- (Photo: AP Images / Alex Brandon)
In Parma, Ohio, an organizer for Barack Obama arrived at a recent "Catholic house party," a campaign-sponsored chat about values, prepared to answer questions about abortion.
The conversation instead lurched into the battered state of the local economy — not surprising in a community where laid-off Ford auto workers are now greeters at Wal-Mart.
Across the religious spectrum, from atheists to evangelicals, the economy ranks as the top issue on voters' minds — a scenario that usually works in Democrats' favor.
Now, with U.S. financial systems in turmoil and the government rushing to fix them, Democrats sense an opportunity to highlight the economy as a values issue and attract middle-of-the-road religious believers who were central to President Bush's winning coalition in 2004.
For years, more liberal faith leaders have tried to elevate fighting poverty at home and abroad onto the values agenda. What's changed is that an increasing number of voters are seeing suffering not just in the streets but in the mirror.
Barriers remain to both major parties if they seek to appeal to religious voters on the economy. You're either for or against gay marriage or abortion rights, but no one supports foreclosures and layoffs. Differences arise over solutions, and analysts say it can make more sense for campaigns to make general pitches on the economy than faith-based appeals.
Then there's the mind-boggling complexity of things like the $700 billion government bailout Congress is considering this week just as the presidential race is heating up.
"This is daunting, complicated stuff even for sophisticated voters," said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio. "You can make values arguments about the economy. But you'd have to be subtle and complex and require a good bit of discussion — not the sorts of things presidential campaigns are given to."
Green released a study last week saying 51 percent of voters quizzed over the summer — well before the current crisis — ranked economic issues like jobs and taxes as their top priority.
Black Protestants (61.5 percent) and Latino Catholics (58 percent) ranked economic issues as their highest priority, while Jews (43 percent) and evangelical Protestants (46 percent) ranked them slightly lower but still more important than foreign policy and social issues.
In 2004, just 18 percent of evangelicals ranked the economy as their top issue. Other groups, like mainline Protestants, also are much more concerned about the economy now.
But despite the seismic changes on ranking the issues, Green found remarkably little movement among faith groups' presidential preferences. Even with a sour economy and a Republican in the White House, Obama was polling about the same as '04 nominee John Kerry among faith groups. More recent surveys show the same thing.
Green said it's possible voters had yet to hear cogent solutions on the economy from either Obama or Republican rival John McCain and were holding to past voting patterns.
Groups independent of the Obama campaign are trying to seize on the economy as a values issue in efforts limited in scope and budget but nevertheless new for progressives.
The Matthew 25 Network, a political action committee, began running an ad this week on Christian radio in a dozen Ohio markets with former Congressman Tony Hall of Dayton talking about Christians' responsibility to care for "the least among us" when the economy is hurting.
Hall introduces himself as a "pro-life Democrat" and says Obama would work to feed the hungry, create new jobs, cover health care and cut taxes "for those who need it most." He also alludes to Obama's own struggles as someone who relied on food stamps as a child.
Another group, Catholics in Alliance for the Commmon Good, is raising money to run a newspaper ad in Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere on the moral dimensions of the economy. It depicts a woman fretting over an overdue bill and asks "One paycheck away from disaster?"
Religious appeals on the economy can be made by pointing to Scripture verses that promote help for the poor, honesty and integrity and criticize greed and materialism.
More specifically, the evangelical Protestant ethos of individual responsibility leans to market solutions and suspicion of government, while the Roman Catholic emphasis on community and solidarity means many Catholics are more open to government solutions, Green said.
On Tuesday night on the University of Colorado's campus in Colorado Springs, the Obama campaign kicked off its latest "faith tour," talks meant to convey that Obama shares the values of believers the campaign hopes can be persuaded: moderate mainline Protestants, centrist Catholics and younger evangelicals.
The speaker, evangelical writer Donald Miller, 37, stuck mostly to cultural issues because that's his thing and he was in one of the nation's evangelical meccas. But he also argued that economic policies that help young women have an added benefit: reducing abortion rates.
The economy was on the mind of fifth-grade teacher Cathy Van de Casteele, an evangelical and undecided voter who came to the forum.
Van de Casteele, 25, said she and her husband are feeling it at the gas pump and holding off on buying a house. She said the economy is an important moral issue and thinks Obama gets it.
"As Christians, part of our responsibility is to take care of those in need," she said. "With the current state of the economy, more people are in need. As Christians, we need to learn more about the economy and figure out the best policies."
While the economy clearly is at the forefront of voter priorities, conservative Christians also draw a connection between traditional social issues like abortion and gay marriage and the economy, said Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council.
"As there's a breakdown in the family and the family weakens, it's only logical it will hit Wall Street," Perkins said. "A nation cannot be strong just because of a financial structure alone. It has to have strong families and values."
Other conservative Christian activists supporting McCain don't believe the economic downturn will resonate in that community.
"I have never believed the president of the United States, regardless of who it is, can help the economy get better," said Phil Burress, head of the Ohio-based Citizens for Community Values. "I believe a president can make it worse. The best thing to do is to get off the backs of private entrepreneurs and small business."
Democrats, however, can argue that the Bush administration's spending on the Iraq war and expansion of government don't mesh with the smaller government that many independent voters desire, said Eric McFadden, former director of the Ohio Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, who also worked to get out Catholic votes for Hillary Clinton during the primaries.
To connect with religious voters on the economy, Obama needs to focus not so much on tailoring a message to specific faiths as talking about job loss and showing empathy, he said.
"Someone said to me, 'We need to create a flier that shows McCain's tax plan and Obama's,'" McFadden said. "We don't need that. People get lost in detail. They want to understand that someone is compassionate and understands what's going on and will fix the problem."