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Voices: Perspective

A strategy to believe in

In a political version of the bestselling book Moneyball, religion could be an underrated asset

BY: Maurice Cunningham

Baseball fans flocked to Moneyball: The Art of an Unfair Game for its insights into how an undercapitalized franchise like the Oakland A’s managed to compete with financial giants like the Yankees and Red Sox. It involved searching for undervalued but potent offensive skills – like on-base percentage instead of batting average – that the A’s could acquire cheaply.

Could a similar approach pay off for candidates for political office? Let’s consider a version we’ll call Moneypol: The Art of a (Very) Unfair Game, and speculate on how it might work for gubernatorial candidates seeking a slight edge in the campaign’s final week. Like the offensive traits the A’s identified that were at least as useful as better known abilities but were overlooked, Moneypol would have to identify something in Massachusetts politics that has some value but is not fully appreciated by competitors. The trait I am suggesting was at the heart of Massachusetts politics for decades but is now largely marginalized: religion.

We don’t put much emphasis on religion in politics any more. Look at the most recent 7 News/Suffolk University poll – no religious variables were tested at all. And according to a report on WBUR, no religion question was even raised at a recent candidate’s forum sponsored by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. Religion has been invisible in the campaign. This is perfect for Moneypol.

Massachusetts reveres open-mindedness so we try to avoid religious wars. This isn’t Alabama, where an elected judge can boost his popular appeal by placing a monument to the Ten Commandments in his courthouse. In the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s rankings of most religious states, Massachusetts falls near the bottom in every category. Still, Pew found that 40 percent of Massachusetts residents say religion is very important to them, 30 percent attend services weekly, 40 percent pray daily, and 60 percent believe in God with absolute certainty.

And we do mix religion and politics in our own way. In May, Gov. Deval Patrick visited a Roxbury mosque to attend a forum promoting tolerance of Muslims. That was a political twofer: The governor got to appeal to a small but growing minority while burnishing his appeal to those who worship the virtue of tolerance. Tim Cahill fired off a response accusing the governor of “playing politics with terrorism.” Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim leaders all condemned Cahill in return.

But the move might have worked at least marginally to Cahill’s benefit. In 2004, George W. Bush edged out John Kerry among white Catholics in Massachusetts. The most important issue to Catholics that year was terrorism, and Bush trounced Kerry on that topic. I’d bet that Scott Brown knew it, and he took advantage of last year’s Christmas Day bomber incident by coming across as tougher on terrorism than Martha Coakley. This was a subtle and effective use of Moneypol – an appeal to a large voting bloc defined by religion on an issue important to those voters, but veiled in its religious appeal.

Brown was more direct in using religious imagery in his television and online campaign ads. Replay the “Hey Dad” ad on YouTube and you’ll find the Brown home adorned with Christmas wreaths. Wreaths are also cast in “Happy New Year from Scott Brown” and in “Merry Christmas from Scott Brown and his Family” – with “Silent Night” playing in the background. And in “Different People, Same Message” – the ad comparing Brown to John F. Kennedy – could that be the lingering image of a cross as the window fades out behind Brown?

Don’t assume that religious appeals necessarily favor the right. In a paper titled “Is There a Religious Left?” political scientists Stephen Mockabee, Kenneth Wald, and David Leege argue that there is a religious left in Christianity among those who locate their faith in concern for the social welfare of their community more than in personal morality. One question asked of believers by American National Election Studies during the 2008 presidential race illustrates the difference. “When you have tried to be a good Christian, which did you try to do more: avoid doing sinful things yourself, or help other people?” Nationally, Protestant Evangelicals and black Protestants tended to focus on individual virtue, while mainline Protestants and Catholics – and Catholics overwhelmingly so – gave the communitarian answer.

The significance of the study by Mockabee and colleagues is that they offer a new dimension to looking at politics beyond the familiar “God gap” perspective, which says weekly service attendees tend Republican, while infrequent attendees incline Democratic. The study opens up a much richer understanding of the political effects of religion, one that might reveal new opportunities for liberal candidates to woo true believers. For Moneypol it may be an unexploited treasure. One example arose when the Boston Globe sought a comment from Patrick this summer on policies toward undocumented immigrants. Patrick stated that we should treat immigrants “the way Scripture teaches us to treat them.” Patrick invoked the same thinking at an Oct. 16 campaign rally with President Obama.

Let’s count our blessings – this is no place for the antics of a Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. Massachusetts is suspicious of overt appeals to religious sentiment. But that doesn’t mean there is no place for religion here – or advantage to subtly employing it. Indeed, in a tight race, a Moneypol strategy that recognizes this might just give someone the winning edge.

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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