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Lori Lipman Brown has had her fill of God-talk.
“It’s a very frustrating time,” said Brown, director of the Washington-based Secular Coalition for America, the first lobbying organization devoted to secular issues.
“All of us have been very hopeful that at the end of the Bush administration, we would stop seeing theology impose itself on civil law and yet in just the last few months, we’ve heard both major party presidential candidates support faith-based initiatives.”
For obvious reasons, Brown and other nonbelievers dislike President Bush’s emphasis on integrating religious faith with public policy. But what has her more upset — and perhaps disappointed — is the Democrats’
newfound emphasis on religion and courtship of evangelical voters.
With a recent survey showing that increasing numbers of Americans feel “uncomfortable when politicians talk about how religious they are,” is it possible the Democrats’ fervent attempts to court religious voters could backfire on Election Day?
Much media speculation and campaign strategy has been devoted to the political preferences of evangelical Christians, who make up an estimated 26 percent of Americans. But very little attention has been paid to the 16 percent of Americans unaffiliated with any religious tradition — or to those religious voters who prefer not to hear politicians talk about the Iraq war and God’s will in the same sentence.
Perhaps that’s because it is widely assumed that no matter how uncomfortable secular Americans are with Sen. Barack Obama’s overtures to the religious right, they simply won’t abandon the Democratic ticket.
Or, as Brian Parra of the Southern California-based Atheists United says, “They understand that (we) have nowhere else to go.”
The Coalition of Secular Voters’ blog, for instance, refers to Obama as “the Democratic candidate overseeing the greatest expansion of religiosity and religious pandering in his party’s history.” And secular groups were appalled when the organizers of the interfaith gathering at the Democratic National Convention refused to allow a nonreligious speaker to address the convocation.
“That’s a blatant disregard to the secular community, which makes up a huge portion of the Democratic ticket,” said Parra, director of communications and membership for the atheist group.
But Bobbie Kirkhart, a board member of Atheists United, said secularists do have options. In recent elections she has watched as some of her fellow nonbelievers defected to the Green Party or Peace and Freedom Party “for a more secular approach.”
Could the alienation of secular voters spell trouble for the Democrats? According to the Pew Forum, religiously unaffiliated voters favored John Kerry over President Bush in 2004 by a margin of 44 points.
In the most recent survey, that same demographic, though still strongly Democratic, preferred Obama to Sen. John McCain by only 32 points.
Greg Smith, a researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, says it’s unclear whether the Democrats’ greater willingness to talk about faith will cause nonreligious voters to decamp, but says the nonreligious comprise an important voting bloc that should not be ignored.
“If you were to count (the unaffiliated) as a religious tradition so to speak, it would be the fourth largest in the country,” he said.
Some fear that both campaigns’ intense focus on religious issues and constituents distracts the candidates and the country from more pressing matters.
For nearly a year, a group of citizens, science organizations and Nobel laureates operating under the name Science Debate 2008 have been trying to get the candidates to debate science issues.
Asked if she thinks science should have an equally prominent, if not more prominent, role as religion in this election, Darlene Cavalier, director of public engagement for Science Debate 2008, said, “I really do because a president is going to have influence on these critical science topics that will … affect us, not just in the next four years, but it will affect our nation.”
Though Republicans probably aren’t losing much sleep over alienating secular voters, some believe their professed devotion to evangelicals may not deliver the payoff they are expecting either.
“The word `evangelical’ doesn’t mean that much anymore because the population it describes is so incredibly diverse,” said Christine Wicker, the author of “The Fall of the Evangelical Nation.” “The groups that they’re catering to are not the majority of Christians, they’re not the majority of religious people in this country.”
Still, August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists, said in this election the candidates “not only have to be Christian, but (they) have to be the right kind of Christian.”
What won’t be known until all the ballots are counted is whether being the right kind of Christian can deliver the White House if such singularity ends up turning off religious and secular voters alike.
By Jennifer Hahn
Religion News Service
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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