The Religion Gap

Can Democrats bridge it?

This may well be remembered as the year of the Democratic Revival, when Democrats stopped allowing religion and God to be co-opted by the Republican Party and started to fight back. For the first time in a generation, the presidential campaign has been explicitly cast not as the party of values vs. the party of none, or the party that respects faith vs. the party that doesn’t. Instead, the choice is about which values voters align themselves with. Heading into the fall debates, both George W. Bush and John Kerry have already laid out their political theologies. Now the preaching begins in earnest.

The gauntlet was officially thrown down on day two of the Democratic Convention in Boston. “We worship an awesome God in the blue states!” Illinois state senator Barack Obama declared to an arena full of five thousand cheering delegates who roared their approval back at him. The proclamation was more than just a shot across the bow of the Bush/Cheney campaign. And it was more than just a sign that Democrats can wield religious rhetoric as skillfully and subtly as Bush and his speechwriters. It was also a salvo in the internal struggle being waged in the Democratic Party over whether and how to address the role of religion in politics. If the past few months are any guide, that debate may soon be over.

The “religion gap” has become the hot topic du jour in political polling, launching many a panel discussion over why Americans who attend church more often tend to vote Republican and those who don’t appear to side more with Democrats. And for a while, those in the national Democratic Party structure seemed to absorb 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.

These might be two very rational conclusions to draw both from polling data and from a sense that the country is divided by a culture war. But they are wrong. Democrats who believe that “religious people” are mostly conservative have bought into the Republican Party’s hype. In fact, more than 60 percent of Democratic voters attend church several times a month and 85 percent say that religion is an important part of their lives. Many Americans, it turns out, are Democrats precisely because of their religious beliefs, not despite them. The causal arrow in the religion gap is less than perfectly clear-it may be that the conflation of religiosity with conservatism over the past twenty years has contributed to the decline in church attendance among many liberals and not that Democrats have steadily lost interest in religion.

In addition, Democrats have often posed the question of how to talk about religion as a false choice-either remain silent on the topic or end up sounding like George W. Bush and his proudly pious cohort. Given those options, most would wisely opt to keep religion out of politics. But this construction ignores a rich tradition of liberal political discourse informed-not dictated-by faith. The speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Mario Cuomo, Barbara Jordan, and the most recent Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, are replete with religious imagery and language. What separates these speeches from those of many political conservatives is that the religious rhetoric is used to supplement arguments that are based on appeals to shared democratic values, not the other way around. Listeners who do not share the religious beliefs of the speaker can nonetheless engage the larger political questions.

Several key Democratic figures in 2004 have shown they understand this. During the primaries, Wesley Clark often spoke of attending Baptist revivals as a child in Arkansas, noting that, “We all knew someone who could preach a revival but who didn’t live it,” and moving directly into a critique of Bush (“We have one of those in the White House right now”). The technique worked because it expressed a general frustration with Bush-that he says one thing and does another-by tapping into a suspicion of those who talk the talk without walking the walk, a theme found throughout the Bible. John Kerry picked up this theme later in the spring, quoting his favorite verse from the Book of James-“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?”-in the midst of a riff contrasting Bush’s rhetoric to his accomplishments.

This third rhetorical way premiered in Boston and has been road tested in battleground states in the weeks since. Democratic convention delegates are often characterized as more secular than any other slice of the electorate, and yet they not only tolerated the use of religious rhetoric by speakers, but warmly embraced it. This reaction may be due, in part, to the use of evocative phrases instead of aggressive Bible thumping. Just as Bush’s use of the phrase “wonder working power” in his 2003 State of the Union address reminded Evangelical listeners of the hymn from which those words came-“Pow’r in the Blood”-when Obama referred to an “awesome God,” he triggered a tune in the heads of Americans who grew up singing the praise song, “Our God Is an Awesome God.”

Bill Clinton used the same under-the-radar trick, leading the audience in chanting “Send me,” the response he said Kerry has given every time the country has asked him to serve. As a rhetorical conceit, “Send me” works well (so well, in fact, that Clinton has used it in speeches since 1997). But it also comes from the prophet Isaiah (6:8).

But Obama and Clinton are both steeped in the rhythms and cadences of evangelical religion, adept at tossing off scriptural passages or even improvising rhetorical flourishes. Kerry, a cradle Catholic from the Northeast, lacks the same cultural familiarity with everyday religious words and yet he is well on his way to developing a language of faith all his own.

What Kerry and his advisers appear to have learned over the summer is that it is possible to criticize how others use religion without criticizing religion in general, that a candidate need not remain silent about his own faith in order to speak out against how others turn theirs into political tools. Borrowing an Abraham Lincoln anecdote that John Edwards has used to good effect, and telling audiences, “I don’t wear my own faith on my sleeve,” Kerry asserts that he has faith, but indirectly contrasts himself with Bush in how he speaks about his personal religious experience.

By staying away from religion for decades, Democrats have let Republicans get away with discussing their own personal religiosity without making any explicit connection to how that aspect of their life reflected on their qualifications for office. Now, by stepping into the fray, Kerry and his colleagues can redefine the debate and demand that campaigns not be a contest to determine who is the better Christian, or even who is a Christian at all.

Still, there are plenty of Democrats-particularly in the upper reaches of the party machinery-who would prefer to see the party stay away from the topic of religion altogether. Reporters who contact the Kerry/Edwards campaign looking for comments on a story quickly find that their calls and e-mails go unreturned if they are writing about religion. For every Democratic candidate who feels free to talk about faith there is another who is convinced that such language poses a political risk. Congressional aides are quick to point to Senator Joseph Lieberman’s doomed presidential run as proof that assertively religious Democrats cannot succeed.

But Lieberman isn’t the one leading the revival of the Democrats. Over the past year, Hillary Clinton has held closed-door meetings with her Senate colleagues about the importance of reclaiming concepts like “values” and “morality” from conservatives. The liberal Center for American Progress, led by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, held a day-long conference in June on “Faith and Progressive Politics” that attracted hundreds of political types and policy wonks in Washington. The Democratic Leadership Council has devoted several sessions of national conferences to the topic of faith, sponsoring workshops to teach local politicians how to talk about religion in a way that is inclusive, not defensive. Former Clinton White House press secretary Mike McCurry has become the party’s unofficial spokesman on the issue. And for the first time, the Democratic presidential campaign is reaching out to people of all faiths, not just assigning one staff member to talk to black churches.

It is important to note that his acceptance speech in Boston, Kerry made the first explicit step any modern Democratic presidential candidate ever has to open the door of the party to religious Americans. “No one who has something to contribute will be left on the sidelines,” he said. “And let me say it plainly: in that cause, and in this campaign, we welcome people of faith. America is not us and them.” A rebuke both to those on the right who would claim religion only for themselves and to those on the left who see evidence of faith as enough to disqualify individuals from participation in the political sphere, Kerry’s statement represents a sea change in thought within the Democratic Party. He is an unlikely standard-bearer, but John Kerry just might make religion safe for Democrats again.

Published in the 2004-09-10 issue: 

Amy Sullivan is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Princeton and a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly.

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