Opinion by Matthew Dowd, ABC News Political Contributor
It seems appropriate that the jumping off point of my exciting new gig is on the topic of faith, since it takes a lot of faith on ABC News’ part to give me a platform to say what’s on my mind. Oh well, they will come to understand that I am a believer in asking forgiveness, not permission.
Before you read much further, here’s the bottom line: as one looks ahead to the primaries and the general election, the candidate who best understands the importance of faith in households across America and ultimately demonstrates authenticity will likely be the one taking the oath of office in January of 2009.
Though timing for this post was Mitt Romney’s speech Thursday morning on faith in America (who by the way gave a wonderful speech on diversity of religion, but whose fall in the polls has nothing to do with fact he is a Mormon, and has more to do with questions of authenticity and I don’t know if one speech can fix that), I think it’s a good idea to step back and examine faith in the context of the American electorate and how voters make decisions.
Faith and religion in politics has been misunderstood by many observers. When faith is discussed in politics, the discussion often defaults to an examination of the Religious Right or evangelicalism. However, this focus misses the bigger picture, as those much-discussed groups represent only a fraction of faith in America –- and successful candidates understand this.
More than 90 percent of American voters believe in God. This 90 percent includes Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists or whatever the church or community of choice is for that person. People rely on their spiritual foundation in decisions they make every day –- decisions ranging from whether they should change jobs, to the right medicine for their parents, to whether they should stay in a relationship, or to how one should treat the environment. In truth, for the average voter, Faith is often a more important factor than any economic calculus. And the high importance that voters place on authenticity when choosing candidate has its roots in an individual voter’s spiritual underpinnings.
For most Americans, especially those attending Megachurches (one of the fastest growing Faith segments), faith and religious decisions are driven by a desire for community and fellowship. Their choice of a church is based less on theological principles and more on where they can find a community they trust and are accepted in and a place they can call home. This is why Megachurches today are one of the most diverse gatherings of people across the land.
Megachurches often include as many Democrats and Independents as Republicans, and their members and attendees cover the ideological and policy spectrum –- from socially liberal or moderate to conservative, from supporting of the war in Iraq to opposing it, etc. This fact has been miscalculated by many recent candidates, especially on the Democratic side, and as a result of it, they have suffered at the polls.
However, successful politicians on both sides intuitively understand this diverse faith dynamic, and it is why Mitt Romney felt a necessity to address it in his speech in Texas (though as noted above his vulnerability has more to do with authenticity than being a Mormon). President Clinton and Bush understood this throughout their careers. Democratic Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia understood it and spoke to it very well in his race in Virginia (his understanding was a major reason a Democrat opposed to the death penalty could win a Red State in the South). One of the best speeches on faith in politics I have read was a speech Barack Obama gave in the summer of 2006.
Mike Huckabee’s successful rise in the polls was certainly not based on money or staff or resources, but rather, I believe, on his understanding of the importance of Faith in America. And not an understanding that says people of faith are conservative, but one that recognizes that the faith community is representative of the diversity of America. As mentioned, it seems authenticity is derived from a place of faith in most voters’ examination of candidates.
Looking forward to a continued conversation on many topics, and to paraphrase a line from the movie Casablanca, "Here’s to the beginning of a beautiful Internet relationship."