Closing the 'Religion Gap' | The Nation


Closing the 'Religion Gap'

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There is no question that for Democrats, finding common ground with evangelicals like Sider is important. The last two Democratic Presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both fared well among "freestyle evangelicals," with Clinton winning 55 percent of their vote in 1992 and 1996. Al Gore, by contrast, lost this group by ten percentage points, a factor that possibly cost him the election. Using John Edwards, a Southern Protestant, as a bridge to this constituency is, for the Kerry campaign, clearly advisable. Were Kerry to reach out to such voters by waffling on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, however--issues that people like Jim Wallis believe should not be made a litmus test in the Democratic Party--he would risk alienating the growing number of secular and moderately religious Americans who lean overwhelmingly to the left and care deeply about these issues, notes John Green, a leading authority on religion and politics who teaches at the University of Akron. The pollster Stanley Greenberg has described secular voters as "the true loyalists" of the Democratic Party, estimating that they now make up 15 percent of the party's base--roughly the size of the white evangelical base on the Republican side. In 2000, voters who never attended church vastly outnumbered voters from the Christian right. "The Democrats would be in trouble if they tried to be a purely secular party," says Green, "but they would also be wasting their time trying to woo the most traditional religious voters, because they are firmly Republican, and they would have to give up a lot to go for them."

CORRECTION: The national faith-based network Call to Renewal, originally founded by Sojourners and others, does not publish Sojourners magazine (see www.sojo.net).

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Viewed in this light, the religion gap appears less like a noose slowly tightening around the necks of the nation's progressives--which is the way the media have at times taken to portraying it--than yet another reflection of the fundamental cultural division in American life. The central rift in the religious landscape is no longer between members of competing denominations--Catholics versus Protestants versus Jews--but between traditionalists in all of these faiths, on the one hand, and Americans who are less pious on the other. The problem for Democrats is not that traditionalists vastly outnumber their moderate (and secular) counterparts but that, until recently, the former have tended to be far more politically mobilized. In the 2002 Southern midterm elections, for example, the turnout rate among evangelicals who attend church less frequently was 32 percent lower than among frequent-church-attending traditionalists, a factor that may well have tipped the balance to Republicans in numerous close races. The disparity in their participation rates between elections--lobbying, attending school-board meetings, making their presence felt in Washington and on the airwaves--is even more pronounced.

For this reason, secular leftists (and progressive politicians) ought to do everything in their power to make people like Christa Mazzone feel welcome in their ranks. A bright, attractive 24-year-old Washingtonian, Mazzone works as field organizer for Call to Renewal. She is progressive in just about every sense of the term--opposed to the war in Iraq, deeply concerned about homelessness and poverty, accepting of gay marriage, prochoice (although she personally does not like the idea of abortion). Mazzone also happens to have attended an evangelical college and, though no longer traditionalist in her faith, considers religion extremely important in her life. As a result, she told me, she often feels like a "freak" among her politically like-minded friends. It's a sentiment I heard frequently from audience members at both the Call to Renewal and Center for American Progress events, including from people who told me they were regular readers of this magazine. "The tradition of the political left seems to be to only listen to people of faith if they are African-American" and to dismiss everyone else, complained Brenda Peterson, who was recently named director of religious outreach for the Democratic Party, a newly created post. A similar view was expressed by Amy Sullivan, a former aide to Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, in the Democratic Leadership Council's magazine Blueprint. Talking about faith and values only in front of minorities is "not only a condescending strategy, but a foolish one," she wrote.

It's a fair point. But it would also be condescending--and quite possibly foolish--for John Kerry to counteract this perception by peppering his speeches with biblical references and talking effusively about his faith on the stump. Kerry is, by all accounts, a sincerely religious person, a former altar boy who briefly considered a career in the priesthood and who regularly attends Sunday mass. But he is also someone who prefers to keep his religious beliefs close to the vest, regarding faith as a personal matter that deeply marks his character but does not predetermine how he makes his decisions in office. "I don't wear my religion on my sleeve," Kerry said in his speech at the Democratic convention, "but faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday. I don't want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side." It was one of the most compelling moments of his speech, a welcome contrast to the moralizing rhetoric of George W. Bush and a reminder that politicians whose religion takes less vocal forms are often the ones who most honor the tenets of their faith.

For Kerry, as for most Democrats, the more effective way to close the religion gap isn't by pandering to churchgoers with quotes from the Bible; it's by addressing issues--poverty, social justice, the environment--that many people of faith care about, while pointing out that Republicans do not, in fact, have a monopoly on values. In this respect, Kerry might take a page from Senator Dick Durbin, a Catholic Democrat from Illinois who, like Kerry, came under criticism from a priest for being prochoice. Durbin examined the voting records of his colleagues on an array of moral issues of concern to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops--not only abortion but the death penalty, the minimum wage, the concentration of media ownership. On the whole, he discovered, Democrats in the Senate ranked better than Republicans. The highest ranking of all went to the candidate some conservatives have been tarring as antireligious: John Kerry.

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