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Issue Date:  February 22, 2008

-- UPI Photo/Gary C. Caskey

Leah Daughtry talks with reporters Nov. 13 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, planned site of the Democratic National Convention in August.
Left recovers its language of faith

Clinton, Obama find values outreach is working


The religious demonizing of Democrats in American politics had nearly run its course by the summer of 2006, when Ann Coulter managed to wring a whole book out of the notion that Democrats were the apostles of a godless church of liberalism. By early 2007, the Rev. Jim Wallis, left-of-center evangelical minister and founder of Sojourners magazine, was writing in TIME: “The monologue of the religious right is over, and a new dialogue has now begun.”

More left-leaning evangelicals were breaking away from the political right, he said. People of faith were distinguishing themselves from the right by speaking up on matters of war and peace, health care and economic justice, the environment and its protection for future generations. And they were asserting a religious obligation to promote positive action on those issues. Catholics were emphasizing their church’s teachings on social justice.

The political left turned a corner, said Wallis, author of the 2005 book God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. The left began to remember its own religious history and recover the language of faith, formerly a hostage of the religious right.

In the Democratic Party, some of that remembrance and recovery can be traced to Leah Daughtry, chief of staff for the national party, CEO of the national convention -- and founder of the party’s Faith in Action initiative. She’s not only an experienced political operative, she’s a black Pentecostal minister from Brooklyn, N.Y., and her family’s memories include one when her father, also a Pentecostal pastor, had to choose between marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and attending Leah’s birth. He chose her birth.

The rise of the religious right perplexed Daughtry. She wondered how its members became politically focused on what she calls “issues of private holiness, issues of individual salvation” versus the “issues of public holiness” -- judged by their impact on the good of the community -- that she grew up believing were most important in politics.

In the wake of the 2004 elections, Daughtry worried that religious people felt unwelcome in the Democratic tent. She angled with incoming party chairman Howard Dean for leeway to take action. She based the Faith in Action program on her conviction that people vote on their values or what they feel, as opposed to lists of things a candidate plans to do when elected.

“For people of faith, they want to understand who you are in the first place, and then they can hear you on the list of things you’re going to do,” she told NCR. She backed up her convictions with polling data that showed that nearly half of voters place as much or more weight on their religious faith as they do other considerations when deciding how to vote.

Embracing the initiative, Democratic candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama have had “robust faith-outreach programs” since their campaigns began, Daughtry said. In contrast to 2004 nominee Sen. John Kerry, who saw faith as private and was reluctant to talk about it, “we’ve got candidates now who are comfortable talking about their own walk,” she said. “I know them both, and I know that their faith is a deeply held core of their being.”

Obama calls out to communal belief even in his campaign slogan: “Change we can believe in.” Going into the early primary states, you could sign up on his Web site to pray for him. His integration of faith into his campaign is noted somewhat approvingly by Noam Neusner, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, writing in The Jewish Forward.

“He does not use religion as a convenient way to appeal to middle-of-the-road evangelicals; he actually seems to believe it. His appeal to faith is wrapped in his appeal to a better self -- a self that does not punish people for being in opposition to him and does not judge people for the SUV they drive or the hunting rifle they keep in their garage,” Neusner wrote. “There is a reason Republicans like him.”

Evangelicals seem to like Obama, as reports from the Iowa caucuses showed, but his edge with them over Clinton isn’t clear. The two have run fairly evenly among evangelical and mainline Protestants in the early races.

Democratic Catholics, though, came out strongly for Clinton in the early primaries, said Kim Lawton of PBS’ “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly,” which commissioned tracking polls from Zogby International. Those data show John Edwards edging Clinton for Catholic caucus-goers in Iowa, but strong leads among Catholics for Clinton in South Carolina and Nevada.

Clinton’s faith-outreach program, active on her Web site, seems geared toward mainline Protestants, Lawton said. Her ground team reflects that. The Colorado Springs, Colo.-area coordinator for Team Hillary, David Dempsey, is known for his involvement in social justice ministries at a United Methodist church. Church-embedded campaigners like that are crucial to the Faith in Action program, Daughtry said. They talk to friends who talk to friends and bring in voters.

Catholics were once a reliable Democratic voting bloc, Daughtry said. But in 2004, a narrow majority voted for President Bush. Now Catholics are the “quintessential swing voters,” according to Allen Hertzke, a political science professor and director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma. They swung back to Democratic candidates in the 2006 midterm elections.

The last presidential race was marked by a high-profile discussion about Kerry’s Catholicism and whether it was right for some U.S. bishops to declare him ineligible for Communion based on his support of abortion rights. With no Catholic candidate this year, where do the bishops stand?

According to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ November political statement, neither party works for all the things the bishops would like to see. The document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” warns of danger to one’s soul in the acceptance of abortion rights. But it also says that other grave matters of conscience can compellingly justify a vote that promotes a culture of life in other issues -- like war, social justice and caring for the world through protecting its environmental sustainability. Regardless of which party’s candidate they choose, Catholics are urged to vote to promote a culture of life as opposed to a culture of death.

For Daughtry, the Democratic Party’s common ground with the bishops centers on their promotion of a “consistent ethic of life.”

“When you talk about the consistent ethic of life, then that means that we’re living in a society where people have health care, where people are safe in their homes, where the veterans are cared for when they come back, that old people are not eating cat food -- they have the things that they need to live full and abundant lives,” Daughtry said.

The primaries have left the religious right with a problem as well. Republican frontrunner Sen. John McCain has been treated as repugnant by conservative Christian talk radio and evangelical leaders. James Dobson, founder of Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, declared he wouldn’t vote for McCain “as a matter of conscience,” citing, among other issues, McCain’s opposition to a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples and support for embryonic stem cell research. Dobson later endorsed Mike Huckabee, but the endorsement may be too late to matter.

McCain does say he supports the repeal of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Clinton and Obama both support abortion rights.

“We all agree that we’d like to see fewer abortions. We’d like to see legislation that would help reduce the need for women to make that choice,” Daughtry said. But she doesn’t want the government making the choice for her parishioners.

Daughtry, who returns some weekends to minister to the members of her church, has moved for the year to Denver, the Democrats’ convention city, just up the interstate from Focus on the Family’s evangelical stronghold in highly Republican Colorado Springs. “Embracing the cultural diversity,” she bought herself cowboy boots and judged donkeys at a stock show.

The choice of convention city highlights the changes the 2006 elections brought to old Western states like Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, where Democrats were elected to formerly Republican governorships and congressional seats. “Colorado really is emblematic of the changes that are happening across the political landscape of the country,” Daughtry said. “All across the West we’ve made Democratic gains.”

Mary Barron is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs, Colo.

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2008

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