Friday, May 30, 2003

Do the Democrats Have a Prayer?

Washington Monthly - For the Democrats to win in 04 they will need to appeal to the moderate religious voter.

Despite the claims of the highly vocal religious right, this sort of religious moral vision isn't the exclusive province of the GOP. In fact, the most religious presidents of the past 30 years were Democrats: Carter and Clinton. Both were able to avoid the fates of religiously bland Democratic nominees--including George McGovern and Walter Mondale, each the son of a minister. And both defeated Republican opponents who had either loose religious ties or, at the very least, an aversion to discussing religion publicly. Although the two Southern governors shared other characteristics that worked to their political advantage, their facility with religious language certainly contributed to their success. In his anthology of great speeches, Lend Me Your Ears, William Safire, for instance, selected as Clinton's oratorical triumph an address to a Memphis church that was essentially an extemporaneous sermon. The Southern Baptist cadences, almost more than the words themselves, gave the speech its power--"We will honor the life and the work of Martin Luther King. We will honor the meaning of our church. We will, somehow, by God's grace, we will turn this around." And while Carter's presidency is today remembered as a failure, in 1976, his candidacy--that of a devout born-again Christian with strong ties to the civil rights establishment, taking on a Republican party tarnished by Watergate--was heady and exciting. Many Democrats remember Carter's famous promise to the American people--"I'll never lie to you"--as hokey or embarrassing, but it did help to evict Gerald Ford from the White House.

Democrats are a coalition party when it comes to religion, much as they are when it comes to race, ethnicity, and class. Gore voters in 2000 were an amalgam of FDR Catholics, marginalized mainline Protestants, secularists, religious African Americans, Jews, some Muslims, and all other minority religious groups except Mormons. "Democrats worry about talking about religion in a way that endorses a particular faith or offends anyone," says one senior Democratic congressional aide. "So they've just decided not to talk about religion around other people, and that's hurting them." Nearly every Democrat I spoke to expressed concern that if Democrats focus on religion, they will alienate some portion of their base. But, in fact, 80 percent of Gore's support in 2000 came from religiously committed voters. While Democratic voters may distrust the religious right, they don't dislike religion itself.

What if Democrats stopped playing defense on religion--or, more accurately, started playing at all? They could gain political traction with religious moderates by pointing out the true nature of Bush's strategy on religion: Talk from the center, but govern from the right. For instance, while religious moderates cheered Bush's initiative to give social-service grants to faith-based organizations, many were turned off when one of the first large grants went to an organization run by Pat Robertson, who is considered a charlatan even by most evangelicals. If Democrats were less ignorant of America's religious landscape, they would know they could criticize Bush's attachment to Robertson without offending the swing faithful by appearing anti-religious.

Moreover, an authentically religious Democrat would have the moral standing to criticize the "bait and switch" aspect of other Bush policy pledges, on issues from AIDS prevention to hydrogen-powered cars. In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush appeared to be reaching out to swing voters with compassionate-sounding new initiatives. But in reality, almost none of the "new money" in Bush's pledge to combat AIDS in Africa was slated for appropriation before 2006-2008--by which time many of the 21 million Africans expected to contract AIDS by 2010 will already be infected. Likewise, his announcement of a $1.2 billion program to develop a hydrogen-powered car turns out to be a boondoggle, plying automakers with public money without any requirement that they actually produce a working result. Criticisms of Bush's doubletalk will resonate because they're part of a larger pattern. At the same time that Bush talks about extending the ability of faith-based organizations to provide social services, his budget slashes funds for those same services.

If Gore had reached out to religious communities in 2000 and succeeded in peeling off even a small percentage of the evangelical votes that Clinton won in 1992 and 1996, he could have overcome the margin by which he lost states like West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Florida. Disaffected evangelical and Catholic moderates could find a natural home in the Democratic Party, which shares their values of social justice, concern for the earth, and economic equality. They're not looking for a tent revival at the Democratic Convention. They're just looking for a little respect.

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