How was it that the Democratic Party lost its faith in faith? The most obvious explanation is that conservatives and Republicans have spent thirty years telling us that Democrats aren't religious. Conservative religious leaders have relentlessly promoted the idea that there is a liberal war on people of faith (or Christmas or the Bible), a mantra that Republican politicians have lustily repeated. However, this marriage of convenience between religious and political conservatives has been ably chronicled elsewhere -- and it's only part of the story.
The tale that has remained untold involves the left's response to the rise of the religious right. That story is largely one of fear, ignorance, and political deafness. For while the political, religious, and cultural forces that gave rise to the religious right formed a perfect storm that was bound to have a significant impact on American politics, Democrats and liberals weren't just passive nonactors who stood by helplessly on the sidelines while it all happened. Instead of pushing back, they chose to beat a retreat in the competition for religious voters and the discussion of morality, effectively ceding the ground to conservatives. The emergence of the God gap represents a failure of the left as much as it does an achievement of the right.
As recently as the late 1960s, religion was a decidedly nonpartisan affair in the United States. Presidents of all political stripes sprinkled their speeches with references to the Almighty. Religious Americans led political movements to battle communism and poverty, to promote temperance and civil rights. If anything, the contours of the religious landscape favored Democrats: their voters were evangelical Southerners and ethnic Catholics, while Republicans appealed to wealthier Northeastern WASPs and Catholics who were more private about their faith.
The relationship between religion and politics changed abruptly in the turbulent decade that spanned the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. The twin disappointments of Vietnam and Watergate led to widespread disillusionment with traditional institutions, and the cynicism tainted religious authority as well. The postmodern argument that advanced societies would progress beyond the need for religious practice or belief in a higher power took hold in educated circles and further deepened the divide between secular elites and religious believers that had broken open during the Scopes trial decades earlier. The women's movement and civil rights struggles led to greater opportunities, but in an era marked by assassinations and fear of nuclear annihilation, it seemed to many that the pace of change was out of control.
This country is a better place for the enhanced freedoms and tolerance that the women's and civil rights movements delivered. That Democrats paid a hefty political price for championing these causes was by no means a reason to sit them out. The question is whether the price needed to have been as steep as it turned out to be. I believe that it did not.
It's hard to imagine today, but it was, after all, the Democratic Party that first successfully responded to the disillusionment of religious voters. Jimmy Carter, the party's nominee in 1976, was the first politician to recognize that voters now wanted to know more about a candidate than simply his position on energy policy or taxes; they cared about the moral fiber of their president as well. And those voters increasingly saw religious faith as a proxy, an efficient way to size up a candidate's character. With an evangelist sister and his own background as an organizer for Billy Graham crusades, Carter talked openly about his religious faith, not just in the generic "God bless America" sort of way that politicians had previously favored. When he used the phrase "born-again" to describe himself, Carter connected with millions of evangelicals who had previously stayed away from politics. And his promise "I'll never lie to you" was -- in the wake of Richard Nixon's resignation -- a potent statement for Americans of all faiths and no faith at all.
But while Carter was the right candidate for the new politics of values, his party was rapidly moving in the other direction. Educated elites, particularly on the left, increasingly placed their faith in the tangible power of political action rather than the unfathomable might of a divine being. Carter's own advisers begged him to tone down the God talk. "We're reassuring people Jimmy won't turn the White House into a Billy Graham Bible class," adman Jerry Rafshoon told reporters at one point during the 1976 campaign. But they misread the direction of the country. Far from becoming less religious in a postmodern age, Americans remained strongly devout, with 80 percent or more consistently reporting that religion was an "important" part of their lives.
