Faith Based Voting
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90.3 WBHM | Birmingham -- This is a story about religion and politics. And, as we know, religion transcends all aspects of life in Alabama, so this could just as easily be a piece about religion and, say, football.

Yes, religion has a place there too.

Faith night at the Birmingham Steeldogs game, and on the field of the BJCC, players practice kicking and throwing and tackling. Outside, in the concourse and peppered in the stands, hundreds of spectators want to see the special jerseys the players are wearing during practice.

"We have Samson for the front of our jersey, and on the back, we have both old and new testaments, books of the bible where the name would be.

That's team owner Scott Myers.

"And what we've essentially done is we've gone through and made sure that the number correlates with a positive message from whichever book it is."

You heard him right, biblical messages on team jerseys. Scripture where threads meet gridiron, underscoring just how marketable religion - faith - is in Alabama.

Steeldog player Mareno Philyaw"If we were in a different market or in a different location, we may have not set it up and did it this way. But we're trying to entertain our fans and the people that are here in this community. We're trying to get everybody involved in a big faith night."

But while religion plays a role on game day, it's also found a niche on election day. And all the days leading up to it.

On flyers, in your mailbox, with fancy script, candidates proclaim their "Alabama values," or their beliefs in God and country or their stances on a myriad of social issues: gays, guns and abortion.

On radio and television, thirty-second spots are rife with coded language, to make you know that these people are serious about their beliefs.

It's almost as if your faith is a criterion for being elected. Of course it's not, you can do or say whatever you want in a political ad, but experts agree it's the easiest soundbite for a vast majority of Alabamians to digest.

"The religious infusion into the ad is saying 'I share your values.'"

Dr. Larry PowellDr. Larry Powell is chair of UAB's Department of Communication Studies. He says it is a fine line between faith for good and faith for gain. Where faith is in people's lives and what they expect of the people who represent them.

You've got to remember, particularly among Republicans, there are four basic values that have been identified that control political behavior: God, family, neighborhood and nation. Notice that God is just one of those. But if you watch a good commercial, quite frequently they'll touch on two, three, four of those things in a single ad."

He says Democrats are still struggling to find ways to incorporate religion into their message. But both parties feel the effects of religion in one way or another.

A Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey found that about the same percentage of people believe religious conservatives have too much control over the Republican Party - 45% -- as believe too many non-religious liberals have control of the Democratic Party - 44%.

Dr. Powell and fellow UAB professor Eduardo Neiva co-authored their own study that appeared in the March issue of the Journal of Communication and Religion. The Pharisee Effect: When Religious Appeals in Politics Go Too Far talks about the amount of religion in politics and whether people can be turned off.

Neiva says historically - biblically - the two make for a polarizing pair.

"Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar (those were Jesus's words) yes. So, this is a secular world. The other world is another thing. When you mix them, there is always the potential for a huge confusion. And I think traditionally, although the Republicans may have developed the coded words, the language, which allows people to identify better than the Democrats, there is a huge contradiction between religion and politics. I mean structural. This goes way back to St. Augustine, who said, look, I'm not interested in you guys. You guys, you secular people, you do your thing. My relationship is with above."

But religion has been a part of policy for as long as each has been around. And according to Neiva and Powell's study, there is the potential for backlash if a politician gets too religious or appears disingenuous.

Take for example Montgomery attorney Julian McPhillips, who ran for Senate in the Democratic primary in 2002. He ran an ad on television which featured his family at the dinner table saying the Lord's prayer. That was all that was in the ad. Well, then there was vote Julian McPhillips for Senate.

"It was viewed as going too far."

Again, Larry Powell.

"Instead of representing religion in the political arena, it was viewed as using religion to gain political advantage. And people don't like it when it goes that far."

When we contacted McPhillips, he said he didn't want to publicly comment on the ad, or the campaign - which he lost. But he did say he heard more positive responses about the ad than negative.

Former Chief Justice Roy MoorePowell says former Alabama chief justice Roy Moore may've painted himself into a similar religious corner before his campaign for governor. For months, Moore has been lagging in all major GOP polls -- by as many as 49 points - behind Governor Bob Riley. Just two or three years ago, Moore was being sought as a presidential candidate by some minor national parties after he defied a federal court order to remove his Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama Judicial complex.

What happened since then is what University of Alabama political scientist William Stewart calls a case of split southern conservatism.

"You still have a conflict between what we call religiously-oriented conservatives and economically-oriented conservatives. Bob Riley, of course, is not bashful about his Christian faith, but nonetheless, he is basing his appeal primarily on his ties to economic conservatism, while Roy Moore is basing his almost entirely on his association with religious conservatives. He's the hero of religious conservatives."

And, despite what the polls say, Moore is the hero at the Steeldogs game; remember Faith Night? Not surprisingly, those who support him - the so-called 'religiously-oriented conservatives' believe there aren't enough faith nights - and days - in politics.

"They need to - like with the Ten Commandments. That was ridiculous. That's apart of the bible, that's apart of our life, that's apart of our history. And that's what us as Christians live by."

Another football fan says too much religion to him means too much backlash imposed on people who are religious.

"You look at the situation with, you know, like Roy Moore was going through. They brought too much emphasis on something that is a good thing and they're trying to make it a bad thing. So, a lot of cases, religion plays too much of a role on things."

In other words, too many people knocking religion.

Whether or not those voices continue to be heard and whether moral values and being God-fearing or Christian or Alabama-value sharing is purely up to candidate and campaign. While some say it is essential to move that message, its perceived tone, sincerity and focus could be the deciding factor.

~Steve Chiotakis, June 5, 2006



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