Ascension

It is widely bruited about these days that the once storybook marriage between the religious right and the Republican Party is troubled. Rumor has it that evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics have even been seen flirting with that most disreputable of suitors, the Democratic Party. The 2006 election of Senator Bob Casey in Pennsylvania and Governor Bill Ritter in Colorado, both pro-life Catholic Democrats, lends credence to these rumors, as does the brief panic felt by the Republican establishment over the presidential candidacy of Mike Huckabee. Indeed, speculation about the impending breakup got so intense last year that the ever-hopeful New York Times Magazine gave writer David D. Kirkpatrick the cover and 8,000 words in October to expatiate on “The Evangelical Crackup.” Kirkpatrick quoted Marvin Olasky, a movement conservative and an evangelical, on the disillusionment felt by evangelicals toward President Bush and the GOP. “To some extentwe have to see how muchthe Republicans have blown it,” Olasky said. “That opportunity to lock up that constituency has vanished. The ball now really is in the Democrats’ court.”

Amy Sullivan agrees. Sullivan, nation editor at Time magazine (also a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly), and an evangelical herself, reminds her readers, in The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap, that 40 percent of what many Democrats think of as a monolithically right-wing evangelical movement describe themselves as political moderates. On questions of poverty and economic inequality, corporate malfeasance, access to health care, fair trade, and the environment, they reject the business-comes-first policies of the Republican Party. Yet skillful Republican manipulation of culture-war issues such as abortion and same-sex marriageabetted by Democratic denigration of “values” votershas driven these moderate evangelicals (and Catholics) into the Republican fold. In The Party Faithful, Sullivan argues that many have tired of the relentless antagonisms and divisive politics surrounding abortion, the culture wars, and Bush’s messianic foreign policyand that when Democrats make the effort to actually listen to and engage moderate evangelicals and Catholics, they can win over enough of them to significantly change the electoral map.

Sullivan makes clear that ignoring such voters, as the party has done for the last forty years, has proven a recipe for political decline and electoral defeat. The story includes Jimmy Carter, whose frank talk about faith got him half the evangelical vote in 1976, and who went on to pursue policies on issues like abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment that outraged his evangelical base, creating an opportunity the Republican Party shrewdly exploited. As Sullivan observes, “the idea of organizing evangelicals into a conservative political force was the brainchild of a group of mostly secular New Right activists who saw conservative Christians as ‘the greatest tract of virgin timber on the political landscape.'”

Bill Clinton, with his instinctive feel for religious gesture and his command of the evangelical idiom, remains the exception that proves the rule about the Democrats. Clinton, Sullivan argues, knew that Democrats had to appeal to religious voters, but “could never convince his party.” Sullivan’s admiration for Clinton extends to a willingness to accept his protestations of contrition over the Monica Lewinsky scandal; and she is perplexed that the adulteries and lies of Clinton’s Republican accusers never elicited the same outrage that his transgressions did. It is a fair point, but one that ignores the peculiar psychological intimacy between a president and the American people, an intimacy that helps to explain the wide swings between admiration and disillusionment that so many presidents evoke in us.

In chronicling the Democratic Party’s decades-long neglect of what she insists are millions of politically persuadable evangelicals and Catholics, Sullivan dangles the tantalizing prospect of a resounding Democratic victory in this year’s presidential and congressional races, one that would recapture a pivotal slice of the religious vote. That victory, she argues, is there for the takingif only Democrats (especially party activists and leaders) will stop going out of their way to alienate voters who possess strong religious convictions. The simple truth Democrats need to grasp is that for many Americans, religion, as Sullivan rightly notes, is “a proxy for a general moral worldview.” Republicans have long understood this fact of political life, and have tailored their campaigns accordingly. “Talking about faithor, broadly, about the values that underlie issues,” Sullivan writes, “gives voters insight into what motivates the men and women who ask for their support.” Consequently, it is usually a mistake for Democrats to emphasize what they plan to do, rather than what they believe in.

