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Mar 8 2005
Secularization Encourages Christians to Unite Politically

Political experts: Secularization in society drives conservative Christians to unite politically

by Stephen Dawkins

Senior Staff Reporter, The Crimson White, the University of Alabama's Newspaper

March 07, 2005

Tom Parrish doesn't usually talk about politics to his congregation at Mountain Chapel United Methodist Church in Birmingham.

But people like those who attend Parrish's church have come to dominate politics in Alabama. Parrish and experts say growing secularization in the country has made conservative Christians in the state feel left out - and motivated them to unite on social issues.

William Stewart, UA professor emeritus of political science, said a generation that had grown up with Bible study in school and prayers before football games became upset that these things were being taken away from them by "secular society."

"They don't feel like they ought to have to give up these things," he said. "The cause [for the success of the conservative bloc in Alabama] is the growing secularization of our society."

In the 2004 presidential election, 63 percent of Alabama voters chose Republican incumbent George W. Bush, compared to 37 percent for Democratic candidate John Kerry. Voting for the Republican Party, the political party considered more conservative on social issues such as abortion, is nothing new for Alabamians.

The last Democratic presidential candidate to receive the state's electoral votes was Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Perhaps even more telling than the state's voting record in presidential elections is the ongoing show of support from some groups for former state Chief Justice Roy Moore. Moore was removed from office in November 2003 for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building.

Alabama's judicial ethics panel ruled that Moore put himself above the law by refusing to obey an order by U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson to remove the monument.

The incident seems to have enhanced Moore's already radiant image with many conservative Christians in the state as a politician with the same values as ordinary Alabama citizens. Moore is seen by some as a hero for refusing to concede to the liberal, secular and proactive U.S. judicial system.

A recent Mobile Register/University of South Alabama poll of likely Republican primary voters showed that the Republican constituency would favor Moore over Gov. Bob Riley if Moore decides to run for governor in 2006. Forty-three percent of respondents indicated they would vote for Moore, while 35 percent would vote for Riley. Moore also received a 72 percent favorability rating among respondents.

The religious values many Alabama voters consider at the polls may not be a direct result of influence from church pastors. Parrish said his church services are not political, and he does not tell congregation members who to vote for.

"I tell them to be hesitant about voting straight-party," Parrish said. "But I tell them to be sure and vote.

"I think there are certain spiritual principles that Christians need to believe. I would point to scripture about things that mark [people who are] Christians."

Parrish said he thinks religious convictions play a part in political decisions made by members of his congregation, but not the biggest part.

"For most people, I think they form an opinion about a candidate, and then religion enforces or discourages that opinion," Parrish said.

Economic factors and a candidate's image also factor into people's choices, and this is probably true of most congregations, Parrish said.

Parrish said he knows of cases in which Christian Coalition voter guides were included in church bulletins on a given Sunday, though Mountain Chapel does not follow this practice.

The Christian Coalition of Alabama is a non-profit voter education and lobbying organization. The Coalition is perhaps best known for its voter guide, which Coalition President John Giles said is "issues-driven and non-partisan."

Coalition voter guides are dropped off at churches and conservative radio stations. Giles said 500,000 of the guides were pre-ordered by Alabamians last year.

"We just kind of serve as a vehicle for voter info," Giles said.

The organization also produces a scorecard on the Alabama Legislature every two or three years.

The Coalition is made up of about 19,000 volunteers at 67 chapters across the state, Giles said.

Giles said the conservative Christian vote in Alabama politics is not new.

"I think what you are finding now is a more educated electorate," Giles said. "Our job is to make sure they have all the facts."

Experts agree with Giles' view of religious considerations of voters in the state. Stewart said religious considerations in politics have always existed in Alabama, but there has been a sort of revival in recent decades. Religion took a back seat to segregation in state politics in the 1940s through the 1960s, he said.

But when the dust from the battle over segregation cleared, many Alabamians began looking to the Bible for political direction, Stewart said.

Churches and religious organizations like the Christian Coalition realized they had to counter secular groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Stewart said. Secularization was political, and leaders decided that religion needed to be political if conservative values were to be protected.

Stewart said controversial social issues drive the Alabama religious movement: abortion, home schooling, the lottery and the display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings.

"The average Alabama church is not very political most of the time," Stewart said. "An issue like the lottery changes that."

Auburn University history professor Wayne Flynt, an authority on the history of the Baptist denomination in Alabama, said the religious vote is a result of the polarization of American culture, a phenomenon that goes deeper than politics.

President Bush and former President Bill Clinton are representative of the two poles in American culture, Flynt said.

"A lot of religious people feel like their values are under attack," Flynt said. "They feel like they are not respected."

Flynt compared the Christian community to a "big, sleeping dog"; someone comes along and kicks the dog, and he gets bitten. Increasing secularization in the 1990s - the "MTV generation" - brought images into the homes of conservative Christians that many of them found offensive, moving them to action.

"To [the Christian community] it seems like American politics are drifting away from their values," Flynt said.

Experts disagree about the future of the conservative Christian movement in Alabama. Flynt said people are beginning to experience a "polarization burn-out." He said U.S. politics have shown a history of polarization cycles: Americans become polarized periodically but always seem to return to centrist ideals.

Flynt said centrist presidential candidates will take the stage in 2008: Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

"What I see happening in 2008 is both parties moving toward the center," Flynt said. "Americans don't really like to be polarized. We're about as polarized as we're going to be."

Stewart said he thinks the trend will continue.

"I don't look for a backing away from it right now," Stewart said. "I think we are still on the upward swing as far as religious fervor is concerned."

Because of Alabama's large conservative base, candidates for office in the state "will always be pandering to the Christian vote," Giles said.

Christian Coalition polls have found that two-thirds of Alabamians agree with the Coalition's platform, Giles said. Giles said he thinks this sentiment will only intensify in the future.

Two-thirds of the Alabama Legislature failed the Coalition's last scorecard, Giles said. This means that only one-third of the lawmaking body actually represents the interests of the majority of Alabamians, he said.

Giles said that because of this disparity, he expects a "tremendous anti-incumbency sentiment" in 2006 elections.

"At the end of the day, the majority wins," he said.

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