This article ran in the July/August 2006 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.
BY THE TIME THE PUNDITS HAD PICKED CLEAN the carcass of the 2004 election, the idea that Christian conservatives played a significant role in the President’s re-election had been declared a myth. Looked at properly, argued Charles Krauthammer, the 2004 exit polls revealed “moral values” were “dead last” on the voters’ minds on Election Day. It was all an ego-soothing “myth” cooked up by the liberals and the media to extenuate the GOP wipeout.
But spinning an election is a lot different from winning one. So while pundits can afford to dismiss the role of conservative Christians in public life, the politicians cannot.
Almost 28 million evangelical Christians voted in 2004, three-fourths of them for the Republican candidate for president. Pile on top of that 9 million weekly Mass-attending Catholics who routinely vote Republican. Do a little math and we begin to see an indispensable voting bloc of conservative Christians who might come to resent being constantly belittled at the hands of neoconservative pundits and the unkept promises from Republican politicians.
What is more, “moral values” voters are attracting a surprising amount of attention this election year for a segment of the electorate whose impact on campaign outcomes is said to be “mythical.” And this time around, interestingly enough, the attention is being paid not only by Republicans but by Democrats as well.
It should be no surprise that Republicans in Washington led by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist have promised to hold up-or-down votes on hot-button issues that tend to energize the conservative Christian base of the GOP. What is a bit surprising is the timing of these votes: July 2006 — 20 months after the 2004 election and only four months before the 2006 election. Jim Pfaff from Focus on the Family tells me such timing sniffs of pandering.
While Christians have been waiting all these months for Republicans in Washington to take action on the issues they care most about, some Democrats (of all people) have altered their own rhetoric to appeal to these most loyal of GOP voters.
The first round of these appeals was uniquely ham-fisted. As a candidate for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean insisted, “We are definitely going to do religious outreach. Even in my campaign I was interested in reaching out to evangelicals.” Four months later, Dean reverted to type and derided the GOP as a “white Christian party.”
“The next Republican that tells me I’m not religious I’m going to shove my rosary beads down their throat,” railed Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) while stumping for Democrats in Kentucky.
Imagine a white suburban Republican trying to talk jive to win over black voters and you begin to feel the level of discomfort most voters experienced after witnessing these clumsy entreaties. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who saw Democrats as “religion friendly” plummeted from 40 percent in October 2004 to 28 percent in August 2005. Steven Waldman, editor-in-chief of the website Beliefnet, calls this “the most damaging statistic for Democrats” and says it should terrify them.
And so, as Waldman has pointed out elsewhere, hardly a week goes by without some conference of liberal Christians resolving to take on a greater role in our national affairs. Many of these liberals are genuine believers whose faith informs their political worldview. And, as with the Religious Right, they too have their share of charlatans. But from the early stumbles of Dean, Biden, and others, these religious lefties have carved out a slice of the credibility pie and can no longer be thought of as a joke. Convinced they have history on their side (Waldman calls the Democrats’ profound secularism of the last two decades the “anomaly”), they are preparing to claim the United States in the name of a very liberal Jesus Christ.
“A first step is to find candidates that are comfortable talking about religion,” John Green, professor of political science at the University of Akron tells me. He’s right. It is too late for lifelong political secularists like Dean and Biden to sell their conversion stories to a conservative Christian electorate. But new faces on the Democratic political scene have an opportunity to present themselves to voters as something different.
They have a model, perhaps, in Tim Kaine, the new governor of Virginia. Kaine spoke openly about his Roman Catholic faith during his successful 2005 campaign. He advertised on Christian radio stations and wasn’t afraid occasionally to label himself “pro-life” (though he did take liberties with the traditional understanding of the term). He won against an attractive Republican candidate in an increasingly red state. His winning formula was more subtle than, say, Biden’s approach and more consistent than Dean’s.
ANOTHER DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE who has approached the question of faith with due proportion is Joe Sestak, a retired Navy Admiral who is challenging Rep. Curt Weldon in Pennsylvania’s seventh district. When Weldon attacked Sestak — who is a bit of a carpetbagger — for having his daughter’s malignant brain tumor treated in Virginia, not Philadelphia, Sestak’s response was measured and compelling:
Like many families dealing with illness, we have had our challenges in the last year. Through the grace of God, the many prayers of our friends and family, and the wonderful doctors and nurses, we have made it through this experience with our daughter Alex, who continues to inspire us everyday.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?