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Issue Date:  December 17, 2004

Religious left sees opportunity in Democrats' 'values' debate

Chance to reclaim virtue, broaden religious discussion


Frustrated, depressed and more than a little angry that they are seen as opponents of “moral values,” big-time Democrats are searching for ways to reshape the party’s image, and perhaps its substance, in the wake of John Kerry’s defeat. And they’re looking to the believers in their midst for assistance in connecting with churchgoing voters.

Three-dozen religious activists met Dec. 8 and 9 at the Washington office of the Center for American Progress, a recently formed think tank headed by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta. The agenda for the closed-door gathering included sessions on “building the movement infrastructure” and “objectives, strategies and core issues.”

Buttressed by the controversial findings of the 2004 presidential race exit polls -- more than a fifth of the voters cited “moral values” as their top concern and nearly 80 percent of those who did voted for Bush -- the religious left senses opportunity. Many Democrats say the exit poll findings were deeply flawed, that stacking a generic topic like “moral values” up against specific concerns like terrorism, the Iraq war and the economy skewed the numbers.

Yet, said the Rev. Jim Wallis, executive director of Sojourners and a leading liberal church activist, the findings “sparked a national conversation” that places church activists front and center in shaping the Democratic Party’s message. “If the election had turned out differently, I’m not sure the Democrats would be reassessing in quite the same way,” said Wallis.

“The bad news is that the exit poll exaggerated the case,” said Shaun Casey, “and the good news is that it exaggerated the case.” Casey, assistant professor of Christian ethics and director of the National Capital Semester for Seminarians program at Wesley Theological Seminary, said the poll provided a wake-up call to the Democratic Party, which “does not have a lot of capacity to speak a language that resonates with people of faith.”

Opportunity, however, does not guarantee success, and those who argue that religious sensibilities must be addressed face both internal and external opposition. Intraparty conflict was highlighted in early December when the Kerry campaign religious outreach office held what was likely its last conference call with liberal faith leaders.

“Someone said that we’ve got to focus on the number of abortions and how they’ve increased under Bush,” recalled one participant, who wished to remain anonymous. The idea is to make the case that social programs that reduce the demand for abortion are part of what Democrats believe. “But there were others saying that we can’t give up our principles,” meaning that an emphasis on abortion could be perceived as backing away from the party’s pro-abortion-rights commitment.

Mostly, said the participant, there was a feeling of resentment, amazement that voters didn’t recognize that “we’re the party of virtue and they’re not, we’re the party of feeding children, helping the victims of AIDS and providing health care.”

There’s all sorts of post-election anger. “We felt we were betrayed in a real sense by the lack of articulation on the part of religious leaders [on issues such as] waging war against poverty, consumerism, the rising number of uninsured, the disparity between the wealthy and the poor in this country,” said Catherine Pinkerton, a Sister of St. Joseph and a lobbyist for the Catholic social justice organization Network.

“The progressive religious agenda wasn’t running in this election. John Kerry was and he lost,” said Wallis. “Nobody was championing poor people, or economic justice, or speaking out against the war in Iraq, or talking about the environment as God’s creation. Nobody talked about a consistent ethic of life.”

“Those of us who argued early on that the Democratic Party had to have an authentic capacity to reach out to people of faith were vindicated [by the election],” said Casey. “Now the question is, what are the Democrats going to do about it?”

Practically speaking, Casey said, the Democrats “have got to develop a grass-roots capacity to reach out to religious folks.” He suggested the party use the $14 million in unspent Kerry campaign money to fund “a full-time religious outreach” office.

Democrats need to be as comfortable in a church hall as they are in union halls, said Casey, who is not alone in arguing that Democrats are overly secular.

“It is not a myth that the Democratic National Committee doesn’t understand religion,” said the committee’s former senior adviser for religious outreach, Brenda Bartella Peterson. The natural connection party officials have with labor or environmental groups -- a sense and respect for the players, what issues matter most, who is important and who is less so -- is not present with religious groups beyond African-American churches, said Peterson.

To be competitive, said Peterson, Democrats have to reach beyond their base and develop relationships with a broad range of denominations and congregations. Such an approach, well executed, might have shaved 2 or 3 or 4 percentage points off Bush’s margins among white Protestants and Catholics, said Peterson.

Democrats, said Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler, “have got to learn to speak a religious language that is not sectarian but that connects with a majority of people.” There are many high-level Democrats who are “militantly secular” -- who don’t want the party and its candidates to “touch religion,” said the radio host and co-director of the Quixote Center, based in Brentwood, Md. Said Fiedler: “We need to present an expansive view of what moral values mean in our world: What do we do about ‘the least of those’ and ecological sanity? People have to learn to speak that language.”

Such inclusiveness can translate to votes, said Wallis. “Centrist evangelicals and Catholics are key to the political future and they are not going to be persuaded by two issues,” said Wallis, referring to abortion and gay marriage. “Nor are they just going to join the liberal camp -- it’s not a matter of just getting the [religious] liberals organized, its got to be a much broader conversation.”

Kerry would have gained additional support among such voters, said Wallis, if he had emphasized “economic fairness, justice, inclusion, the war in Iraq as a moral issue.” Instead, he contends, “They didn’t hear Kerry talking about their issues so they voted with Bush on his issues.” In the final weeks of the campaign, notes Casey, 10 percent of white evangelicals were still undecided but “almost all those folks broke to Bush.”

Is there a silver bullet for the religious left? Perhaps.

“There is no George W. Bush clone out there,” said Casey, meaning that the president’s personal qualities, including his ability to articulate religious themes, will likely not be matched by the next Republican presidential nominee. “Just as Bill Clinton represented a [Democratic] high point in outreach to religious constituencies, Bush represents the same thing on the Republican side.” It’s unlikely, said Casey, that the Republican candidate in 2008 will have “the capacity to manipulate religion as effectively as the Bush apparatus has.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic-friendly religious activists are pushing to ensure that the next standard bearer talks the talk, invoking religious imagery and language when it fits, and walks the walk, supporting programs and policies that “promote the common good.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 2004

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