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Religion, Race and Politics: Racial and religious distinctions are blurring and crossing political battle lines.

Nancy Wadsworth

"An atheist, or even an agnostic, could not be elected in America right now," says Nancy Wadsworth. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

The U.S. was founded upon Christian principles, which have been interpreted in various and often contradictory ways—to both defend slavery and promote civil rights, to dispossess American Indians and condemn the practice. Race and religion have always been interwoven, and their effect on American politics is substantial.

That’s never been more clear than in this year’s U.S. presidential race, which has featured a Baptist minister, a Mormon, a black man and a woman. Pundits ponder whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will get the black vote, and whether Mitt Romney can win over Christian conservatives.

Meanwhile, says political science Assistant Professor Nancy Wadsworth, white conservative and religious groups are increasingly reaching out to people of color, perhaps as a way to win votes, but perhaps as a real move toward integration.

How will it all play out?

Separating religion from politics

Wadsworth has been asking exactly that question.

Her research is focused on the intersection of race and religion and how that impacts American politics. The interest started with her master’s thesis, which was about grassroots efforts in evangelical communities and the strategic efforts of white evangelicals who try to get Christians of color on the “moral values bandwagon.”

She says she noticed they were reaching out to build coalitions. “I just kept asking, is it genuine or is it strategic? I think it’s both.”

“There’s this group on the religious right that is seriously dealing with race. That indicates some kind of change in American political culture,” says Wadsworth, who has a PhD from the New School for Social Research. “A lot of people of color were really glad for these moves and were involved.”

Take, for instance, the Promise Keepers—a Denver-based international Christian organization for men—which has a racially diverse leadership board, a black president and actively recruits men of color.

Changes in conservative organizations like the Promise Keepers are worth noting, Wadsworth says, since evangelical Christian voters comprise roughly 25 percent of the U.S. electorate and 37 percent of Republicans. “That’s a huge number of voters that can swing any election.”

“There is no getting around Christianity and Catholicism because they are so dominant in the U.S.,” she adds, noting that fewer than 3 percent of Americans are Jewish and there are even fewer Muslims. Still, Americans are more accepting of those religions than of those without any religious beliefs, Wadsworth explains.

According to a 2006 University of Minnesota survey, American religious tolerance doesn’t extend to those who don’t believe in God. Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” The study also found that atheists are the minority group most Americans are least willing to have their children marry.

A national survey of religion and politics from the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute found that almost 70 percent of Americans say it is important to have a president with strong religious beliefs. In fact, they call America the most religious industrialized country, by a mile.

“An atheist, or even an agnostic, could not be elected in America right now,” Wadsworth says.

Because religion is a part of voters’ identity, they tend to gravitate toward candidates who reflect their religious orientation, particularly regarding social issues. Even as President Bush’s approval rating has decreased throughout his second term, it’s remained most positive among active Christians. Polls have suggested that Bush’s declaration as a born-again Christian likely helped him win his two terms in office.

But what about separation of church and state? Doesn’t that prevent religion from impacting politics? No, Wadsworth says.

“It’s a myth. The state has been invested in religion forever,” she says. “Formally, we have a separation. But is it in practice? Far, far from it.”

There’s “In God we Trust” inscribed on our currency, the controversial “Under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance and a long tradition of U.S. presidents ending speeches with the statement “God bless America.”

“While the establishment clause mandates the separation of church and state, the state is also obligated to protect free expression,” says Julie Novkov, associate professor of political science and women’s studies at the State University of New York at Albany. “This dualism goes back to before the writing of the Constitution and is unlikely to go away any time soon.”

The duality isn’t just reflected in our practices, but in politicians themselves, Wadsworth says. “Every politician has to position themselves around faith at some point.”

When Wadsworth first began to present her research several years ago, the academic community was skeptical, she says. Most scholars studied race and religion independently, and few believed that the new coalitions Wadsworth documented were genuine; they saw them simply as political ploys to gather votes.

Part of the challenge, says Wadsworth—who describes herself as spiritual but not religious—was that she was researching contemporary trends and had no other research on the race-religion intersection to draw from.

Plus, she adds, “The religious right is not thought of very highly among many academics. Academics tend to be secular themselves, tend to be skeptical about faith as well as religious people of faith.”

Still, Wadsworth’s approach has caught on. She’s co-editing Faith and Race in American Political Life and is writing her own book, Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelical Racial Reconciliation Efforts in American Political Culture. And, she teaches several DU courses related to race, religion and American politics.

“Nancy’s major contribution is to bring [race and religion] together creatively and to think about race and religion as dynamic factors that link cultural change to political development,” Novkov says.

Certainly, the 2008 presidential election will provide plenty of fodder for future study. Obama and Clinton’s racial squabbling have captured headlines, but it’s religion that has stayed on American minds.

Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, has said that religion not only describes him, but defines him.

Fellow Republican Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has said he didn’t want his Mormon faith to define him.

But for many voters, it does. According to a recent Gallup poll, some 20 percent of Americans say they would not support a Mormon candidate, even a well-qualified one. Half of evangelicals say that Mormons are not Christians, and most of those say that Romney’s religion makes it difficult for them to support him.

Republicans have built a reputation on being the faith party, and that has helped them win elections. Democrats, Wadsworth says, now realize they can’t afford to be the “not-faith” party anymore. Because religion is important to Republicans, the Democrats have to show it’s important to them, too.

John Edwards reminds voters that he’s a regular church-goer. Obama has had to distance himself from his radical black church, Wadsworth says, repositioning himself as a religious moderate who is still religious enough to appeal to religiously conservative blacks.

The bottom line, Wadsworth says, is that religion does affect the outcome of an election, and that won’t likely change.

Wadsworth tracks research on how often Christians attend church and how those habits influence political views. She notes that those who attend church once a week or more are the most conservative and the most politically active. Among Democrats, there are fewer once-a-week, regular churchgoers.

Latinos typically identify as Democrats, but the more they attend church, the more conservative they are. About 11 percent of Latinos voted for Bush in the last election.

Even when they are religious, Wadsworth says, blacks and Latinos are socially conservative but vote mostly Democratic for socioeconomic reasons.

And, she says, “They are conservative on abortion, on homosexuality, on marriage. So if you have a ballot initiative that says we vote for the traditional preservation of marriage, then you can cross outside your party and vote for that even if your party isn’t doing the same.

“It doesn’t have to be just about voting within your party, it’s about voting for personal morals and beliefs,” she says. “That’s how identity—which is deeply rooted through faith, lack of faith and racial identity—can create a different collective identity and shape how people identify power. That can change what American politics looks like.”

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