Raised in the richly emotional world of a Baptist church in Michigan, later a member of Senator Tom Daschle’s staff (she also did a stint with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life), Sullivan is well qualified to report from the crossroads of faith and politics. Her understanding of the Bible’s demand that Christians care for the poor, the hungry, and the needy forms the foundation of her liberal conviction that government must help those who cannot help themselves. And her firsthand knowledge of the communitarian ethos that characterizes evangelical culture animates her sharp critique of those who would write off tens of millions of potential Democratic voters. On this front, Sullivan remains hopeful, even as she worries that old habits will die hard among many secular liberals and Democratic Party activists, whose contempt for religion and religious believers is exceeded only by their ignorance about both.

The Party Faithful is rich in anecdote and, for the most part, incisive in analysis. Just how ignorant have the Democratic Party’s movers and shakers been about the nation’s millions of evangelicals? Sullivan tells the story of Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe being introduced to megachurch pastor Rick Warren, one of the three or four best-known evangelicals in the country and author of The Purpose-Driven Life, a colossal best seller. “Nice to meet you, Rick,” McAuliffe is reported to have said. “And what do you do?” (It is unlikely McAuliffe would make that mistake today: for two years in a row, Warren has invited Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, respectively, to speak at the annual AIDS summit at his church. Both accepted with alacrity, with Clinton winning a standing ovation from the conservative audience.)

Still, Democrats have much catching up to do to overcome the “religion gap” that has given Republicans such a decisive edge with churchgoing votersa group that comprises much of the small but crucial swing vote in midwestern states such as Ohio and Michigan. In this regard, the John Kerry presidential campaign in 2004 was utterly clueless about what Sullivan rightly calls the “seismic political, cultural, and religious changes” that had taken place since John F. Kennedy faced down those querulous Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960. “The Kennedy ‘religion is private’ formulation [is] no longer operative,” Sullivan writes. For better and worse, she is right.

Sullivan uses many stories to drive home this point, among them that of Mara Vanderslice, an evangelical who ran Kerry’s religious outreach operation. Vanderslice’s hopelessly under-resourced operation was ridiculed or dismissed by other Kerry staffers, and her advice to the candidate ignored. In the final days of the campaign, however, she was sent to lend a hand in Michigan, and found a sympathetic listener in Donnie Fowler, the director of Kerry’s campaign there. “Fowler knew the campaign would have to do something to change the candidate’s image as a ‘bad’ Catholic,” Sullivan writes. Given some backing at last, Vanderslice was able to change the way the campaign explained Kerry’s position on abortion, emphasizing the need for lower abortion rates and concern for the “common good.” Cleverly, she also recruited a group of nuns to canvass key neighborhoods. These tactics worked, apparently, as Kerry went on to fare much better among weekly-mass-attending Catholics in Michigana full fifteen points higher, in factthan he did in Ohio and Pennsylvania, states with similar Catholic populations.

Noting that the current Democratic candidates for president have put together sophisticated outreach organizations to religious groups, Sullivan is hopeful that the party has finally gotten the message. Evangelical identification with the Republican Party, meanwhile, has slipped from roughly 50 percent in 2004 to 40 percent in 2007. And some prominent pastors have embraced what can only be called a progressive social-justice agenda similar to that of the Democrats. Still, Sullivan warns, “influential segments of the Democratic Party remain either conflicted about or opposed to efforts to court religious voters.”

Abortion is an especially difficult issue for Democrats, who have tied the party so closely to the fate of Roe v. Wade. Sullivan laments the fierce opposition of traditional Democratic Party fund-raisers to supporting candidates who are pro-life, and criticizes those who resist both the policies and the moral exhortation needed to lower abortion rates and to persuade religious voters that Democrats understand their qualms about current abortion practice. Bill Clinton’s politically astute formulation that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare” earns Sullivan’s enthusiastic approbation, as do Democrats Casey in Pennsylvania, Ritter in Colorado, and Ted Strickland in Ohio, all presented as models of how to take “abortion off the table” as a liability for Democrats. “By reducing abortion rates through prevention, not restriction or criminalization,” Sullivan contends, the astute Democrat can “let his faith inform his politics without imposing his beliefs on citizens.”

