Issue Date: August 13, 2004
Kerry advised to court faith groups
By JOE FEUERHERD
The Bush campaigns efforts to reach out to religiously motivated voters is well documented; the Kerry campaigns less so.
Maybe thats because theres not much to say about the latter.
The Kerry folks really do not understand the scope and the complexity of religious communities in America, one activist Protestant minister, a Kerry supporter, told NCR. They do not take the religious community seriously. The frustrated Democrat said the campaign trivializes the concerns of religious progressives and underfunds efforts to organize what he considers a natural Kerry constituency.
By contrast, the Bush campaign is pouring money into energizing its religious base. The campaign and the Republican National Committee have hired denomination-specific outreach organizers. They have targeted Catholics in key battleground states. And they are working to reach the 4 million white evangelicals, natural Bush supporters, who Republican strategist Karl Rove says did not vote in the 2000 election.
The Republicans have gone so far as to ask their Catholic team leaders to procure parish directories and membership lists -- they are particularly interested in those who use envelopes to make their Sunday contributions (NCR, July 30).
Many say the Bush approach is over the top -- that it is injecting undue partisanship into tax-exempt houses of worship. But theres no denying that it is serious, organized and well funded.
Kerry spokesperson Allison Dobson notes that the campaigns religious outreach effort organized a series of service projects in communities around the country the weekend before the Boston convention. She directs a reporter to www.johnkerry.com for details. In the sparse links devoted to People of Faith for Kerry-Edwards, there is no mention of those efforts.
The Kerry campaign, said Dobson, aims to secure the votes of 1 million voters who self-identify as being motivated by their religious faith. Details here too are scant, with Dobson saying the campaign is using exit polls from the last election to identify and motivate this constituency.
The campaign does have three staffers devoted to outreach to the faith community, though its lead operative, Mara Vanderslice, was muzzled by the campaign in June after William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, labeled her a a far left-wing activist who has spoken at rallies held by the notoriously anti-Catholic group ACT UP.
In a country where 90 percent of the people express a belief in God, where 70 percent say religion is very important to them, and where overwhelming numbers say that a president should be religious, what should the Kerry forces be doing?
First, theres the candidate.
Kerry needs to articulate secular policy positions within a moral framework, former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta told a July 27 Wesley Theological Seminary symposium on The God Gap in Presidential Politics. Kerry is at a disadvantage, said Podesta, because he comes from a tradition that does not wear [religion] on its sleeve. And, Podesta continued, media coverage of religion focuses on a relatively narrow range of issues -- abortion and gay marriage foremost among them. Podesta said Kerry needs to employ religious and moral language as he discusses issues of war, health care and the economy.
In his July 29 convention speech, Kerry did just that. I dont wear my own faith on my sleeve, he declared. But faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday. He referenced the Fourth Commandment -- Honor thy father and thy mother -- in stating his opposition to privatization of Social Security.
Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics and director of Wesley Seminarys Washington capital semester program, said that Kerry must do more. Kerry must use a Catholic backdrop (if he can find an institution that will have him) and articulate how his beliefs translate into action. In their statement released late last year, Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility, the U.S. bishops described some American Catholics as politically homeless -- concerned about a range of issues, such as health care, housing, war and peace, usually associated with Democrats, while committed to eliminating legal abortion, a Republican issue. This is a [Kerry] campaign speech waiting to be written, said Casey.
And what of Kerrys problems with some American bishops, those who have threatened to deny him Communion because of his pro-choice views? The overwhelming vote of the U.S. bishops to leave the decision on Communion and pro-choice politicians to individual bishops in their respective dioceses should provide Kerry enough room to maneuver, said Casey.
Given the constraints of time, the pressure of other constituencies, and an apparent reluctance to highlight religious themes, does the Kerry camp get it? Podesta, a liberal pragmatist, thinks so.
Theres going to be a plan [to reach out to the religious community], he told NCR, because there has to be a plan.
Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 2004
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