Respond to this Article June 2003

Do the Democrats Have a Prayer?

To win in '04 the next nominee will need to get religion.

By Amy Sullivan

When President George W. Bush spoke of the "wonder-working power" of Americans in his 2003 State of the Union address, many television viewers may have considered it simply a nice rhetorical turn of phrase, an eloquent way of describing the potential social impact of volunteerism, which holds great appeal to a wide swath of American voters. Millions of evangelical listeners, however, knew better. They were already humming along to the rest of the chorus of an old gospel hymn that speaks of changing the world through divine, not human, intervention: "There is ... wonder-working power in the blood of the lamb."

The speech was, in many ways, a microcosm of the Bush administration's more global strategy for appealing to religious constituencies. "Wonder-working power" was a kind of code that slid under the radar of many listeners and commentators, but was immediately recognized by the target audience of evangelical Christians.

For Bush and his political guru Karl Rove understand something very important about the religious vote. The President has solidified his standing among highly committed evangelicals, who, though originally wary of his conservative credentials, have been rewarded with the appointment of such religious conservatives as John Ashcroft to top administration jobs as well as through grants distributed under the faith-based initiative. But Bush has maxed out his support with conservative evangelicals; 84 percent voted for him in the 2000 election. To win reelection, he will need to hold onto the votes of another group which supported him in 2000: religious moderates--one of the least-appreciated swing constituencies in the country, and one whose allegiance is more up for grabs than most people realize. They include Muslims, most Catholics, and a growing number of suburban evangelicals, all of whom are devout, but many of whom are uncomfortable with Bush's ties to the religious right, whose agenda--from banning abortion to converting Muslims--is deeply disconcerting to them. Many of these "swing faithful" have also begun to wonder if Bush's rhetoric of compassion and justice will be matched by policy substance.

They could be courted by the right kind of Democrat--one who, like Bush, can speak the language of faith sincerely. Yet those who hope to challenge Bush in 2004 have uttered scarcely a word about religion--or how faith informs their stances on issues such as health care and the environment--during any campaign event so far, including the first primary debate last month in South Carolina. In part, this is because Democratic voters are so multicultural that candidates fear they may alienate some part of their base, especially religious minorities, if they invoke faith in any way whatsoever. Moreover, organized religious groups aren't very active in Democratic primaries. Candidates feel little pressure to speak to the concerns of faith communities, while they do feel compelled to address the issues of secular groups, like the ACLU. But it is telling that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the only Democratic nominees to have won the White House since 1964, both went out of their way to discuss issues of faith and to speak before congregations early during their respective campaigns. Whereas Republicans seem almost obligated to campaign with Jesus as their running mate during the primary season, Democratic candidates today feel they must keep a lid on religious talk in order to win.

There's John Kerry, who argues that his identity as a Catholic has no bearing on his role as a politician, although he will now happily discuss his Jewish ancestry. There's Dick Gephardt, who, though a Southern Baptist by faith, grew up in a German-American community south of St. Louis, among Catholics and Lutherans who considered public discussion of religion prideful. His sole reference to religion thus far in the campaign is a single-phrase allusion, tucked at the end of his announcement speech, to the church scholarship he used to attend college. Joseph Lieberman's faith--which made some Democratic strategists nervous during the 2000 elections--makes him arguably more viable in a general election than most commentators understand, but even he has toned down his religious rhetoric, assuring the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in April that his support for President Bush's faith-based initiative was balanced by his liberal views on issues such as gay rights and abortion. And finally there's John Edwards, a Clinton-like candidate whose Baptist background and Southern roots both foster open expressions of faith, but who still told a questioner in Iowa, "I haven't talked about it, because I only usually talk about it when asked." Nearly all of them seem to be taking their cues not from Carter or Clinton, but rather from Al Gore, who kept mum on religion after his early campaign reference to the evangelical catch-phrase "What Would Jesus Do?" earned him ridicule from the mainstream press.

