize voter registration campaigns, to distribute voter guides, or (as we have already seen) invite someone running for office as a visiting speaker. And this does not appear to be a recent development. In 1992, 1996, and 2000, Bill Clinton and Al Gore visited and spoke at several black churches during the closing days of their presidential campaigns,13 and Andrew Young and Martin Luther King, Sr. dragged Jimmy Carter around to a number of African American churches and had him meet with numerous African American clergy prior to the 1976 Presidential election.14 And lest we forget, in 1960 the Kennedy campaign covertly distributed two million pamphlets at African American churches on the Sunday before the election.15

Political activism in African American churches is by no means limited to presidential campaigns. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is common for African American political candidates to solicit the blessings of their pastors and ministerial associations. For example, Frederick Harris has documented Carol Mosely Braun's appearance before a gathering of African American ministers to help jump start her 1992 senatorial campaign,16 and Mary Sawyer's study of 14 members of the Congressional Black Caucus found that 13 received endorsements from pastors, ten received endorsements from ministerial bodies, ten spoke at Black churches during their campaigns, and five received financial contributions from churches.17

It is also helpful to note that the congregational survey on which Beyerlein and Chaves's study is based asked if any (not just presidential) political candidates were ever invited to come and speak.

Am I claiming that the Bush-Cheney campaign ignored its religious base? Not at all. The Bush-Cheney campaign clearly sought to activate its religious base by having President Bush meet with clergy and speak at various non-church gatherings of the faithful. Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that the campaign did not have to be too proactive in courting its religious base. For example, Rick Warren, the influential conservative Protestant pastor and author of The Purpose-Driven Life, sent an email to 136,000 pastors urging them to compare the candidates on five non-negotiable issues: abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, same-sex marriage, and stem cell research.18 My point is not to suggest a lack of initiative on the part of President Bush and his reelection campaign in this respect; rather, I am simply arguing that the Kerry–Edwards campaign was quite busy promoting its own faith-based initiative: the wooing of African American churchgoers.

While financial contributions by churches to candidates do violate irs guidelines, speaking appearances by political candidates at churches do not.19 An interesting study would be to track how the media and church-state watchdog groups cover such events. Do they focus on some events and not others? Are they selective in the "violations" they highlight? Also, given the recent attention that the irs has paid to a sermon preached at an Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, some enterprising researcher may find it interesting to discover whether the irs is selective in the attention it pays to the political activities of congregations.

One cannot help wonder how far back into the past we can project current patterns of religious politicking by political candidates. A worthy research project would be to comb the archives of national and regional newspaper coverage of past presidential campaigns to see how Democratic (and Republican) courting of the faithful has changed over the past 40 years. But that is a study for another day. For now we need to be content knowing that some of the assumptions that many have held regarding the political activism of presidential candidates and people of faith have simply been wrong, which is why sometimes there is no substitute for good, hard, empirical data. —An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2005 meetings of the Society for Scientific Study of Religion, the Religious Research Association, and the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture in Rochester, New York. I wish to thank Larry Iannacone for his helpful suggestions and continual encouragement. I would also like to thank Courtney Magner for help in gathering data on John Kerry's campaign appearances.

Total Church Campaign Appearances
March 3, 2004 – November 2, 2004

Other Faith-Based Campaign Appearances
March 3, 2004 – November 2, 2004

Sean Everton is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Stanford University and a full-time lecturer at Santa Clara University.

1. Kraig Beyerlein and Mark Chaves, "The Political Activities of Religious Congregations in the United States," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 42, pp. 229-246.

2. Sources I used included the print and online versions of national and regional newspapers, the Yahoo! News Service, U.S. Newswire, LexisNexus, Democracy in Action's coverage of the 2004 campaign, official campaign websites, White House news sources, and Yahoo! News Photos Slide Shows.

3. I did not include instances where the candidates showed up for worship but did not address the faithful. Throughout the campaign John Kerry regularly attended Roman Catholic masses, and President Bush often worshipped at St. John's Episcopal Church when he was in Washington, D.C.

4. Kenneth D. Wald, Religion and Politics in the United States, 4th ed. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

5. Sojourners, www.sojo.net; the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, www.bpfna.org/home; and the Center for Progressive Christianity, www.tcpc.org, are three such examples.

6. To be fair, the New York Times did cover Kerry's visit to the National Baptist Convention in considerable depth.

7. Flo Conway and Jim Sigelman, Holy Terror: The Fundamentalist War on America's Freedoms in Religion, Politics and Our Private Lives (Dell, 1984), p. 9, quoted in Christian S. Smith, Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want (Univ. of California Press, 2000).

8. Sara Diamond, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (South End Press, 1989), p. 45.

9. Smith, Christian America?, p. 92.

10. Ibid, p. 94.

11. Ibid, p. 98.

12. Nancy J. Davis and Robert V. Robinson, "Religious Orthodoxy in American Society: The Myth of a Monolithic Camp," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 35, No. 2 (1996); Michael Hout and Andrew M. Greeley, "A Hidden Swing Vote: Evangelicals," New York Times, September 4, 2004.

13. Gwen Ifill, "Clinton Rallies Supporters for Final 'Long Walk'," New York Times, November 2, 1992, A1, 14; Alison Mitchell, "Avoid 'Politics of Division,' Says Clinton," New York Times, November 4, 1996, A1, B7; Katharine Q. Seelye and Kevin Sack, "The 2000 Campaign: The Vice President; Focus Is on Crucial States in Campaign's Final Hours," New York Times, November 6, 2000, A24.

14. C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Duke Univ. Press, 1990), p. 215.

15. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (Simon & Schuster, 1988).

16. Fredrick C. Harris, Something Within: Religion in African-American Political Activism (Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), pp. 12-26.

17. Mary R. Sawyer, "Black Politics, Black Faith," 1982, cited in Lincoln and Mamiya, p. 216.

18. Alan Cooperman and Thomas B. Edsall, "Evangelicals Say They Led Charge for the G.O.P.," Washington Post, November 8, 2004.

19. K. Hollyn Hollman, "Churches and Political Campaigns," Report from the Capital, May, 2004.

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