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Getting religion (continued)

AS THE IDEA that the Democrats need to get religion to win in í04 gains adherents, Amy Sullivan ó a Princeton University doctoral student and creator of the Political Aims weblog ó deserves much of the credit. In June of this year, Sullivan published a much-discussed article in the Washington Monthly, in which she argued that moderate Catholic and evangelical voters could be pulled into the Democratic camp by a candidate who can "speak the language of faith sincerely." She noted that Clinton and Jimmy Carter, the only Democrats elected president in the last 40 years, cultivated religious voters from the outset of their campaigns, and expressed concern that this yearís crop of Democratic challengers wasnít following their lead. Sullivan also suggested that a sincerely religious Democrat could take the battle to Bush by highlighting the disparity between the presidentís rhetoric of compassion and the realities of his policies. And she warned that failure to do so could doom the Democrats in 2004 and beyond.

Sullivanís ideas are gaining strength. In October, Sullivan spoke at a Democratic Leadership Council conference dedicated to the issue of how Democrats can make inroads with oft-ignored constituencies. The Clergy Leadership Network, a new organization geared to giving religious progressives a cohesive political voice, began operating in Washington, DC, last month. Moderators in at least two of the Democratic presidential debates have brought up the Democratsí apparent difficulty connecting with religious voters. And over the past month, several articles on the subject have appeared in the national press. On Sunday, for instance, the New York Times carried an op-ed piece by Jim Wallis, who edits the liberal religious magazine Sojourners. Lamented Wallis: "For too many Democrats, faith is private and has no implications for political life. But what kind of faith is that? Where would America be if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself?"

But while political observers are catching on, the point may not have registered where it matters most ó that is, among the candidates themselves. About six months ago, Beliefnetís Waldman began contacting the Democratic hopefuls to ask if they would do one-on-one interviews discussing their religious backgrounds and beliefs. To date, Wesley Clark is the only candidate whoís agreed to participate. Although Clark, Joe Lieberman (an old hand at values talk), and Dick Gephardt have been speaking more about values and morals of late, as a recent New York Times article notes, none, not even Lieberman, is talking about faith per se. As for Dean ó the unquestioned front-runner for months now ó well, at least until recently, he truly didnít seem to get it. In the same article, the Times quoted Dean spokesperson Jay Carson as saying, "Your values are shown in the way you act and the policies youíre in favor of. He doesnít feel itís appropriate to wear his religion on his sleeve."

The former Vermont governorís off-the-cuff, often brusque rhetorical style ó coupled with one of his go-to stump-speech lines ó has some observers worried. Ed Kilgore, policy director of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, worries that when Dean exhorts audiences not to allow Republicans to use "God, guns, and gays" as decoys, he risks alienating the religious moderates whose support he needs to win. "Itís dismissive," Kilgore says of Deanís triple-G line. "The clear message is that Republicans have been using these issues for years as wedge issues to keep you from thinking about what theyíre doing to you socially and economically. And heís right about that. But thereís a reason the Republicans succeed in doing that ó itís because the Democrats donít seem to care about these issues. But youíre in danger of saying, ĎPut aside all your silly superstitions about the moral order of your universe, and think about your pocketbook like everybody else.í And thatís an offensive message."

Sullivan, whoís offered advice to individuals associated with the Dean campaign, is similarly concerned about the effects of Deanís "God, guns, and gays" spiel. "Iíve talked to some of the people doing [religious] outreach for Dean and said, ĎLook, youíve got to get him to stop doing that,í" she says. "You can do all the outreach to religious communities that you want. But Iíd hate to see you spend six months building up good rapport with churches and then have him in one fell swoop slap them in the face."

SO WHAT COULD Dean do differently? Discussing his own complex religious background is one option. Dean was baptized in the Catholic Church, grew up as an Episcopalian, and now calls himself a Congregationalist. Dean needs to find a way to portray this switch in a positive light: so far, commentators have mainly poked fun of him, noting that he became a Congregationalist in a fit of pique after clashing with local Episcopal authorities over a bike path. Deanís wife, Judith Steinberg, is Jewish, and Deanís two children have been raised Jewish as well. Thereís plenty of material to work with there. If Dean, unlike Bush, isnít comfortable opening his private religious life to public scrutiny, he could also try couching some of his pet issues in religious terms. "All religious traditions argue that people should be peacemakers, and war should only be a last resort," notes the University of Akronís Green. "That would fit in pretty well with Deanís argument that we went to war too quickly in Iraq without investigating other options."

There were signs even before last week, albeit small ones, that Dean may be increasingly cognizant of the need to sell himself in a religious manner. For example, in courting the African-American vote, Dean has recently participated in several services at African-American churches. In addition, it now appears that the Dean campaign has been in the midst of preparing a national strategy for religious outreach ó a strategy that may have seen its first flowering in Deanís comments in Iowa.

Even if the Democratic nominee doesnít demonstrate a basic level of religious competence, certain groups of religious voters are still likely to vote against Bush in 2004. Estimates vary, but between 70 and 90 percent of Muslim-American voters seemed to favored Bush last time around. Now, however, theyíve been alienated by the presidentís use of the loaded term "crusade" immediately following September 11 ó as well as by civil-liberties rollbacks and the administrationís policy in the Middle East ó and are expected overwhelmingly to support Bushís yet-to-be-determined opponent. And while African-American evangelicals hold many of the same conservative social views as their white counterparts, they backed Gore by a 92 percent margin in 2000 and should be similarly cohesive in their í04 opposition to Bush. (The Bush administrationís decision to file a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the University of Michiganís affirmative-action policies earlier this year didnít win many friends in the broader black community either.)

Itís also possible that as Bush courts moderate swing voters in the months prior to the election, he will make some sort of gaffe that alienates some of his most conservative evangelical supporters, prompting them to stay home on Election Day. When Bush, in a press conference with British prime minister Tony Blair last month, said he believes Christians and Muslims worship the same God, he was promptly criticized by representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention ó with 10 million members, the largest Protestant church in America ó and the National Association of Evangelicals.

Itís more likely, though, that still-unforeseen developments will favor the Republicans. For example, the US Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of including the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance next summer; if the court determines that those two words must be expunged from the pledge, conservative-evangelical voter turnout could skyrocket. The gay-marriage issue is another one that could bring conservative evangelicals ó and conservative religious voters from other denominations as well ó to the polls in extremely high numbers, especially given the fact that, as governor of Vermont, Howard Dean signed a bill legalizing civil unions. Fifty-nine percent of born-again adults, including both conservative and moderate evangelicals, voted in 2000, according to the Christian market-research firm Barna Research. With gay marriage on the agenda, that number could rise even higher next year. "Gay marriage is huge," says Waldman of Beliefnet. "Among religious-conservative activists, itís supplanted abortion as the number-one issue they care most deeply about. Itís not that they stopped caring about abortion, but everyone knew the script was well-written on abortion; the advances and retreats happened in very small measures. Whereas with gay marriage, thereís a sense that thereís this tidal wave just sweeping over them. I think it absolutely could mobilize huge numbers of evangelicals if Bush plays it properly."

All of which only reinforces the notion that the Democrats need to come up with a faith-based pitch of their own. Whether itís Dean or someone else, the Democratic nominee will face long odds heading into next year. If the Democrats do things right, they could attract just enough religious voters to make a difference. Now would be a good time to start.

Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly[a]phx.com

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Issue Date: January 2 - 8, 2004
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