Today, conventional wisdom holds that the best way to predict a person's party affiliation is to ask how often they go to church. As political commentator Michael Barone has noted, "Americans increasingly vote as they pray, or don't pray." But unfortunately, Democrats seem to have absorbed the wrong two lessons from this trend--that they will never win support from religious Americans, and that in order to retain their core base of secularists and religious minorities, the party should avoid the topic of religion altogether.

They are wrong on both counts--and the mistake could cost them not only the 2004 election, but also any chance of building a sustainable electoral coalition. Learning to speak to and appeal to religious constituencies is not simply a matter of political calculation, but a quality Americans demand from their leaders. Even people who aren't terribly religious know moral vision when they see it--agnostic liberals tear up when they see video clips of Martin Luther King Jr. holding forth on the National Mall--and they respond to faith when it's sincere and tied to a politics in which they believe. A president who can talk about his personal faith and explain how it connects to his policy initiatives enjoys both the tactical advantage of attracting the "swing faithful" and the moral stature to excite and inspire all those, religious or not, who are already predisposed to support him on the issues. To become America's majority party again, the Democrats will have to get religion.

Preacher Comforts

While much of official Washington worships at the altar of Sunday political talk shows, the rest of the nation has the highest rate of church attendance of any industrialized country. Eighty-seven percent of Americans say that religion is important in their life, according to a 2002 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll. And voters believe the value of faith extends beyond their personal lives. Seventy percent said that they want the president to be a person of faith in a 2000 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. While the percentage is higher for Republicans, fully 67 percent of New Democrats agree that it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs.

In part, this is a simple matter of self-identification: Voters who are churchgoers prefer a president who is, too. Yet, historically Americans have preferred their manifestations of presidential religion in generic form, most famously reflected by President Eisenhower's remark that "America makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith--and I don't care what it is." But that doesn't make the preference any less deeply felt. After all, Americans have good practical reasons for preferring their president be a person of faith. Presidents must make momentous, life-and-death decisions while in office, and people want that person to have something bucking him up other than his pollster--something he or she can turn to for guidance and strength. It reassures us to know that our leaders feel the pull of a greater interest.

Voters naturally interpret professed faith as an indication that a candidate at least thinks about the morality of things and tries to make decisions based upon a cause or power higher than himself. According to a 2000 survey by the nonpartisan research group Public Agenda, of those who want religion to become more influential in public life, three-quarters don't care which religion it is, only that it's sincere. Deborah Wadsworth, the organization's president, says, "Americans see religion as a unique course capable of righting the ship on its wrong moral course."

Despite the claims of the highly vocal religious right, this sort of religious moral vision isn't the exclusive province of the GOP. In fact, the most religious presidents of the past 30 years were Democrats: Carter and Clinton. Both were able to avoid the fates of religiously bland Democratic nominees--including George McGovern and Walter Mondale, each the son of a minister. And both defeated Republican opponents who had either loose religious ties or, at the very least, an aversion to discussing religion publicly. Although the two Southern governors shared other characteristics that worked to their political advantage, their facility with religious language certainly contributed to their success. In his anthology of great speeches, Lend Me Your Ears, William Safire, for instance, selected as Clinton's oratorical triumph an address to a Memphis church that was essentially an extemporaneous sermon. The Southern Baptist cadences, almost more than the words themselves, gave the speech its power--"We will honor the life and the work of Martin Luther King. We will honor the meaning of our church. We will, somehow, by God's grace, we will turn this around." And while Carter's presidency is today remembered as a failure, in 1976, his candidacy--that of a devout born-again Christian with strong ties to the civil rights establishment, taking on a Republican party tarnished by Watergate--was heady and exciting. Many Democrats remember Carter's famous promise to the American people--"I'll never lie to you"--as hokey or embarrassing, but it did help to evict Gerald Ford from the White House.

Recently, however, Republicans have tried to claim the moral high ground. Campaigning in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal that alienated many moderate religious voters, Bush promised, over and over again, to "restore honor and dignity to the White House"--an appeal that proved devastatingly effective. As with Carter, Bush's pledge carried weight with voters because his own faith gave him the moral and religious authority to make such words resonate.

