DALLAS – Early in his campaign for the presidency four years ago, George W. Bush was asked in a Republican debate which political philosopher he most admired.
He replied: Jesus Christ “because he changed my heart.”
At the time, his answer caused a stir. Christian conservatives cheered, but political experts wondered whether his response was wise, or perhaps less than presidential.
Today, as he campaigns for a second term, the president’s unabashed candor about his faith is hitting the mark among an emerging group of voters: young conservative Christians.
“It comforts me to know that President Bush is a man who walks with the Lord,” says Allison Hicks, 19, a sophomore political science major at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
In contrast to Bush, John Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, is a practicing Catholic whose religious views are less a part of his public bearing.
“You wear it in your heart and in your soul, not necessarily on your sleeve. … (It’s) not something you ought to push at people every single day in the secular world,” Kerry told the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance in January.
Nevertheless, on college campuses and in youth-oriented organizations across the United States, the ranks of Christian conservatives are growing. Many say they are inspired – and emboldened – by Bush’s example.
“President Bush is a Christian man, and he’s not afraid to talk about it,” said E. Paige McAleer, president of the Dallas County Young Republicans.
When it comes to their faith, “a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about it. President Bush has broken that barrier by not being afraid in a public setting to talk about how a higher being has affected his life,” said Shelby Ricketts, also a member of the local Young Republicans. “That makes him attractive to a lot of young people.”
Students look for moral guidance
Indeed, studies and polls show that a substantial number of college students are expressing strong interest in religion, along with a more socially conservative outlook.
Enrollment at conservative Christian colleges and universities is growing rapidly. Even on secular campuses, membership in religious clubs has skyrocketed.
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “On Thursday nights, you can’t find a large lecture hall that doesn’t have a religious group using it,” said Dr. Christian Smith, a sociologist and director of the National Study of Youth and Religion.
Campus Crusade for Christ has chapters on more than 1,000 campuses – up from about 300 in the early 1990s, said Nathan Dunn, the group’s communications director. There are 200 chapters in Texas. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has chapters on 560 college campuses, including about two dozen schools in Texas.
What this generation of students wants, Dunn said, is “authenticity in every area of their lives. They’re looking for what’s real and what’s true.”
They look for genuine qualities in their leaders, he said.
“They want to be able to trust who they’re putting their faith in,” he said, “and they are drawn to leaders who are not hesitant to talk about what they believe.”
Importance of open faith to voters unclear
While Bush appears to benefit from the increased interest in religion among college students, the political implications of the trend are unclear.
“The Republicans by no means have a monopoly on religion. They just have an advantage with the public that goes to a house of worship regularly,” said John Green, professor of political science and director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio.
In the last decade, exit polls have shown a growing gap between weekly worshippers, who tend to vote Republican, and less frequent worshippers, who tend to vote Democratic.
But an increase in religious values among young people doesn’t necessarily translate to more votes for Republicans.
Indeed, 70 percent of Southern Democrats say religion is very important in their lives – compared with 55 percent of Democrats outside the South, according to the Pew Research Center.
Then there is the problem of trying to define exactly what is a young conservative Christian.
Colleges with strong Christian communities form a bedrock of support for the conservative social agenda. Gay marriage has emerged as this year’s significant social issue. The Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family are pushing hard for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
At Bob Jones University in South Carolina, students call themselves the West Point of Christian conservatives. They take the Bible as the literal truth of God. Gay marriage, as well as homosexuality in general, is condemned.
At the University of South Carolina, senior Jay Stinson, 21, also sees politics through a Christian conservative lens.
“I look for the Christian perspective on issues,” he said, adding that he is against gay marriage.
Down the road, at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., students who described themselves as Christians expressed more moderate views on social issues.
“The overall student body is conservative, but there is a fair amount of diversity” in lifestyle and opinions, said Michael Harris, 22, a senior communications major at the private liberal arts school.
His college life has been overshadowed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “There is broad support for the actions in Iraq,” Harris said.
But politically, “I wouldn’t call myself conservative or liberal,” he said. He sees himself as more tolerant on social issues, including homosexuality. “On a lot of social issues, I think the Christian conservatives hold views that are old-fashioned.”
Conservative Christians eager to back Bush
Smith, who has devoted years to researching religion and youths at the University of North Carolina, said young Christian conservatives are not a unified voting bloc for the right wing.
“I think there is a lot of diversity of views,” said Dr. Smith. His book, “Christian America: What Evangelicals Really Want,” disputes the view that evangelical Christians are marching in tight formation.
Some students see this election as an opportunity to support Bush, who has cast his political leadership as faith-based.
At USC, Hicks said her faith “shapes a big part” of her political views.
She describes herself as “very interested” in politics – she works as an aide in the state legislature – and supports Bush wholeheartedly. “I think our president should be held to a high standard, especially with morality,” she said.
The Young Conservatives of Texas, a student political group, draws many of its members from the ranks of conservative Christians, said communications director Mark McCaig, 21, a junior at Texas A&M.
He believes the debate over gay marriage will spur religious conservatives on campus to get more involved in politics.
“They’re going to view this as the government attacking their religious values, and I think they’re going to fight back.”
But it might not be that easy. “The Christian political groups have not been very successful organizing on campuses,” said John C. Green, director of the nonpartisan Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “Younger people tend to be more tolerant.”
Recent national polls find young people divided on the issue of gay marriage. In an Annenberg Public Policy Center poll last month, 58 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds opposed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage but 52 percent opposed a state law allowing it. In a January Newsweek poll, 50 percent of young people said gay marriage should be legal and 47 percent said it shouldn’t.
Whatever its political impact, the willingness of students to discuss and debate their religious views distinguishes them from other generations.
“What is different today from a decade ago is that students are more concerned about public expression of their beliefs,” said Robin Lovin, the Cary Maguire professor of ethics at Southern Methodist University.
That a public figure like Bush “would be open about religion would be normal to young people today,” Lovin said.
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