Getting religion

After a series of largely ignored debates and months of organizing and cajoling, candidates for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination are about to enter a dizzying period of caucuses and primaries that could determine the nominee by March. The conventional wisdom is that Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who has run on a staunchly antiwar, anti-Bush platform, is the man to beat. Dean has energized the Democratic base, won the endorsement of important labor unions, and raised more money than any other candidate through his unprecedented use of the Internet. As the frontrunner, Dean has increasingly come in for vilification from his rivals, who are eager to question his “electibility,” casting this Yale-educated governor of a small, liberal Northeastern state as outside the American mainstream. Much of this is predictable political cut-and-thrust, and jockeying for position. There seems little doubt that Dean, should he win the nomination, would steer his campaign to the political middle, as nearly all major-party candidates do.

However, there is one pronounced aspect of Dean’s candidacy, and apparently his personality, that may not be easy to modify or reshape. Dean’s resolute secularism and tin ear for religion are likely to prove formidable obstacles in any attempt to broaden his appeal to those outside his party’s core constituencies, especially to Evangelical Christians and to Catholics. “My religion doesn’t inform my public policy,” Dean has said. In fact, it is the other way around. He is now a Congregationalist because his former Episcopal Church refused to surrender land it owned on Lake Champlain for a public bike path.

This conversion story has struck many people as an example of Dean’s superficiality and ignorance of religious values. He has defended his decision as an instance of not tolerating hypocrisy in a church that preaches public spiritedness but practices something else. Dean has also been criticized for his dismissive attitude toward the moral concerns of Evangelicals and has come under intense scrutiny from prolife groups for his prochoice position and for serving on the Northern New England board of Planned Parenthood.

Writing in the New Republic (December 29, 2003), Franklin Foer offers an astute analysis of Dean’s “religion problem.” Foer compares Dean to Michael Dukakis, who radiated a certain kind of Eastern elitism and found it nearly impossible to talk about his religious values. “Howard Dean is one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history,” Foer writes, noting that the last five presidential races were won by the more unabashedly religious candidate. In voting for president, many Americans look for a certain level of trust and comfort in a candidate, and religion plays an important role in establishing that connection. That is a political reality that Democratic candidates from the South, especially Bill Clinton, understood. Foer argues that Evangelicals and Catholics, especially in the Midwest, are a more diverse and politically moderate group than liberals think. Clinton did a masterly job of appealing to these swing voters in 1992, reducing George H. W. Bush’s share of the Evangelical vote from 77 percent to 56 percent in the crucial Midwest and border states. Clinton and Gore made a point of visiting churches and had an instinctive feel for the concerns of religious people. Foer worries that a Democratic candidate who cannot speak to those with religious sensibilities cannot win a national election.

“Appealing to secular voters might help you win a Democratic primary-but that’s it,” Foer quotes pollster John Zogby. Does the Democratic Party understand that? Writing on the op-ed page of the New York Times (December 28, 2003), Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners, argues it does not. Wallis urges the Democrats to challenge the Republicans on the proper role of religion in public life and politics. He wants the party to reclaim the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Progressive politics in the United States-whether it concerned slavery, the suffrage movement, or civil rights-drew much of its strength from religious communities and religious ideas. Poverty, equality, medical care, and war are all profoundly religious issues. In “withdrawing into secularism,” Democrats have abandoned the moral resources needed to make their political case, Wallis writes. Philosopher Jeffrey Stout makes a similar argument in his new book, Democracy and Tradition (see Commonweal, October 10, 2003).

What are the chances that the Democratic Party will heed calls to embrace the moral concerns of religious people? Dean has already acknowledged this criticism and taken a few stumbling steps toward ameliorating what the Times calls the “stridently secular tone of his campaign” (January 4, 2004). At the moment, there is not much evidence that Democratic leaders have either the imagination or the courage to compete for the votes of churchgoers. Much has been written about the anger and frustration felt by Democratic Party activists toward President George W. Bush, both over the disputed 2000 election and the partisan use the president has made of the terrorist attacks. Their anger may be justified, but it’s misplaced, and is driving too many Democrats to faulty partisan conclusions of their own. It is now widely thought that, with the nation so evenly divided between Republican and Democratic regions, the key to the presidential election will be to turn out the party’s base at the polls. There are not enough swing voters to make a difference, goes the refrain. Like the Republican temptation to appeal first to corporate interests and the religious right, Democrats are now in danger of tailoring their message exclusively to prochoice voters, minorities, labor unions, and liberal elites. The pitch to Evangelicals and Catholics in the Midwest will be made solely on economic issues. If recent electoral history is any measure, voters will look with suspicion at a narrowly economic argument made by Democrats. For those who think the role of religion in politics should be about much more than the sexual sins of politicians, the Democratic Party remains in need of evangelization and conversion.

Published in the 2004-01-16 issue: 
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