If you have any doubt that it is still possible to charge up a Democratic-leaning audience with religiously tinged rhetoric, listen to the sermons at some liberal churches. When the Rt. Rev. John Chane, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, took to the pulpit this March, his sermon sounded like a blueprint for the sort of religiously minded critique of the Bush administration that Democrats might want to study. Imploring parishioners to take seriously their baptismal vows to "strive for justice" in the world, Bishop Chane raised the example of the Bush administration budget and found it wanting. "We are embarking on a draconian program of social welfare," he declared, highlighting cuts in services to protect the poor, the sick, and the young. "This is not at all what Jesus Christ meant when he said, 'Suffer the little children.'" At the end of the sermon, the congregation spontaneously burst into applause in a very un-Episcopalian response to the bishop's political call to arms.

If only the Democrats could frame their critiques in such religious and resonant language, they, too, could connect with a constituency motivated by politics as well as faith.

Swing Votes, Sweet Chariot

Democrats stand to gain the most support among two particular religious constituencies--"freestyle evangelicals" and "convertible Catholics." Although some commentators often refer to the "evangelical vote" or the "Catholic vote," more astute political observers understand that both of these religious communities are actually a collection of sub-groups characterized by regional, socio-economic, ethnic, and sometimes theological differences. And their political attitudes and behaviors are far from monolithic. "There are sub-constituencies among the religious of America who are more persuadable," says Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary. "What Karl Rove has seen is that if the Bush campaign can go into traditional Democratic constituencies and peel off 5 percent of the vote, that is a huge victory." Democrats could do the same thing if they understood the territory better.

Who are these religious swing voters? Freestyle evangelicals--so named by Beliefnet.com founder Steven Waldman and political scientist John Green--are a growing subset of the largest religious community in the United States. Twenty-five percent of American adults are evangelical Christians, but 40 percent of those (or 10 percent of the adult population) are freestyle evangelicals. This group is tied not to controversial figures such as Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, but to shared cultural touchstones like the Left Behind book series or Michael W. Smith concerts. Sociologist Alan Wolfe refers to the "maturation of American evangelicals" as an indication of the changing demographics of the community. They are just as likely to send their children to public schools as the next person, and many throw back beers on a Saturday night just as happily as they attend church the next morning--often at so-called "megachurches," which have expanded rapidly in the suburbs, reflecting the spread of evangelicalism up the rungs of the socio-economic ladder and into the mainstream.

Although theologically conservative, this group is politically independent; freestyle evangelicals supported Clinton in 1996 and Bush in 2000. They are fairly conservative on social issues--most are pro-life, although they are not single-issue abortion voters--and express particular concern about popular culture. "They worry a lot about their kids, about declining standards, about what they see as 'smut' on television," says Green. "But they have a much broader agenda--they are interested in social welfare issues, they care about the environment." These voters supported Tipper Gore's successful campaign for music warning labels in the 1980s, and like many parents shared Lieberman's worries about the omnipresence of explicit television shows, movies, and Internet sites. Yet in the 2000 campaign, the Gore-Lieberman team inexplicably ignored these touchstone issues.

Free-style evangelicals are not the only "persuadable" religious voters. Conservative older Catholics (read: pre-Vatican II) are a dwindling group, and a potential coalition of "convertible Catholics" is taking their place. On a range of issues, especially economic issues, these Catholics are natural Democrats: They tend to have urban ethnic roots, support unions, and don't automatically hate "big government." But as religiously minded voters, they also feel alienated from the Democratic party over a range of moral and cultural issues, including abortion. In the 1980s, many of them who had once voted Democratic left the ticket to vote for the Gipper, hence the term "Reagan Democrats." But they were never fully at home in the GOP either. Clinton brought many Catholics back into the fold with initiatives like the V-Chip and mandatory school uniforms. But in 2000, Bush campaigned hard for their votes. He pursued a strategy similar to the one used to court evangelicals, granting one-on-one interviews with conservative Catholic publications like Crisis magazine and cultivating key alliances with conservative Catholic intellectuals. His aggressive courtship won back many Catholic voters. In 2000, both Bush and Gore drew 20 percent of their total support from Catholics, a relative gain for the GOP.

