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Religion's Influence On The 2008 Vote Uncertain

This story was written by Sam Butterfield, The Maneater

Although America is one of the world's most religious modern democracies, a majority of citizens say religion should stay out of politics, according to an August poll from the Pew Research Center.

The poll shows a dramatic shift in the attitudes of conservative voters, as four years ago 70 percent of conservatives said faith should be involved in politics while 50 percent now say religion and politics should be separate entities.

According to previous studies conducted by Pew, the rate of American respondents that considered themselves "very religious" was almost double that of Canadian respondents, and even more than double that of respondents from Western Europe and Japan.

Further, 40 percent of those surveyed said the Democratic Party is receptive towards faith, where just 26 percent said Democrats were concerned with faith in 2006.

These findings show a clear trend in religious voters' tolerance of more liberal views. According to an August poll from the Barna Group, a Southern California based Christian research and consulting firm, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., leads Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 18 of 19 different religious denominations.

The only group in which Obama trailed McCain was among evangelicals, who favor Sen. McCain by a 61 to 17 percent margin.

However, Barna defines evangelicals only as those who believe the Bible to be literally accurate, among other specifications, meaning those identified as evangelical account for only 8 percent of the U.S. electorate, which is less than the 40 percent of voters who identified themselves as evangelical according to exit polling in 2004.

Experts generally agree that voters are disenchanted with the performance of the Bush administration, partially accounting for the shift in opinion.

University of Missouripsychology professor Kennon Sheldon said he has found that economic conservatives have not addressed social conservatives' desire for more moralistic policy, perhaps disaffecting that group.

In a news release, Sheldon said data he has collected "suggest that economic conservatives have been 'drafting' on the values of religious conservatives, using conservative Christian willingness to care for less fortunate others as a cover for their own willingness to exploit the situation."

Faith has already injected itself into this year's campaign frenzy, including the tirades of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who was removed from Obama's African American Religious Leadership Committee in March for controversial sermons he delivered, the now infamous YouTube video showing vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin declaring the war in Iraq to be "God's will" and McCain and Obama meeting at evangelist leader Rick Warren's California megachurch in August for a candidate forum.

Faith, to some degree, will influence this year's election, though no one can gauge exactly how.

Further contributing to uncertainty about what faith means in this election is the candidates' stances on religion themselves.

"I don't think it's going to have that big of an effect," Sheldon said. "I see religion as a part of social conservative value issues which I think play a big role when there aren't bigger problems afoot."

Issues like the economy and the war in Iraq seem to have surpassed morality issues like abortion and gay marriage, which were divisive topics in the last two national elections.

The Rev. Thomas Blantz, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame, said he is unsure how Catholics, the largest single Christian denomination in the world, will vote, as Catholics have not adhered to any uniform votig pattern since the Vatican II council caused a rift between more conservative Catholics and more progressive Catholics.

Blantz said some Catholics see Obama's anti-poverty, pro-universal healthcare stance as ultimately more beneficial than an anti-abortion platform in that abortions tend to decline under better economic conditions.

He said, however, that a large faction of hard-line Catholic voters will likely vote Republican on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage in step with Church doctrine.

Blantz said he believes "regular issues like the economy certainly at the moment and the Iraq war," will be decisive points for religious voters, but noted that those issues pertain to all voters, furthering the point that many who had been concerned with social values are less concerned with religion in this election.