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U.S.: Vote Highlights Influence Of Evangelical Christians

Last week's U.S. election focused attention on the role of religion in U.S. politics. President George W. Bush won reelection with the broad support of Evangelical Christians -- those who interpret the writings of the Bible literally and believe redemption is impossible without profound spiritual rebirth. Exit polls from the 2 November vote found around one-fourth of all voters identified him/herself as "born again" or "Evangelical." The question now turns to what direct influence -- if any -- these voters will have on Bush's second term in office. The U.S. traditionally has drawn a firm legal line between church and state, and some are now concerned that line may be blurred.

Washington, 10 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Evangelical Christians supported George W. Bush over his rival Democratic Senator John Kerry in last week's vote by 4:1.

Many say this gave Bush the margin of victory he needed in a very close race.

Bill Frenzel, a Republican and former Congressman from Minnesota, said the vote showed the strong influence that Evangelical Christians now have on U.S. politics. He said that Evangelicals, in general, are well-organized and committed to candidates who support conservative values, such as opposition to abortion and homosexuality.

Frenzel said that churches are powerful bases from which to recruit voters. He said local religious groups often provide a more effective network for backing a candidate than the traditional party approach of using volunteers to call voters or canvas door-to-door.

"The churches have very good lists of [registered voters]," Frenzel said. "[Evangelicals are] great communicators, they call each other up, they have similar interests. And when your friend, who sits in the next pew, is urging you to vote for somebody, that's [a lot] more powerful [of a] persuader than receiving a recorded telephone message from a paid [party worker]."

Leo Ribuffo, a professor of American history at George Washington University, said he believes Evangelical Christians are now the Republican Party's single most loyal constituency. He compares the degree of loyalty that Evangelicals have to Republicans to the strong support trade unions traditionally gave to the Democratic Party in the 20th century.

The question now turns to whether that influence will remain in the background or translate into concrete U.S. domestic or foreign policies.

Many are looking to the Supreme Court for a sign. Four of the court's nine judges are aging and could retire during Bush's four years in office. Under U.S. law, the president selects a replacement, who then needs to be confirmed by the Senate -- where Bush's Republican Party currently enjoys a majority.

One test of the new court could be an attempt to reverse a 1973 decision that gave women the legal right to an abortion. Evangelicals, in general, strongly oppose abortion rights.

Ribuffo said he does not expect Bush to nominate a candidate who would upset the current consensus in the Supreme Court that favors legal abortion. Already, he said, Evangelicals enjoy a visible role in American politics, and he believes that Bush considers that enough of a reward in itself.

"To take away a right that Americans have exercised for more than 30 years is truly political dynamite," Ribuffo said. "And I think [Bush] might get advice suggesting that that's not a good idea if he wants the Republican Party to continue to prosper."

Allan Lichtman -- a professor of U.S. history at American University in Washington -- said he thinks the influence of Evangelicals may have already reached its peak.

"I think [that influence] probably [is] at its peak," Lichtman said. "It would be difficult for it to grow substantially, but I don't expect it to wane sharply either. The Republicans came pretty close to tapping out the Evangelical Christian vote in the election of 2004, and it remains to be seen whether they can continue those levels of mobilization."

The separation of church and state enjoys a long legal tradition in the United States. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states clearly: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

So, are there constitutional dangers to such a potentially strong religious influence on the American political process?

Frenzel said he is comfortable with the idea of religious influence on politics, given that the Republican Party was -- as he puts it -- "founded in church basements in the 1850s." Still, he said, breaching the barrier between church and state is a concern at the back of every American politician's mind.

"That's a consequence we always worry about -- separation of church and state," Frenzel said. "But I'm not sure we know when we cross the line, and I guess it's just a good idea to keep worrying about it, but I guess not make it a point of paranoia."

With Evangelicals likely to continue to wield influence in America politics, Frenzel said he believes there will be ample opportunity to see if the line is crossed.