Over the long term, though, winning the Catholic vote will depend on winning the Hispanic vote. The vast majority of Hispanics are Catholic, but they tend to be culturally Catholic, not necessarily committed churchgoers. In part because of their loose ties to local churches, this group has been extremely difficult to mobilize. In 2000 and 2002, Hispanic Catholics had the lowest turnout rates of any of the religious voting blocs. But when they do vote, they overwhelmingly support Democrats. Although white Catholics divided their votes between Clinton and Dole, Latino Catholics voted for Clinton by a wide margin. A survey by the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life project found that, in 1996, Hispanic voters supported Clinton at a higher rate (81 percent) than did any other ethnic group, including blacks. As Green observes, "There is a huge potential there, not only because they're growing as a group, but because there is an untapped set of votes there." If Democrats could get Hispanic Catholics excited about the next election, they could pick up a great number of votes.

Muslim Americans are yet another religious voting bloc that could be swayed. During the 2000 campaign, Muslims were actively courted by the Republican ticket and responded with broad support for Bush. Bush was endorsed by the American Muslim Political Coordinating Council PAC, which cited, among other things, his outreach to the community. What limited post-election poll results exist suggest that Bush did extremely well among Muslims in 2000, especially in the critical state of Florida. But although conservative strategist Grover Norquist told Forward magazine that Muslims are more simply comfortable with Republicans "because the Democratic Party is aggressively secular and does not like people of faith," there is now a great deal of Muslim grassroots ambivalence (to put it mildly) toward the Bush administration. While the President's rhetoric regarding Islam has been calming and inclusive, the actions of his administration have outraged many in the Muslim community, who now fear being held up for questions before boarding airplanes and worry that relatives entering the country will be detained by the INS. Many are also irked that Bush has not directly--and by name--criticized Franklin Graham, the pastor who swore him into office, when Graham called Islam a "very evil and wicked religion." What the Democrats need to do is call Bush on these affronts and convince Muslim voters that their party isn't hostile to people of faith. Although their numbers are small overall (between 3 and 7 million nationally, a hotly debated question), with the tight margins in recent elections, Muslim Americans can clearly form an important electoral bloc, particularly in a key swing state like Michigan.

Democrats are a coalition party when it comes to religion, much as they are when it comes to race, ethnicity, and class. Gore voters in 2000 were an amalgam of FDR Catholics, marginalized mainline Protestants, secularists, religious African Americans, Jews, some Muslims, and all other minority religious groups except Mormons. "Democrats worry about talking about religion in a way that endorses a particular faith or offends anyone," says one senior Democratic congressional aide. "So they've just decided not to talk about religion around other people, and that's hurting them." Nearly every Democrat I spoke to expressed concern that if Democrats focus on religion, they will alienate some portion of their base. But, in fact, 80 percent of Gore's support in 2000 came from religiously committed voters. While Democratic voters may distrust the religious right, they don't dislike religion itself.

Holy Ghost in the Machine

In order to attract the support of the faithful, Democrats need a candidate and staffers who understand their mindset and can speak their language. Unfortunately, the silence of Democratic presidential candidates on religious matters is matched by the cluelessness of the party apparatus. The Democratic National Committee has voter outreach desks that, according to the DNC Web site, "serve the Democratic Party by increasing political participation among all segments of the Democratic Community." There are outreach efforts to the old and the young, ethnic groups, veterans, members of the military, women, and the disabled community, but none to religious Americans of any faith.

While the Democratic electorate is fairly religious, professional Democrats--the party operatives and Hill staff in Washington--are generally unfamiliar with, and sometimes even quite antagonistic to, religion. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne observes, "The core problem for liberals is the extent to which they are viewed as arrogant and distant from the understanding of ordinary people. Their attitude toward faith is to look down their noses."

