Saturday, July 21, 2007

Religion and the Democratic Party

For over two and a half decades, the Republican Party has had a virtual monopoly in mobilizing strongly religious voters. Yet, two new tendencies are apparently buckling this trend. On the one hand, there are new fissures in the relationship between evangelicals and conservative Catholics and the GOP with the rise of environmentally-conscious evangelicals and the importance of immigration reform, the minimum wage, and opposition to Iraq among conservative Catholics. Indeed, if you take abortion off the table, then many new alliances and religio-political possibilities arise.

The other tendency is the stepping-up of religious language and a more comprehensive political strategy geared toward religiously-inclined voters among Democratic candidates. This latter trend is the subject of not only one, but TWO articles in the latest edition of Time Magazine. The first article discusses the religious background and the increased usage of religious language among Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. It also discusses the lack of a comprehensive political strategy to target possible religious voters in the 2000 and 2004 elections and how that is starting to shift. It also discusses Nancy Pelosi's lacing of her endorsement of stem-cell research with biblical citations and allusions. That we have three Democratic candidates who are all now speaking of their religious faith AND are all married to their original spouses (often an important issue for conservative religious voters) stands in odd juxtaposition to Guiliani (do I really have to explain this one?), McCain (whose attitude toward religious groups has been about the same as Howard Dean in the past--not too positive), and Romney (the wild-card question of how evangelical voters will respond to a Mormon candidate who has been painted as more opportunistic than even most other politicians). Indeed, of the three GOP candidates, Romney is the only one who speaks the language of faith fluently, while all three Democratic candidates can.

Overall, evangelical voters are slowly dropping out of the GOP, but they are not becoming Democrats; they are tending to identify now as independents. According to Time's numbers, in 2004, the percentage of white evangelicals who identified themselves as Republicans was 50% and today it is 40%. It is an incremental shift, but, considering how close many recent elections have been, it could be significant. In polls taken in "red" states, Obama is viewed as a person of strong religious convictions and his approval ratings are as high as Giuliani's.

But this heightented visibility of a more religiously friendly Democratic platform does not sit well with many parts of the Democratic party, who oppose all intrusions of religion into politics, whether liberal, moderate, or conservative. According to the article:
Defenders of abortion rights and gay marriage were concerned about the tactical and rhetorical shifts they were seeing. When Hillary Clinton called abortion "tragic" and said she dreamed of the day when the procedure would never have to be performed, the approach appealed to centrists. But it inspired pro-choice champions to argue that such rhetoric makes women feel guilty and plays into the hands of the right. Just as arguments rage within the right between fiscal and social conservatives and between libertarians and virtuecrats, the left has its own internal wars.

Perhaps bringing up abortion AT ALL plays into the hands of the right, which would love to keep the issue front and center, because that issue and gay marriage are now the only primary issues they can use to motiviate their religiously conservative base, since they are now beginning to lose them on other issues as mentioned above. On the other side of the fence, GOP strategists do not appear to be too concerned with the loosening of their monopoly of the "religion card." They simply do not think the Democrats can credibly pull it off as they did 30 years ago in the 1976 campaign with Jimmy Carter.

What most everyone seems to forget, and the topic of Time's second article about Dems and Religion, is that the Democrats were the FIRST to reach out to the evangelical voters with the election of Jimmy Carter: the first president to claim to be "born again." Carter was, in fact, endorsed by the SBC and even Pat Robertson. They then abandoned him in the 1980 campaign and endorsed his rival, Ronald Reagan, whose evangelical credentials were, well, less than Carter's. In 1976, Carter took home over 50% of the evangelical vote, a feat not matched by any subsequent Democratic candidate. The only subsequent candidate who reached out to religiously-motivated voters was Bill Clinton, who could (and can) quote the Bible chapter and verse (I have heard him do it; I was at a service at Riverside Church a few years ago and he came and spoke after the service to the congregation, claiming that the MM or the RR do not have a monopoly on morality in the public sphere). But B. Clinton's religiously verbal capacities were not part of the overall political strategies of the Dems at the time. A shift in political strategy is evident, but actual results may be harder to come by or even assess. Indeed, if a Dem receives a higher percentage of the religious vote that has tended to go toward Republicans (most likely the green evangelicals and immigration reform, anti-war conservative Catholics), will it be because of a credibly religiously-oriented Democratic candidate or the lack of such credibility by any Republican candidate (with the exception of Romney, but...)? And, by doing this, do the Dems risk abandoning a loyal part of their constituency that prefers no intrusions of religion into politics (no matter how rhetorical, tactical, or substantive)?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I recommend reading "A Woman in Charge" by Carl Bernstein for a broader understanding of the democratic party's viewpoint of religion/faith in politics, and more specifically, Hillary Clinton's usage of faith in her political endeavors. It took Bernstein six years to write this book.