When she was director of religious outreach for John Kerry’s Democratic presidential campaign four years ago, Mara Vanderslice could hardly have seemed lower on the campaign totem pole.
“I had one unpaid intern who didn’t have a phone,” she said. “We didn’t have a budget, and they never let me talk to the press.”
Her low status reflected a widely perceived unease in the Democratic Party at reaching out to voters on religious grounds.
What a difference four years can make. This election season has featured Democratic campaigns attempting to frame issues such as poverty, environmentalism and health care in religious contexts.
Political observers say the changes are evident in advertisements on Christian music stations, biblical references in stump speeches, and networking with pastors, as Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and others in his party try to appeal to people who might view the party as hostile to religion.
“It could not have changed more in only four years,” Vanderslice said. “The Obama campaign has six staff people (on religious matters).
Josh DuBois (Obama’s head of religious outreach) is actively speaking to the press. They’re doing `Faith and Family’ tours.”
For her part, Vanderslice has formed a political action committee called The Matthew 25 Network, choosing the name from a well-known biblical passage in which Jesus prods people to help the “least of these” — the poor. The group has raised about $300,000 and is working on behalf of Obama.
The passage in the Book of Matthew, she said, “is a foundational teaching in the gospel for many Christians that put their faith into action or concern for the poor and for the `least of these.’ … We wanted to see that kind of Christian witness be lifted up, not just focused on abortion and traditional marriage.”
Another national consulting organization, the Eleison Group, is helping 20 Democratic congressional candidates with outreach to religious voters this year.
“There is definitely a greater awareness on the part of Democrats in general that we need to engage the faith community and shouldn’t write people off just because they go to church,” said Eric Sapp, a partner in the group, and Vanderslice’s former partner at Washington-based Common Good Strategies.
Scrutiny of Democrats’ religious backgrounds and beliefs has not always helped candidates. The words of Obama’s longtime and former pastor in Chicago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, have hurt the candidate.
And a statement Obama made this summer to evangelicals about abortion — that determining the point where a baby gains rights was “above my pay grade” — was derided as flip, playing into conservative criticisms that these efforts are ultimately insincere.
Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs for the Family Research Council, an influential conservative lobbying group, said he objects to the Democrats’ approach. He said it is morally problematic to equate poverty issues, as serious as they are, with abortion.
“It’s not that, as Christians or as people, we shouldn’t be helping out those who need it,” he said. “But when it comes right down to it, if you’re never born, you’re not going to be poor. If you’re not born, you’re not going to be afflicted with illnesses. They’re trying to say there’s some sort of equivalency when it comes to these issues. I personally think that’s wrong.”
Results of the Democratic efforts are hard to measure. This year, concerns over the economy, the war in Iraq, terrorism, health care and taxes are trumping the cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage that galvanized religious voters in 2004, pollsters say. Plus, while most surveys have Obama outperforming Kerry with Catholic and mainline Protestants, they also show him performing about as poorly as Kerry did — at about 20 percent — among white evangelicals who attend church at least once a week.
“There hasn’t been much gain for Obama on the white evangelicals,” said John Green, a pollster who is director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “It was always a bit of steep climb, because evangelicals are conservative on social issues. … There are Democrats on the pro-choice side that evangelicals find ways to vote for, but usually they’re more moderate.”
Vanderslice says her group, and others like it, are seeking to influence “moderate protestant Christians and Catholics” rather than the most conservative Christians.
The Matthew 25 Network runs its radio ads in battleground states, on Christian music stations with inexpensive rates.
Vanderslice said she hopes religious outreach becomes a permanent part of Democrat campaigns.
“It should be like we do outreach to student and women’s groups, to health care providers and union members,” she said of Democrats.
“Outreach to religious leaders and the faith community should be part and parcel of what we do, year in and year out, and what we stand for as a party.”
By Jeff Diamant
Religion News Service
(Jeff Diamant writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.