POLITICS: Recent Democratic rhetoric about faith falls away when the
candidates begin talking to core supporters | Lynn Vincent
Reporters have since 2005 turned out a steady diet of articles and
broadcast segments highlighting the religious faith of Democratic
presidential candidates for 2008.
A July 7 New York Times story trained a soft-focus lens on the religion of
Hillary Clinton. Her Methodist faith, the story said, has guided the
Democratic presidential front-runner "as she sought to repair her marriage,
forgiven some critics who once vilified her, and struggled in the world of
bare-knuckle politics to fulfill the biblical commandment to love thy
The July 15 edition of The Christian Science Monitor featured a close-up
photo of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in prayer. The accompanying article
noted that Obama often "speaks of the church as an abiding force in American
public life" and "takes very seriously the numerous passages in the Bible
that talk not only about poverty, but of people of faith taking God's words
and extending them beyond the four walls of the church."
But are the Democratic presidential front-runners extending their party's
appeal to religious voters outside the four walls of the social gospel? And
when they are alone with their base, are issues of faith addressed?
At the Washington, D.C., Ritz-Carlton on July 17, the answer to both
questions was no. Organizers of the annual conference of the Planned
Parenthood Action Fund did provide one time-slot for a nod to faith. Just
before Obama, the lunchtime speaker, took the stage, Episcopal pastor Paula
Clark Green said grace. With mellifluous oratorical flourishes, Green
offered thanks for the "workers in the vineyard" and thanked God especially
for such workers as Planned Parenthood.
But that was as far as the whole religion thing went. Entering to spirited
applause and backed by huge video monitors, Obama quickly hit his stride,
expounding on the gospel of choice. "We know that five men don't know better
than women or their doctors what's best for women's health," he said,
referring to the recent high-court decision upholding the federal ban on
partial-birth abortion. "On this fundamental issue, I will not yield and
Planned Parenthood will not yield!"
The audience cheered wildly. They did so again when Obama proclaimed that
as president, he would make signing the "Freedom of Choice Act," a bill that
codifies Roe v. Wade as law, one of his first acts.
Planned Parenthood's dinnertime speaker, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.),
has long championed what she calls "teenage celibacy" and since 2004 has
publicly recognized the influence of religion in promoting abstinence. In
January 2005, following the Democrats' electoral drubbing at the hands of
"values voters," Clinton raised liberal eyebrows by calling abortion a
"tragic choice" in a speech that coincided with the anniversary of Roe v.
But while speaking at the Ritz, Clinton accused pro-lifers of waging "a
war on choice" and pledged in her "very first days in office" to reverse
"these ideological, anti-science, anti-prevention policies that this
administration has put in place."
The "anti-science" policy is, of course, abstinence, and the ideology in
question is evangelical Christianity.
In an effort to peel off evangelical votes from the GOP, Obama and Clinton
have targeted black evangelicals in particular. In late spring, both
candidates made campaign swings through South Carolina. In Columbia, Clinton
said that soldiers "need to be equipped with the full armor of God, which is
their faith." At a shopping mall in Greenville, Obama spoke about his work
in the 1980s with inner-city churches on Chicago's South Side to revitalize
declining neighborhoods: "Our faith requires that we not just preach the
Word, but that we act out on the Word."
But for inner-city minister Herb Lusk, pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist
Church in Philadelphia, such faith-speech makes Democrats sound like they're
talking out of both sides of their mouths. "We need to see a lot more from
the Democrats than talk about religious values," Lusk said.
As an example, he noted the hate crimes bill now under consideration in
the Senate. The Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention
Act would expand existing federal hate crimes law to include classes such as
sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity. Opponents of the bill say
it would be another step toward curtailing the free-speech rights of
Christians who believe homosexuality is immoral.
"If you want to reach out to the church, you don't do that by muzzling the
chance to preach the Bible as it is written," Lusk said.
Such approaches highlight the wide gap between the way Democrats and
Republicans typically apply religious belief to public policy. "The way we
have seen Democrats try to apply religious values to the big public policy
questions is destructive of human dignity," said Joe Loconte, a senior
fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "This is obvious on the life
question, but is also observable even on issues that are not quite so
On drug addiction, for example, Democrats lean toward "harm reduction"
strategies such as needle-exchange and methadone programs. "That's not
leading people out of addiction, that's subsidizing addiction, instead of
getting at the root causes which are much more spiritual in nature than
Democrats want to admit," Loconte said. "Democrats are going to have a hard
time convincing conservative orthodox religious believers that, for example,
Hillary Clinton is going to represent their views on key moral issues."
But there is an emerging group of young evangelicals who focus less on
moral issues like abortion. Initiatives on AIDS by Rick Warren and his
Saddleback Church and other social issues have touched a cord with that
group, Loconte said. Still, Warren has managed to extend the "social gospel"
aspect of his ministry without sacrificing the gospel itself, something that
has not been true of the mainline churches to which the faith-talk of
Clinton and Obama seems to appeal.
Thus far, Democrats' faith-talk leading into the 2008 campaign has not
seemed to produce many "swing evangelicals," an elusive voter demographic
that electoral scholars insist is waiting in the wings. In November 2006,
Democrats swept both houses of Congress. But exit polls showed that
Democratic gains were concentrated among non-Christian and secular voters,
with only slight gains among weekly church attenders, including white
evangelical Protestants (3 percent), white mainline Protestants (2 percent),
black Protestants (4 percent), and white Catholics (6 percent).
"Some people seem very eager to find this vital swing vote in the
evangelical community," Loconte said. "But Democrats have been talking about
faith since at least 2000. If the swing evangelical is out there, the
question is, when are they going to start swinging?"
For people like Herb Lusk, the answer may be never: "Until the Democratic
Party changes its core values and philosophy," he said, "their religious
outreach is going to fall on deaf ears for me."
—with reporting by Priya Abraham in Washington, D.C.
Copyright © 2007 WORLD Magazine
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