When President George W. Bush spoke of the "wonder-working power" of Americans in his 2003 State of the Union address, many television viewers may have considered it simply a nice rhetorical turn of phrase, an eloquent way of describing the potential social impact of volunteerism, which holds great appeal to a wide swath of American voters. Millions of evangelical listeners, however, knew better. They were already humming along to the rest of the chorus of an old gospel hymn that speaks of changing the world through divine, not human, intervention: "There is ... wonder-working power in the blood of the lamb."
The speech was, in many ways, a microcosm of the Bush administration's more global strategy for appealing to religious constituencies. "Wonder-working power" was a kind of code that slid under the radar of many listeners and commentators, but was immediately recognized by the target audience of evangelical Christians.
For Bush and his political guru Karl Rove understand something very important about the religious vote. The President has solidified his standing among highly committed evangelicals, who, though originally wary of his conservative credentials, have been rewarded with the appointment of such religious conservatives as John Ashcroft to top administration jobs as well as through grants distributed under the faith-based initiative. But Bush has maxed out his support with conservative evangelicals; 84 percent voted for him in the 2000 election. To win reelection, he will need to hold onto the votes of another group which supported him in 2000: religious moderates--one of the least-appreciated swing constituencies in the country, and one whose allegiance is more up for grabs than most people realize. They include Muslims, most Catholics, and a growing number of suburban evangelicals, all of whom are devout, but many of whom are uncomfortable with Bush's ties to the religious right, whose agenda--from banning abortion to converting Muslims--is deeply disconcerting to them. Many of these "swing faithful" have also begun to wonder if Bush's rhetoric of compassion and justice will be matched by policy substance.
They could be courted by the right kind of Democrat--one who, like Bush, can speak the language of faith sincerely. Yet those who hope to challenge Bush in 2004 have uttered scarcely a word about religion--or how faith informs their stances on issues such as health care and the environment--during any campaign event so far, including the first primary debate last month in South Carolina. In part, this is because Democratic voters are so multicultural that candidates fear they may alienate some part of their base, especially religious minorities, if they invoke faith in any way whatsoever. Moreover, organized religious groups aren't very active in Democratic primaries. Candidates feel little pressure to speak to the concerns of faith communities, while they do feel compelled to address the issues of secular groups, like the ACLU. But it is telling that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the only Democratic nominees to have won the White House since 1964, both went out of their way to discuss issues of faith and to speak before congregations early during their respective campaigns. Whereas Republicans seem almost obligated to campaign with Jesus as their running mate during the primary season, Democratic candidates today feel they must keep a lid on religious talk in order to win.
There's John Kerry, who argues that his identity as a Catholic has no bearing on his role as a politician, although he will now happily discuss his Jewish ancestry. There's Dick Gephardt, who, though a Southern Baptist by faith, grew up in a German-American community south of St. Louis, among Catholics and Lutherans who considered public discussion of religion prideful. His sole reference to religion thus far in the campaign is a single-phrase allusion, tucked at the end of his announcement speech, to the church scholarship he used to attend college. Joseph Lieberman's faith--which made some Democratic strategists nervous during the 2000 elections--makes him arguably more viable in a general election than most commentators understand, but even he has toned down his religious rhetoric, assuring the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in April that his support for President Bush's faith-based initiative was balanced by his liberal views on issues such as gay rights and abortion. And finally there's John Edwards, a Clinton-like candidate whose Baptist background and Southern roots both foster open expressions of faith, but who still told a questioner in Iowa, "I haven't talked about it, because I only usually talk about it when asked." Nearly all of them seem to be taking their cues not from Carter or Clinton, but rather from Al Gore, who kept mum on religion after his early campaign reference to the evangelical catch-phrase "What Would Jesus Do?" earned him ridicule from the mainstream press.