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In Search of the Holy Grail

Why Democrats are finding God

Stung by defeat upon defeat at the polls, Democrats in Washington are turning to God. More precisely, they are talking about God. And morality. Which is what they think people want to hear.

Following the November 2004 election, Democrats took to heart opinion polls reporting that significant numbers of voters cast ballots for the presidential candidate they considered to possess the strongest "morals." Although it was unclear what that term meant to voters—whether it touched on gay rights, the war in Iraq, concern for the poor or plain old fashioned honesty—some Democrats, most notably the defeated John Kerry, decided it might have something to do with abortion. Based on his religious beliefs, the born-again George W. Bush opposed abortion rights. In opposition to his church, the Catholic Kerry supported them, though with some amount of distaste.

So Democrats decided they needed to broaden their reach, not by abandoning their commitment to abortion rights, but by inviting in antiabortion candidates and voters. They didn’t stop there. They are actively encouraging officeholders, particularly members of Congress, to talk about their faith, about Jesus, about morality.

It is time, they decided, to wear their religions on their sleeves. Tastefully, of course.

Democrats insist this is no deathbed conversion. They always have been religious, they say, pointing to the centrality of churches and synagogues in the civil rights movement. No fewer Democrats than Republicans attend worship services, the party’s leaders suggest. No fewer Democratic officials are people of faith.

[Democrats] are actively encouraging officeholders, particularly members of Congress, to talk about their faith, about Jesus, about morality.

Those who do attempt to work on behalf of women in the field of reproductive justice are maligned and condemned; harsh words issue from the bishops and spokespersons on their behalf. Frances Kissling, president of CFFC, Senator Barbara Mikulski, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and, of course, John Kerry are all characterized as bad Catholics. Ad hominem arguments abound, as well as outright lies in press releases and articles. But thanks to the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition and to a lesser extent the Catholic bishops, the Republican Party (also known affectionately as the Grand Old Party or GOP) is commonly viewed as the party of the religious. President Bush, widely regarded as the most religious president in decades, talks openly about his faith and its influence on his life and his policies. His speeches are sprinkled with religious references. He has named Jesus as his favorite philosopher. He established a "faith-based initiative" to direct federal social service money to religious institutions, invokes Pope John Paul II’s "culture of life," refers to terrorists as "evildoers" and dubbed Iran, North Korea and pre-war Iraq the "axis of evil."

Not only did Bush win the 2004 election among evangelicals, but among Catholics as well. Clearly, the Republican Party has appropriated religion. And the Democrats want it back.

" We cannot afford to allow ourselves to be defined by our opponents as having anything against religion, and that’s how we’ve been defined," said Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the son of a fundamentalist minister and head of the new House Democrats’ Faith Working Group. "I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t see how you can be a Democrat and call yourself a Christian!’"

So Democratic leaders have launched a counteroffensive. "I think it’s just a political reality," Clyburn told me. In the past, he said, many Democrats did not openly discuss their faith, "not because they’re uncomfortable doing it, but because it’s always been a bit incorrect politically to do it. At least we felt that. At least I have. If you go to my Web site and look at my résumé, you’ll find out a lot of things about me, but you won’t find out my church affiliation."

Clyburn’s working group, created by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi early this year, is one of several efforts to prod Democratic members of Congress to talk about religion, to frame public issues— including abortion—in moral terms and to reach out to the millions of people of faith in America who are not part of the Christian right. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has met with religious leaders as part of a new outreach effort. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, took the unusual step of recruiting an abortion foe, Pennsylvania treasurer Bob Casey Jr., to run for the Senate against Republican Rick Santorum, an antiabortion leader and his party’s third-ranking senator, in a race being targeted by both parties. (Casey, son of a popular former governor, received more votes upon his election last year than any candidate in state history.) Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is prochoice, said in a speech that abortion represents a "sad, even tragic choice" for many women and proposed finding "common ground" to reduce unwanted pregnancies.

