Cover Story

Born again?

Looking to regain its base, the Democratic Party is restating its liberal program in religion-friendly terms

Issue: "Looking for votes," March 11, 2006

In Georgia, state Sen. Kasim Reed in January introduced a bill authorizing school districts to teach courses derived from The Bible and Its Influence, a textbook released last year by the Bible Literacy Project.

In Tennessee, Reps. Rick Nelson and Bob Damron are sponsoring legislation that would allow postings of religious documents such as the Ten Commandments.

In Virginia, Timothy Kaine rode religious campaign themes and Christian radio ads to victory in the governor's race last fall.

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All that would be business as usual for the GOP. But these Bible-thumping, faith-stumping pols are all Democrats-and part of their party's emerging effort to reconnect with religious voters.

It's not just a Southern phenomenon. Democrats in the North and West also are becoming more vocal on traditionally Republican issues-from public prayer to traditional marriage. U.S. Senate Democrats in January invited conservative evangelical Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, to speak. Former Vermont governor and current Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who once said his favorite New Testament book is Job and last June slammed the GOP as "pretty much a white, Christian party," now says the Bible should be taught as literature in public schools.

For Republicans who view Democrats as godless, the party's sudden, public embrace of faith is crassly political. Republican state Sen. Eric Johnson of Georgia excoriated Kasim Reed's Bible course proposal as "election-year pandering using voters' deepest beliefs as a tool." But Darrell Thompson, senior advisor to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, told WORLD that Democrats have always embraced religious faith, just not so publicly, and "we're right to talk about it now."

The Democratic Party certainly includes many believing Christians who want their party to represent their beliefs, and others whose God talk might be a steely-eyed response to the cold calculus of poll numbers. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, George Bush in 2000 walloped Democrat Al Gore among religiously observant voters-those who attended church at least weekly-63 percent to 36 percent. Four years later in the same demographic, he crushed John Kerry by gaining voter-share among white evangelicals (+10 percentage points over 2000), white mainline Protestants (+2), black Protestants (+6), and Jewish voters (+6).

Even though Mr. Kerry is Roman Catholic, Mr. Bush also improved his standing among non-Hispanic white Catholics (+4) and Hispanic Catholics (+6). The president's across-the-board gains among even traditionally Democratic religious voters-mainline Protestants, black Protestants, Jews, and Catholics-apparently was a reaction to Democratic extremism on issues of morality.

"Democrats have now recognized that the language of religious 'values' resonates with people," said Hillsdale College professor David Bobb, who studies the intersection of politics and religion. "John Kerry made halting efforts to discuss values, but never came up with a way of connecting religion with public policy."

Most Americans, on some level, expect their presidents to do that. "American presidents from George Washington forward have evoked religion fairly routinely, quoting from the Bible, calling for prayer, mentioning God," said Amy Black, an associate professor of politics and international relations at Wheaton College. "It's a common expectation in American politics, particularly at the presidential level. We expect our presidents to be Christians."

Mr. Bush, aided by speechwriter Michael Gerson, an evangelical, has been effective in this regard, proclaiming basic human rights as flowing from natural law and freedom as God's gift to all mankind. "Many of the speeches Bush has given position America as an almost prophetic voice in the world," Mr. Bobb said.

Democrats may be taking notes-and reviewing recent history. The only two Democrats to win the White House since 1964 spoke openly of Christian faith. In 1976, Jimmy Carter invoked his down-home, born-again Christianity-and ousted Republican Gerald Ford. In 1992, a Bible-toting Bill Clinton somehow managed to juggle allegations of adultery with impassioned pulpiteering in black churches: He learned to deliver campaign speeches in sermon cadence.

During the final hour of the House budget debate last November, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tried a little old-time religion, saying any vote for the GOP-brokered budget amounted to "a sin." This January, following President Bush's State of the Union address, Sen. Reid, a Mormon, stayed on-message. In a Beliefnet.com response to the president's speech he alluded to the Good Samaritan and the book of Matthew, chapter 25: "I and many of my colleagues came to public service . . . to serve our neighbors, and to help the least among us."

He went on to state that he's spoken with many religious leaders who say that today's Republican leadership "seems unfocused and unfazed by the needs of our brothers and sisters," and had in 2005 passed an "immoral budget that would deprive so many . . . in order to pay for tax cuts that benefit so few." That rhetoric typified the new Democratic approach to faith: A "social justice" agenda reframed as a question of morality.

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