Kerry’s God Problem

The Democrats have a religion problem. You know it, I know it, and David Brooks knows it. According to a recent Time magazine poll, only 7 percent of Americans think that John Kerry is a "religious" man – this, in a country in which 70 percent of voters say that they want their president to be a "man of faith."

As we all know, the first step toward recovering is recognizing that you have a problem. And while there is plenty of time to change course, too many national Democrats still run the other way when the topic of religion comes up, instead of dealing with it directly.

There are a number of reasons for this. But ultimately, there are no good excuses.

To begin, many Democratic operatives still think of religion mostly as a constituency problem – that is, they want to know how many Catholic votes in the Rust Belt they can "get" by employing a certain strategy, how many endorsements they can get from religious leaders, and have yet to be convinced that religious Americans are "their" voters. One immediate problem with this mindset is that faith leaders are under special restrictions – whether legal or self-imposed – that don't similarly bind the leaders of other constituencies. Although many would argue that recent statements by Catholic leaders regarding pro-choice politicians amount to endorsements of Republicans, strictly speaking a Catholic priest cannot endorse a candidate. Ministers may come out in support of a particular candidate in their role as individual citizens, but only if they have the support of their congregations – if a pastor appears to be leveraging his position for political influence, he can very quickly find himself in hot water with parishioners. All this is to say that assembling a "who's who" list of religious leaders that support Democratic candidates is a bit harder than finding key labor or African-American or environmental group leaders to give their endorsement.

In addition, this attitude treats religion as a purely functional tool, boiling it down to, "If we do X, we will get Y million religious votes." And that's not how it works. Millions of Americans look to the faith of their political candidates as a proxy for a general moral worldview. Many voters understand that it is possible to be a good and moral person without necessarily having religious faith. But in the midst of a campaign, it can be hard to get a good sense of what moral compass a candidate has. A moderate Democratic congressman from the South who represents a district with a large military base told me that in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, many of his constituents wanted to know that he was a man of faith because he was casting a vote about whether to send their sons and husbands and daughters off to put their lives in danger. Those voters wanted to know whether he believed in souls because they were very personally grappling with the consequences of war.

As David Brooks put it in a recent column, for many Americans, "Their president doesn't have to be a saint, but he does have to be a pilgrim." A candidate doesn't have to hit people over the head with "Jesus talk" to do this. He doesn't have to use exclusive language and he doesn't have to parade his piety. What he can do is frame his message in moral terms. Even better, Kerry already did this early in his campaign as the presumptive nominee, drawing a clear distinction between those who talk the talk (an indirect but pointed jab at Bush) and those who walk the walk. Yet that kind of language has all but disappeared from his speeches.

Another reason Democrats avoid the topic of religion is that they believe it will offend what they see as their secular base. Here's what they should know: There are two groups of people who want to think that there is a secular hold on the Democratic Party – secularists and conservatives. The truth, however, is that while the power of secularists in the Democratic ranks is legendary, it is just that – a legend. While Democratic political offices are staffed by a higher percentage of secularists than can be found among the general population, they are not representative of the party as a whole.

In his column, Brooks cites a study that has become a favorite of conservatives (who cite it constantly) because it appears to indict Democrats as overrun by secularists and as generally intolerant of religion. The problem with this conclusion is that it overlooks a major flaw in the analysis done by Baruch College professors Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio. They identified secularists within the ranks of Democratic convention delegates by looking at attitudes about fundamentalists. Anyone who held negative feelings about religious fundamentalists (I believe the Christian Coalition is specifically named) was considered to be a secularist. I don't know about you, but I know plenty of people – and plenty of religious Republicans, for that matter – who don't think terribly kindly of fundamentalists but who would never ever identify themselves as secularists.

It would be dangerous to dismiss this as some picky point between social scientists. This is the kind of "fact" that conservatives will point to over and over because it fits their argument that liberals hate religion. And it would be equally risky for secular Democrats to point to the same study as proof that they need not reach out to religious Americans.

Because although conservatives like Brooks like to point to secularism as a rising trend within Democratic politics, just the opposite is true. More and more liberals are starting to talk about the importance of religion. Just a few weeks ago, the Center for American Progress held a day-long conference on "Faith and Progressive Politics" that attracted hundreds of political types and policy wonks in D.C. The Democratic Leadership Council has now devoted several sessions of national conferences to the topic of religion. Hillary Clinton has been talking to Democratic Senators about the importance of reclaiming the concepts of "values" and "morality" from conservatives. And former Clinton administration bigwigs have all but begged the Kerry campaign to pay attention to this issue.

Finally, John Kerry has a special discomfort with religion that comes simply from his specific religious tradition. Although both are part of the Christian community, southern evangelical Protestants and northeastern Catholics often speak completely different languages. The phrases and scriptural quotes that rolled off the tongues of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are not a natural part of Kerry's religious vocabulary. Cradle Catholics don't talk about "the good Lord" like Wes Clark did on the stump. They don't give testimonials or talk about conversion experiences because that's not part of their personal religious histories. None of that means that Kerry is insincere when it comes to faith. Nor should it matter. Because voters don't need to know how often their political candidates read the Bible or pray or attend church.

What they do need to know is that their candidate understands that religion is an important part of many Americans' lives. That – as with race and ethnicity and other individual characteristics – it influences and informs how people make political judgments. Unfortunately, too often the Kerry campaign has conflated personal religious belief with the general acknowledgement of religion. Because Kerry is uncomfortable talking about his own faith (a perfectly reasonable thing), they have steered clear of all mention of religion (a potentially fatal political move).

No matter how resistant some old-school party operatives are to the idea, liberals are moving toward an understanding and acknowledgement of the importance of religion, not away from it. Ten or fifteen years from now, appeals to religious Americans will be an accepted part of liberal politics, just as Democrats are slowly beginning to change their reputation – and orientation – on national security and foreign policy. There is virtually no political downside to reaching out to people of faith, there is enormous political potential to build a broader, stronger electoral coalition, and it has the added benefit of being the right thing to do.

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