Reid, who opposes abortion rights but supports prochoice efforts to make contraceptives available (see profiles of him and other Democrats with mixed voting records on choice issues in boxes), has introduced legislation to reduce unintended pregnancies by making birth control and family planning services more accessible and by improving sex education. Another abortion-rights opponent, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, told me he planned to sponsor legislation to reduce abortions by 95 percent in the next decade by, among other things, promoting adoption through a tax credit and improving health care and child care for low-income families.

The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, reportedly is looking to create a center for religious outreach. DNC Chairman Howard Dean has crisscrossed the nation on something of a values tour, preaching morals and promoting his party to evangelicals, to southerners and to voters and potential candidates who oppose abortion rights.

"We lost the election. GET OVER IT! Quit trying to lay blame. Those of us who are advocates have to be the conscience for the party
while it’s soul searching."
- Kate Michelman,
former president,
NARAL Pro-Choice America

"I want to reach out to people who are worried about values," Dean told nearly 1,000 Mississippi Democrats in March. "We are going to embrace prolife Democrats because pro-life Democrats care about kids after they’re born, not just before they’re born."

Antichoice Democrats are celebrating their newfound legitimacy within the party. "It’s a really big difference from six months ago when we didn’t feel we had a friend over there," said Kristin Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America. "Now we have lots of friends."

But prochoice leaders are nervous. They dispute the notion that abortion rights cost Kerry the White House, particularly since they say his defense of choice was weak. They cringe at the party’s reevaluation of one of its core principles, one that the majority of Americans share.

" This view that is emerging that we must win and, in order to win, we have to moderate our views or move to the center is wrong," declared Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. " You win by standing up for what you believe in. And you win by clearly and effectively communicating what you believe and defining what your core values are. Their actions suggest that they’re distinctly uncomfortable with where they are….

"We have to go back to first principles," Michelman told me. "They have to get over the fact that we lost the election. We lost the election. GET OVER IT! Quit trying to lay blame. Those of us who are advocates have to be the conscience for the party while it’s soul searching."

Dean did not return phone calls requesting an interview for this article. But his spokeswoman, Laura Gross, told me the former Vermont governor and presidential candidate does not want to change the party’s values or positions on issues, rather "the way we talk about things…. We can’t be pigeonholed as being the party of not having values."

Dean, who acknowledged during his presidential run that he felt some discomfort talking about his religion (and who went on to say that his favorite New Testament book was Job, which is in the Old Testament), seems to be making up for that now. "Jesus said it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. I did not notice that in the Republican platform," he told the Mississippi crowd, according to the Biloxi Sun Herald. "We ought not have money-changers in the temple. I did not notice that in the Republican platform. You should love thy neighbor. I didn’t notice that in the Republican platform."

Likewise, in Tennessee in late March, Dean explained the two parties’ approaches to gay rights by saying: "When Jesus said ‘love thy neighbor’ he didn't mean choose which one to love."

"The values of America are much closer to the Democratic Party than the Republican Party," the Memphis Flyer, a weekly alternative newspaper, quoted Dean as saying. "The Bible talks about Jesus reaching out to people who are different than He was, reaching out to sinners, reaching out to everybody and including everybody. I don't see those values in the Republican Party. I see a party that can't balance the budget. There is no moral virtue in leaving a debt to our children larger than the one we inherited."

In other words, Dean and other Democrats are saying, Republicans might be good at quoting scripture, but they should heed it as well.

"You can’t go into your State of the Union and say you want to open a health clinic in every neighborhood and then introduce a budget that guts Medicaid," said Darrel Thompson, a senior adviser in charge of faith outreach for Reid. He was referring to Bush’s recent call to place community health centers in poor counties. "There’s something fundamentally wrong there."

For their part, Democrats say they have been faithfully heeding scripture, but have lagged behind on quoting chapter and verse.

