How the Democrats Got Their Faith Back

That time we said they should start courting religious voters—and they listened.

For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.

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It was the fall of 2002 and Democrats were in a pickle. Still smarting from losing the White House via a Supreme Court decision two years earlier, they saw a post-9/11 country rallying around George W. Bush. A heady mix of fear and patriotic fervor had produced a rainbow of threat alerts, violations of civil liberties, and an inexorable march toward an ill-conceived war with Iraq. The party was desperate to find a candidate who could beat Bush in 2004.

I was in something of a tight spot as well. Nearing thirty, I was in my first semester of a doctoral program in sociology at Princeton and had already realized I’d made a terrible mistake. All I wanted to do was write about religion and politics. But when my professors told me I wrote “like a journalist,” they didn’t mean it as a compliment. Unless I wanted to emerge from academia sounding like a human regression analysis, I needed another outlet for my ideas.

One pitch email, seven months, and a few thousand drafts later, “Do the Democrats Have a Prayer?” ran as the Washington Monthly’s June 2003 cover story, and I had found my calling.

In the article, I applied my academic research to the problem Democrats faced. Although my Princeton colleagues would have chided me for drawing conclusions from an impossibly small sample, I focused on the fact that the only two successful Democratic presidential candidates for nearly four decades were Southern Baptists who were comfortable with the language and culture of faith. “To become America’s majority party again,” I predicted, “Democrats will have to get religion.” 

Eager to dispel the assumption that religious communities were homogenous blocs, I borrowed and coined a few pithy phrases to describe “freestyle evangelicals” and “convertible Catholics,” two cohorts I thought Democrats should court. I analyzed the ways in which Bush sought to communicate his affinity with Christian voters both overtly (through faith-based initiatives) and subtly (by, for example, referring to “wonder-working power” in a State of the Union speech). And I pointed out that national Democrats most often did the opposite: At the time, John Kerry argued that his identity as a Catholic had no bearing on his role as a senator, and Al Gore stopped talking about religion entirely after pundits mocked him for ruminating on the evangelical catchphrase “What would Jesus do?” In hindsight, I put too much emphasis on the language that politicians used and not enough on the long-term relationship building with faith groups that Republicans had prioritized and Democrats had largely abandoned. But, more than fifteen years later, the basic thesis holds up.

I didn’t think I had written anything revolutionary. But it’s no exaggeration to say that I owe my career to this one story. It led to an internship at the Monthly, which led in turn to a full-time job (albeit one that paid even less than my meager grad school stipend). I began fielding speaking invitations from progressive organizations around D.C., as well as the more conservative Democratic Leadership Council, and made regular appearances before Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate. I eventually expanded the article into my first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap. I’d only intended to write one article to keep myself entertained in graduate school. Instead I had stumbled into a lifelong beat.

Within a few months of the story’s initial publication, its impact boomeranged back to me. A young activist named Mara Vanderslice approached Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign after reading the article and told them she wanted to work on faith outreach in Iowa. Dean’s campaign staff laughed at the idea, but needing bodies in Iowa, they hired her anyway. After Dean dropped out of the race, Vanderslice lobbied the Kerry campaign to let her take on the same portfolio, and she became the first dedicated faith outreach staffer on a Democratic presidential campaign.

But our message faced resistance. I had grown up marinating in evangelical worship and culture. My Democratic politics led in a straight line from my understanding of biblical teachings. I therefore naively thought my argument would make immediate sense to people who wanted to see Democrats expand their appeal. I failed to account, however, for the hardened conventional wisdom that “religious” necessarily meant Republican, conservative, and intolerant. At one panel discussion on the Upper West Side, a particularly melodramatic attendee insisted that advising Democrats to reach out to religious voters was akin to suggesting they “collaborate with Nazis.”

After Democrats lost again in 2004, however, some party leaders were willing to try something different. John Kerry delivered a post-election address at Pepperdine University that could have come directly from my article. “I learned how important it is to make certain [that] people have a deeper understanding of the values that shape me and the faith that sustains me,” Kerry told the crowd of conservative Christians. One important lesson he drew from weathering attacks on the authenticity of his Catholicism was: “If I didn’t fill in the picture myself, others would draw the caricature for me.”

Looking ahead to the 2006 midterms, Democratic campaign committees contracted with Vanderslice—who by that time had formed a religious consulting company—to build sustained relationships with religious communities in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. It turned out to be a successful election cycle for Democrats nationwide, but Vanderslice’s candidates outperformed Democrats elsewhere by an average of ten points among white Catholic and white evangelical voters.

By 2008, the two major Democratic presidential candidates were talking openly about faith and reaching out to religious voters. Barack Obama put together the most sophisticated religious outreach effort the party has seen, before or since, and he brought that focus with him into the White House. Obama was uncommonly adept at weaving together moral and secular language: “We worship an awesome god in the blue states.” But the bulk of his faith outreach was purposely under the radar—so much so that most professional Democrats didn’t even know about it. As a result, party strategists drew the wrong lesson, concluding that faith outreach wasn’t something the Democrats needed to worry about in order to win.

Now another tough presidential loss has once again caught the party’s attention. Donald Trump is busy trying to paint the Democratic field as a bunch of godless secularists. “They’re not big believers in religion, that I can tell you,” he told a crowd in September. But the Democratic field is paying an unprecedented level of attention to faith. Last year, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker both spoke at the Festival of Homiletics, a gathering of mostly mainline Protestants. Julián Castro has made his Catholicism central to his campaign, choosing to launch his candidacy in San Antonio’s Plaza Guadalupe, across from Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, where he was baptized. Several Democratic candidates have already hired faith outreach coordinators.

One of those candidates, Pete Buttigieg, has been the most outspoken about his faith, and the most willing to challenge Republicans—especially fellow Indianan Mike Pence—to defend their version of Christianity. His silent attendance at a rally organized by the faith-based Poor People’s Campaign over this past summer recalled Ronald Reagan’s influential appearance before a gathering of religious conservatives in 1980, where he announced, “I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.”

The fact that Democratic candidates are talking about faith—despite the tarnished reputation religion has earned among liberals during the Religious Right era, and the rise of religiously unaffiliated voters in the Democratic base—speaks volumes. Religious progressives have played a leading role in the resistance to Trump administration policies and politics, and they have finally succeeded in differentiating their take on moral values from the conservative one that has dominated American culture for decades. This president has also given voters of all shades a hunger for moral vision in the White House that recalls the electoral moods of the post-Watergate and post-Lewinsky eras, which benefited Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush respectively.

Do the Democrats have a prayer? We won’t know until next November. But they do have faith.

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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.