Instead of finding another way to talk about character and values, Democratic leaders rejected the Carter model altogether, effectively opting out of a conversation with evangelicals. Later, as debate over abortion laws heated up in the 1980s, Democrats compounded the mistake by ending their dialogue with Catholic audiences as well. When Michael Dukakis ran at the head of the ticket in 1988, his campaign turned down all requests for appearances at Catholic institutions. Democratic politicians with national ambitions quickly learned that they needed to renounce their pro-life positions to attract money and support from powerful interest groups. And as the Catholic Church began to put pressure on Democrats who supported abortion rights, Catholic politicians also stopped publicizing their religious affiliation, further cementing the image of the Democratic Party as secularist.
The GOP, meanwhile, aggressively courted faith voters. Ronald Reagan famously told religious conservatives, "You can't endorse me, but I can endorse you." Republicans never missed an opportunity to paint Democrats as secular heathens who would ban the Bible if given half a chance. The party also built an extensive infrastructure to mobilize and connect with religious voters, a strategy that reached its zenith in 2004.
When Bill Clinton came along, he defied the stubborn conventional wisdom that had formed about the two parties' relationship to religion. A Southern Baptist who could literally quote chapter and verse, Clinton freely talked to religious publications like Christianity Today. He made the protection of religious freedom a key focus of his domestic agenda and insisted his staff work with conservative evangelical leaders in addition to progressive religious allies. Liberal leaders chalked up Clinton's religious fluency to his general political skill, the ability to be everything to everyone. Conservatives saw him as a fake who exploited religion for political purposes and pandered to voters. The actual voters, however, responded favorably to Clinton, rewarding him with a greater share of the evangelical and Catholic electorate than any other Democrat since Carter.
But the lesson didn't take. In many ways, Clinton's personal comfort with religion and his extraordinary ability to act as his own religious liaison masked the ongoing problems of the Democratic Party, which still had no inclination or ability to reach out to religious communities. Democrats were all too happy to let Clinton meet with religious leaders and sermonize in black churches. They did not, however, go so far as to change their approach on abortion to reflect his "safe, legal, and rare" mantra. Nor did they alter the party infrastructure so as to make it more hospitable to people of faith: there were no religious outreach efforts, no strategists who focused on religious voters. By the time Clinton left the White House in 2001, the Democratic Party was as disconnected as ever from religious voters. And George W. Bush got away with arguing that his White House would protect religious organizations that had been "discriminated against" by the antireligion Clinton administration.
So it should not have surprised anyone that Democrats found themselves so outmatched in the presidential campaign of 2004. That year, the Bush-Cheney operation did more with religious outreach than any other campaign in history, employing a massive parish- and congregation-level mobilization effort. In Florida alone, the Bush-Cheney campaign employed a state chairwoman for evangelical outreach who appointed a dozen regional coordinators around the state and designated outreach chairs in each of Florida's sixty-seven counties. Every county chair, in turn, recruited between thirty and fifty volunteers to contact and register their evangelical neighbors. In September, the Republican National Convention had all the characteristics of a four-day revival meeting, featuring popular acts from the Christian music world and screenings of the documentary George W. Bush: Faith in the White House. And in November, 3.5 million white evangelicals who had not voted in 2000 turned out to the polls.
The Kerry campaign, meanwhile, hired one junior staff aide with no national campaign experience to oversee religious outreach and allowed her one intern -- the two had a single telephone between them with which to recruit and contact volunteers. Kerry's top advisers decided not to publicly defend their candidate against charges from some Catholic bishops that his support for abortion rights meant he could not truly be a Catholic. While Kerry did give a remarkable speech about his faith and values, it took place little more than a week before the election. And because of staff concerns about abortion protesters, the senator gave his faith talk not at a Catholic university in Ohio as originally scheduled, but at a Jewish senior center in Florida with little fanfare. Nine days later, Kerry lost the Catholic vote in Ohio by a margin of 44 to 55. It was a six-point drop from Al Gore's showing among Catholics in that state four years earlier -- if Kerry had matched Gore's percentage of the Catholic vote in Ohio, he would have captured the state by 41,000 votes. Instead, he came slightly more than 118,000 votes short, losing Ohio and, with it, the election.
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