"The Democrats have very strong religious constituencies, too. There is a religious left," said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and an expert in politics and religion. "It’s not as if religion is alien to the Democratic Party. But there is a perception that perhaps they haven’t explained themselves as well. This is not cosmetic. It’s not about throwing God in a speech. It’s about explaining the party’s position in the language of religion and values…. In poll after poll people like candidates that talk about their religious faith. They like to feel that candidates have a moral basis for the policy they espouse."

Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut said she has long talked about the religious underpinnings of her political decisions. " What informs me, what informs what issues are important to me, that’s all formed not by virtue of being a Democrat, it’s informed by Rosa DeLauro from an Italian- American Catholic household," she said. In fact, DeLauro said, she serves in public office because she was taught that government should work for the good of the people. So she has no problem encouraging her colleagues to talk about their own moral guidelines. "My view is that Democrats need to talk about their own experiences," she said. "They need to talk more about their own faith and their moral choices of right and wrong. It’s part of who they are, it’s part of what the Democratic Party has been about— promoting the common good."

But invoking God and religion is risky, not only for the Democratic Party, but for a nation founded upon religious freedom and pluralism, said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. "I’m as worried about a left-wing God deciding public policy as I am about a rightwing God," she said. "America is best when we make decisions about public policy based upon facts, based up on social needs, based upon what constitutes the common good. That is really much too narrowly circumscribed when one uses Jesus Christ as the reference point."

Further, she said, it is important for public officials in particular to be sensitive to those who do not share their faith, but who do share their values. "Much of what I think does derive from my Catholic education and my Catholic teaching. But I think I have an obligation to be careful in a plural society to be more inclusive in my public expression of my values. I especially demand that from a political leader," Kissling told me. "Especially when you come from a dominant religious body, the need to show respect for the others is very strong. And I think that’s getting lost. This is not just religiosity. There is an element of this that is dominantly Christian. And I thought as Christians, many of us had reflected on the imperialism of our faith, its overemphasis on its right over everything else and had become more humble about that."

Kissling has seen the Democrats’ shift firsthand. As a member of the "religious choice community," she has been included in meetings with Democratic leaders, such as Reid. Still, she appears to be one of the few people to voice concerns about mixing politics and religion.

In recent years, the Democrat most adept at injecting religion into politics was Bill Clinton. As a boy, Clinton often was meandered through the streets of Hot Springs, Ark. As president, he effortlessly tossed biblical references into policy discussions and national addresses, but did so in a way that seemed natural, sincere and non-threatening. "Bill Clinton was masterful. He could go into a synagogue, into a black Baptist church, into a white Baptist church and talk the language," Green said. "Bill Clinton is a very good example of how it could be done."

Mike McCurry got a close-up view of the master at work. Now, Clinton’s former press secretary is one of a handful of advisers who have been preaching religion and outreach to high-ranking Democrats.

"We have a great tradition in the Democratic Party of being guided and motivated by scripture," said McCurry, a political strategist who also serves on the board of governors of the United Methodist Church’s Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. He cited the party’s longtime emphasis on helping the poor. "For some reason, in the 1960s we became very secular in our vocabulary. We’re rediscovering some of our tradition."

At the same time Democrats began to tone down their religious references, Republicans began to heighten theirs, said Charles Dunn, dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University, a Christian graduate school founded by Pat Robertson in Virginia. Dunn said the Democratic Party has not mentioned God in its platform since John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960. After that, he said, it began losing some of its more conservative—and religious—adherents.

During the civil rights movement, southern evangelicals began to stream from the Democratic Party to the Republican, Dunn noted. In the 1980s, with Ronald Reagan in the White House, conservative northern Catholics began an exodus of their own. Now, he said, Bush and the Republicans are trying to appeal to social conservatives, including religious African Americans, by opposing abortion rights and gay marriage. It is taking its toll, Dunn told me.

"I’m as worried about a left-wing God deciding public policy as I am about a rightwing God. America is best when we make decisions about public policy based upon facts, based up on social needs, based upon what constitutes the common good. That is really much too narrowly circumscribed when one uses Jesus Christ as the reference point."
- Frances Kissling, president,
Catholics for a Free Choice

"The Democratic Party will remain a backwater in relationship to the Republican Party until and unless it positively addresses those issues that have cost it the Roman Catholic vote in the North, the southern white Protestant vote and now the beginning of the loss of the African American vote," Dunn said.