There is much to admire in this clearly written, carefully argued, and ultimately rather personal book. Sullivan seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of recent Democratic Party history, and is clearly a person of strong convictions. Her indictment of John Kerry’s maladroit explanations about his faith and his campaign’s disastrous bungles with religious groups is as unfailing as her approval of Bill Clinton. She evinces an eloquent admiration for Jim Wallis and the Sojourners community, and for those liberal Democratic political consultants, such as Common Ground Strategies, who specialize in tutoring candidates about, and managing outreach to, religious groups.

I detected only a few missteps. Martin Marty, the distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, is a historian of religion, not a sociologist. And only if you live inside the Beltway would you think that on economic issues “Catholic intellectual thought [has been] taken over by neoconservatives such as Michael Novak and George Weigel.” (I suspect that not even Novak and Weigel think that.) But Sullivan is right to describe William Donohue, the self-appointed head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, as “widely considered a loud-mouth kook by other Catholics.” And I was intrigued and amused to learn that the horror-movie director Wes Craven (Scream) is a graduate of Wheaton College, widely known as the evangelicals’ Harvard, a school, Sullivan notes, that refused to rent its auditorium to John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign because he was Catholic.

Sullivan opens her concluding chapter, “A Level Playing Field,” with an upbeat description of last June’s presidential “faith forum,” sponsored by Sojourners, at George Washington University, where the Democratic candidates were quizzed about the role of faith in their politics and lives. There were plenty of what, at least to this reader, seemed like cringe-making moments: John Edwards was asked about “the biggest sin you’ve ever committed,” while Senator Hillary Clinton was queried as to how her faith helped her deal with “infidelity in your marriage.” But Sullivan gives the candidates high marks for how they responded, and judges the event a watershed moment in the Democratic Party’s effort to connect with religious voters. As an evangelical, she is perhaps more comfortable with this sort of public “testimony” than am I, a somewhat repressed Catholic still trying to get used to the idea of shaking the hand of the stranger standing next to me in the pew.

Nor, I must confess, am I as convinced as Sullivan appears to be that such public avowals of religiosity represent real progress for our politics. Sullivan is right about the heedlessness with which the Democratic Party has alienated Catholics and evangelicals, and her hands-on prescriptions for how to rectify this history make good sense. Yet notwithstanding the handful of Democratic victories where religious outreach appears to have helped, the truth is that issues such as the economy, national security, and even class and race remain decisive. E. J. Dionne makes this point in his new book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right (see Steven Waldman, “Downfall,”). “[R]eligion’s role in our politics should not be demeaned or ignored,” he writes, “[but] it does religion no favors to exaggerate its influence or to see its hand at work when it is not.” Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Dionne claims, religion and morality were not the determining factors in Bush’s 2004 triumph. Similarly, it was Democratic gains among moderates, independents, and voters who were less religious that account for the swing away from the Republicans in 2006. “The gap between the more and less religious voters actually widened between 2004 and 2006,” Dionne argues. In his view, Democrats “modestly cut their losses among more religious voters … while at the same time vastly expanding their advantages in the rest of the electorate.”

Although an inattentive reader might miss it, Sullivan is careful not to assert too much with respect to the impact of what Dionne calls “new organizing among voters of faith.” She concedes that “all it proved was that in an extraordinary election year, some white evangelicals could switch their votes to Democratic candidates, just like members of every other group.” Yet the tone and overarching argument of The Party Faithful imply something more dramatic about the role religion can play in future Democratic victories. Writing of this year’s presidential candidates, Sullivan approvingly notes that their “sophisticated religious outreach was unprecedented in Democratic politics.” The result, she argues, was that “the received wisdom that such a strategy would drive away the supposed secular base of the party had been shattered.”

It seems true that the willingness of the Democrats to talk about their religious faith has not, in fact, alienated the party’s secular base. All things considered, however, that is a rather modest claim. Whether a rapprochement between Democrats and religiously inclined voters is likely or will eventually prove as decisive as Sullivan suggests is a much more disputable contention. This is one reader who hopes Sullivan is right, but who remains an agnostic.

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Paul Baumann

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.