Although many elected Democrats are religious, their staffs generally are not. I know of several liberal Catholic senators who have, at one time or another, replaced experienced senior advisors with junior members of their staff who were personally religious, because those aides were able to understand the tension the senators faced on certain social issues like abortion. Likewise, President Clinton recruited Terry Edmonds, a devout African-American, to lead his speechwriting shop in part because he recognized that no one else there was familiar with the type of religious allusion and phrasing required for many audiences. But this example of promoting a religiously minded staffer to reach out to religiously minded voters is not widely followed. In many ways, Edmonds is the exception, not the rule. Too often, Democrats simply ignore religious individuals altogether.

God and Spam

When it comes to appealing to religious Americans, a party needs more than just rhetoric. It needs policies that draw on the values shared by many religious communities. Fortunately, the Democrats already have plenty of these. They just have yet to make the connection. In April, if you drove through almost any town in America, you would have read anti-war messages, not just in newspaper articles about Democrat "doves," but also on the reader boards in front of many churches. Today three of the Democratic primary candidates, Lieberman, Kerry, and Gephardt, are proposing economic incentives for manufacturers to improve automobile fuel efficiency, advancing concerns similar to those of the Evangelical Environmental Movement, which last year launched the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign urging people to "discover new ways to love your neighbor as we strive together to reduce fuel consumption and pollution from the cars, trucks, and SUVs we drive." Recently, the leaders of some environmental groups, whose members tend to lean Democratic, have recognized they share much common ground with religious communities. Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, for example, issued an apology that "the environmental movement for the past quarter of a century has made no more profound error than to misunderstand the mission of religion and the churches in preserving the Creation." There are any number of other issues, from fighting offensive spam email to expanding national service, that have a moral component, are important to voters, and that a Democrat with sincere religious convictions could profitably champion.

What if Democrats stopped playing defense on religion--or, more accurately, started playing at all? They could gain political traction with religious moderates by pointing out the true nature of Bush's strategy on religion: Talk from the center, but govern from the right. For instance, while religious moderates cheered Bush's initiative to give social-service grants to faith-based organizations, many were turned off when one of the first large grants went to an organization run by Pat Robertson, who is considered a charlatan even by most evangelicals. If Democrats were less ignorant of America's religious landscape, they would know they could criticize Bush's attachment to Robertson without offending the swing faithful by appearing anti-religious.

Moreover, an authentically religious Democrat would have the moral standing to criticize the "bait and switch" aspect of other Bush policy pledges, on issues from AIDS prevention to hydrogen-powered cars. In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush appeared to be reaching out to swing voters with compassionate-sounding new initiatives. But in reality, almost none of the "new money" in Bush's pledge to combat AIDS in Africa was slated for appropriation before 2006-2008--by which time many of the 21 million Africans expected to contract AIDS by 2010 will already be infected. Likewise, his announcement of a $1.2 billion program to develop a hydrogen-powered car turns out to be a boondoggle, plying automakers with public money without any requirement that they actually produce a working result. Criticisms of Bush's doubletalk will resonate because they're part of a larger pattern. At the same time that Bush talks about extending the ability of faith-based organizations to provide social services, his budget slashes funds for those same services.

If Gore had reached out to religious communities in 2000 and succeeded in peeling off even a small percentage of the evangelical votes that Clinton won in 1992 and 1996, he could have overcome the margin by which he lost states like West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Florida. Disaffected evangelical and Catholic moderates could find a natural home in the Democratic Party, which shares their values of social justice, concern for the earth, and economic equality. They're not looking for a tent revival at the Democratic Convention. They're just looking for a little respect.

Amy Sullivan is a doctoral student in sociology at Princeton University and the author of Political Aims.


Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2006
The Washington Monthly 1319 F Street N.W. #710
Washington DC. 20004.
Comments or questions ... please email editors by clicking here