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.
Pennsylvania is also the proving ground for the religious left's star candidate: Bob Casey, Jr. Both Waldman and Green point to the efforts of religious liberals in what will be a heavyweight battle for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Rick Santorum. Evidence indicates their labors are beginning to bear fruit. Casey consistently leads Santorum in public opinion polls. What is more, Casey is the scion of a working-class Irish Catholic political dynasty. His father, Bob Casey, Sr., was the quintessential un-Reaganized Reagan Democrat: a New Dealer with traditional conservative social values. Casey, Sr., distinguished himself as a pro-life holdout in a party that had become, at times, little more than the political vehicle for the pro-choice movement. In an infamous rebuke, Clinton forces barred Casey, Sr., from speaking at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.
All of which makes the political ascension of Casey, Jr., who also brandishes the pro-life label, an intriguing test case as to how the newly minted religious left will deal with issues of life and death. Indeed, the issue of abortion hangs heavy over this entire dialogue. Few opinion leaders were impressed when Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and 54 other Democrats in the House of Representatives released a Catholic Statement of Principles in late February. The statement glossed over the issue of life of the unborn as a mere disagreement among well-meaning Catholics.
Elsewhere, a recent poll conducted on behalf of the Family Research Council revealed that 58 percent of evangelical Democrats call themselves pro-life and a sizable majority would refuse to vote for a congressional candidate who does not share their position. According to a Gallup study from May 2004, 44 percent of Democrats say abortion is "wrong" (as opposed to "acceptable") and 46 percent say homosexual behavior is "wrong." Green calls the prospects of the religious left successfully navigating abortion and other moral issues "the $64,000 question."
"Three strategies are discussed," he told me. "First, Democrats can moderate their positions on moral issues; second, they can discuss economic and foreign policy in moral terms; third, they can try to change these voters' priorities so they will vote on the basis of other issues."
It is impossible to imagine the current Democratic Party leadership speaking about economic and foreign policy issues with any greater moral indignation than they already have over the last five years. And changing the priorities of voters is a notoriously losing proposition in American electoral campaigns; politicians need to deal with the electorate they've been given, not the one they wish they had. That limits Democrats to Green's first recommendation: moderate on moral issues.
And yet, there is no legitimate effort afoot to move Democrats rightward on this family of issues. On the contrary, Democrat strategists have been rather candid in their desire merely to couch old-line liberal policy positions in religious language.
WHICH BRINGS US TO THE FIRST OF TWO significant challenges facing the Democrats as they seek to win the votes of believers: the crisis of credibility. Outside of Kaine and Casey, most of the Democrats' rhetoric has betrayed signs of the same overreach with which they have approached the war in Iraq. When House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) cast her vote against the Republican budget resolution, she claimed to have done so as "an act of worship." Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) has invoked the Prophet Isaiah on the House floor to agitate for higher taxes. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) voiced her opposition to a Republican immigration reform measure because, she said, "It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scriptures, because the bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself."
Meanwhile, one of the signers of DeLauro's Statement of Principles was Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) who, having punched a Capitol security guard, can hardly be said to exercise the same neighbor-love that anti-war Christians demand from our Defense Department.
This kind of over-the-topness calls into question the Democrats' sincerity. Rob Boston from Americans United for Separation of Church and State told me some of the Democrats' appeals stink like old school political pandering. "Sometimes it's hard to tell if they mean it or if they are just trying to get votes," he says. "It is both sincere and calculated," adds Professor Green. "Some in the party are informed by their faith and others just think it is a way to win."
And is talk enough? No major presidential candidate in American history used the word "values" more often than Senator John Kerry did in 2004. It earned him 18 percent of the "values vote." The question remains: Why should it be any different this year?
MEANWHILE, A SLUICE OF LIBERAL anti-Christian tracts has opened up. The tracts deride increased religion in public life as hints of a looming "theocracy." Conservative Christians consider this a deeply offensive charge and it has the potential to diminish appeals from religious liberals to find common ground. "The two messages might cancel each other out. It is hard to appeal to religious voters if one does not respect religion. All this talk of 'theocracy' could easily appear as hostility toward religion," Green says.
The second challenge for religious-left Democrats is to avoid cross-pressuring their secular base with all this new "God talk." Green believes the Democrats' increased public religiosity has the potential to turn off secular voters. Boston agrees. "If the Democrats continue going down the road of introducing more religion into their proposals, sooner or later congressional debates are going to evolve into proof text contests," he says.
Waldman argues, "If the Democrats decide to become a secular party, they will have decided to become a minority party." This might be a matter of simple math, but the fact remains that approximately 11 percent of the electorate describes itself as "secular" and this cohort votes overwhelmingly in favor of Democrat candidates. Will these voters stay with the Democrats if the party continues to posture itself as the party of Jesus?
The question may not find its answer in 2006. Waldman believes the Democrats' "God talk" will not have a significant impact on the off-year elections in November. "I don't think they [the religious left] are organized in enough local races," he says.
But despite all the reasons to suspect the Democrats of a cynical play for votes, they nevertheless are for the first time in three decades telling Americans of faith that they are willing to talk. This is a remarkable transformation and a powerful testament to the enormous growth in the number of religiously motivated voters.
Republicans, who love all those Christian votes but seem not to care seriously about enacting a Christian agenda, had better take note.