McCurry said Democrats erred in 2004 by not appealing directly to the millions of Americans, many of them rooted in neither political party, who have found homes in the nondenominational megachurches that have sprouted in the exurbs all over the country in recent years. His advice to party leaders: "Be more in tune with what their lives are like and why they’re moving to these places. Go to church with them. We have to organize those communities just like we would organize any other precinct." The Republicans did that last year, he said; the Democrats did not.

The Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank headed by Clinton’s former chief of staff, John Podesta, is working at this from a different angle: bringing the faith community into policy discussions. The center began a national conversation on faith and policy last June, five months before the election, and has brought together religious leaders to discuss the moral bases for such issues as public education and universal health care. Through much of the nation’s history, clergy members helped drive public policy debates—they were critical to winning fights for abolition, civil rights and abortion rights—and they should have a voice today, explained Melody Barnes, director of the center’s Faith and Progressive Policy initiative.

"It’s our belief that progressives have ceded too much ground," Barnes said. "We also believe that progressives out there across the country are craving a values conversation and a values meaning."

The most visible of the new breed of political guru is the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the antipoverty group Call to Renewal and editor of Sojourners magazine. Wallis, an abortion opponent and evangelical preacher whose book God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It is a national bestseller (see p20), successfully urged Democrats to review Bush’s proposed budget as a "moral document."

"All over the country, I feel the hunger for a fuller, deeper, and richer conversation about religion in public life, about faith and politics," Wallis wrote in his book. "It’s a discussion that we don’t always hear in America today. Sometimes the most strident and narrow voices are the loudest, and more progressive, prophetic, and healing religion often gets missed. But the good news is about how all that is changing."

Yet it is change born of political desperation. Democrats always might have had religion, and some even talked about it. But most didn’t—not until they lost the White House twice. Not until their numbers in Congress dwindled.

If their effort appears to be insincere, if they seem to have found religion purely for political purposes, it will backfire mightily. That’s why Clyburn and other Democratic politician to talk about faith, only those who feel comfortable doing so.

"If it isn’t authentic, if it isn’t meaningful and connected to something that is deeper than a political effort, it will push people farther away," Barnes cautioned.

Outside the prochoice community, there has been little criticism of the party’s rhetorical shift. Progressive religious leaders, now consulted regularly by party leaders, say it is important for Democrats to demonstrate to a values-obsessed nation that their policies are based on morality. They stress that the policies themselves need not change.

"Those who are of the religious tradition, we have a lot to say," said the Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and pastor of the Fellowship Baptist Church in Washington, DC. "Our religious principles ought to inform us on the war, on education, on 45 million people being without health care."

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religion Action Center of Reform Judaism, drew a distinction between "‘religiousizing’ public debate and moralizing public debate." For instance, he said, "I don’t know any person in middle America who is going to be persuaded on the abortion issue because I point out to them that nowhere in the Old or New Testament does it say that abortion is a crime." However, Saperstein continued, Democrats could effectively use religious stories to illustrate "moral ideas"—that women are "moral decision makers," for instance.

Still, Kissling questions the need to mix religion with morality in a public setting. "When the Catholic bishops go up on Capitol Hill, when they write a statement on a specific piece of legislation, they don’t talk about Jesus Christ," she said. "They try to argue before Congress on the merits of the case…. So why do the senators think that they should start arguing on the basis of quoting 3,000 verses on poverty from the Bible? We didn’t elect them to be theologians."

But the Democrats’ concern is much more basic. They are not worried primarily about what they are elected to be, rather whether they will be elected at all.

Jodi Enda is a political writer based in Washington, DC. She previously covered the White House, Congress and presidential campaigns for Knight Ridder Newspapers and national news for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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