WHY NOT?….A few days ago, Kevin posed the question of whether Democrats should bother talking about their faith if they’re going to get hammered over it, using as examples the problems some of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons have caused Obama as well as criticism of Hillary Clinton for her association with the conservative religious group The Fellowship.

I’m not sure these two cases tell us much about whether it’s smart/right/appropriate for Democrats to discuss their faith. The first is really about race, not religion. Wright’s comments would have become an issue if Obama never once mentioned his Christianity and if Wright was someone Obama worked with closely as a community organizer instead of his pastor.

The second example is tougher only because of how Clinton has chosen to respond to the Wright story. There is a strong case to be made that people choose their religious communities based on spiritual factors, not political ones. Most individuals have plenty of outlets for their political interests. They don’t need their church or temple or small group to be yet another place where they discuss policy and politics.

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I was particularly sympathetic to Clinton because she is a type I know well–a political liberal who is theologically orthodox. Those of us who fit that description have a hard time finding religious homes. We can choose a place where we feel comfortable politically, but where the theology is a little too flexible for our tastes, or we can choose a spot where we’re theologically comfortable, but where we feel out of place politically. Most choose the latter because it makes most sense to select a religious home based on…religious factors. But many of us choose the former and then supplement our spiritual lives with a more orthodox Bible study or small group.

That’s what I suspect Clinton does. But then yesterday, she criticized Obama for remaining at Wright’s church by saying: “We don’t have a choice when it comes to our relatives. We have a choice when it comes to our pastors and the churches we attend.” It’s a perfectly reasonable position for her to take, but it means she won’t be able to dismiss questions about her own religious choices.

Which brings us back to Kevin’s question. I assume he means not “Why bother being a committed Christian and a Democrat?” but “Why bother talking about your faith if you’re a Democrat?” We could discuss the fact that a candidate’s religious background is one–but by no means the only–way that voters can get a sense of his or her moral foundation. Voters say they make judgments about these things, regardless of whether a candidate gives them information with which to form an opinion. So you could argue that it makes sense to be open about who you are.

I’m wary of wading too far into this discussion, though, because this isn’t a matter of Democrats talking more about God or inserting more Scripture verses into their speeches. We saw a flurry of that right after the 2004 election and it wasn’t pretty. For a while there, it sounded like half of the Democratic caucus suffered from Biblical Tourette’s Syndrome.

This is much more an issue of engaging religious voters–and that doesn’t require Democrats to use God-talk or even to be religious themselves. If you’ll read my book, The Party Faithful, you’ll find people like Mark Brewer, the head of the Michigan Democratic Party and an all-around secular guy, who spent a year traveling around his state and conducting get-to-know-you meetings with evangelical and Catholic leaders with great success. Or Raj Goyle, a Hindu who defeated a conservative evangelical Republican for a state senate seat in Wichita by forming good working relationships with white evangelicals in his district.

Of course, to engage evangelical and Catholic voters in a good-faith way (and I single them out because together they make up about 50% of the electorate–not a chunk of voters, in other words, that can be ignored), you have to be willing to accept that a religious identity is not a political identity. That’s a distinction conservatives sought to obscure for 30 years, and one that liberals would be wrong to ignore as well.

Amy Sullivan

Amy Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who has written about religion, politics, and culture as a senior editor for Time, National Journal, and Yahoo. She was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2004 to 2006.