As the Power Line blog points out, you'd be hard pressed to find a greater opposition in headlines than the ones about the new Pew study on politics and religion. The New York Times has it: "In Poll, G.O.P. Slips as a Friend of Religion." And the Washington Times insists: "Few See Democrats as Friendly to Religion."
Both are technically correct. As the New York paper points out, "Americans who say the Republican Party is friendly to religion fell 8 percentage points in the last year, to 47 percent from 55 percent." And as the Washington paper notes, "Twenty-six percent of those polled said the Democratic Party is friendly toward religion. ... Three years ago in a similar Pew poll, 42 percent said the party was friendly toward religion." Meanwhile, "Nearly half (49 percent) say Republicans are friendly to religion, a decline of 14 points in the past year. Just 41 percent of the Catholics polled said the Republican Party is friendly to religion, compared with 55 percent a year ago."
We're seeing a decline of belief that either party is particularly friendly to religion, and that's more bad news for the Republicans in an already dreadful year for them at the polls. The best face they can put on it is that at least the disenchanted voters aren't turning to the Democrats. But the Republicans need more than simply religious voters' refusal to vote for Democrats. If the evangelical and conservative Catholic voters stay home, the Republicans lose this year.
And yet, this year is not every year. The New York Times dismisses the Democrats' decline as old news: "The Democratic Party suffers from the perception of an even more drastic religion deficit, but that is not new. Just 26 percent of poll respondents said the Democratic Party was friendly to religion, down from 29 percent last year." But that's after Jim Wallis had his moment in the sun publishing a book on how liberals can reclaim religion, after the much-ballyhooed Democratic nomination of the self-proclaimed pro-lifer Bob Casey Jr. for the Senate seat in Pennsylvania, and after all the Democratic figures rushing around since 2004 proclaiming the party's connection with religion. The Republicans may do poorly this year, but when 74 percent of the nation thinks the Democrats less than friendly to religion, the Republicans are bound to bounce back quickly.
Meanwhile, this seems a very unhealthy situation. We cannotwe should nothave a party so strongly identified with opposition to religious believers. It is abortion, more than anything elseor maybe abortion with a good dose of disaccommodation for religion mixed in. I have yet to find Democratic candidates with any clue about how much they are hurt by, for example, the annual December flurry of news stories on the banning of Christmas displays.
Errors in electoral politics tend to be self-correcting: When a party loses, it gradually shifts its candidates and positions toward the winning sideexcept when structural barriers prevent it. The current primary system is this kind of barrier, for both parties but particularly for the Democrats. And victory this year will not encourage them to find a way past it.