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Prodigal party

Campaign 2008 | What party of secularists? Five political strategists have '08 Democrats talking old-time religion

Issue: "Faith-based campaigning," Jan. 27, 2007

Burns Strider. Joshua DuBois. Shaun Casey. Eric Sapp. Mara Vanderslice. Not household names, these five professed evangelicals may hold the key to Democratic victory in the 2008 presidential election. Their mission: Convince white evangelical voters that a liberal agenda is consistent with the Bible and that the expressed Christian devotion of Democratic candidates is authentic.

Three of the five are official religious outreach advisors to prospective presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Kerry. The other two run a consulting firm that advises those hoping to quarry evangelical votes. Their goal is to turn the 74-25 advantage among white evangelicals that GOP candidates for the House of Representatives had in 2004-a margin that slipped 7 percentage points in 2006-into a 50-50 proposition. Their method is to equate federally-funded poverty, health-care, and foreign-aid programs with biblical mandates to help the poor.

Burns Strider, 40, the son of a longtime Grenada County, Miss., sheriff, grew up connecting his father's Democratic politics to the Sunday school lessons of the Southern Baptist and Nazarene churches his family attended. "My belief in the Democratic Party and my belief in the lordship of Christ moved forward together on the same line," he told WORLD.

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Recently hired to direct religious outreach for Clinton's probable presidential run, Strider cited Scripture with ease as he explained his political convictions. He quoted the prophet Micah's call to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, one of many texts that pushed him to the mission field a decade ago for a two-year stint in China. He recalls sitting in a Hong Kong flat reading of how Mother Teresa saw the eyes of Christ in the faces of hungry and hurting people on the streets of Calcutta: "Reading that story had a very profound impact on me. What we do, we do to Christ. That puts feet on love. It gives it a direction to take."

For Strider, that direction is the political left, though he struggles to explain why such a personal directive to care for the needy necessarily requires government funding. His answer begs the question: "I contribute to the government, therefore I have a stake in the government and how it carries out its business. And I would like to see it carrying out the mandate to be part of the solution when it comes to poverty and when it comes to disease and when it comes to climate change."

Poll numbers hint that most Bible-believing Protestants remain skeptical about tax-funded charity but some are wavering-and Strider aims to convince them that the governmental budget is "where our priorities and our values are put into action."

He must also convince greater numbers of evangelicals that Hillary Clinton shares their faith. The New York senator has long sought to connect to religious values voters. Speaking to the United Methodist General Conference in 1996, she called on the audience to spread "the message of the gospel as well as the example of our works. We'll do more to change lives than any program that could be passed by any legislative body." Such a charge for personal responsibility might resonate with even the nation's most conservative congregations, but Clinton surrounded that gospel commission with laundry lists of government solutions to societal ills.

As the former first lady now readies for another run at the White House, most evangelicals remain skeptical of her faith and politics. Strider hopes her involvement with two distinctly conservative prayer groups might help change that. Clinton has participated in the woman's group of Holly Leachman since the mid-1990s. Leachman, wife of Washington Redskins chaplain Jerry Leachman, is connected to McLean Bible Church in Virginia, a conservative evangelical body committed to biblical inerrancy.

Clinton also spends Wednesday mornings praying with a small group of fellow senators, including such religious conservatives as Sam Brownback of Kansas, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. During one such meeting, Brownback reportedly asked Clinton's forgiveness for having hated her, a confession that helped forge a friendship between the pair of political enemies.

But such Christian reconciliation in no way necessitates a political or even a religious alliance. Brownback and Clinton remain committed political rivals, and Clinton avoids using the language of a born-again believer. Her speeches on faith emphasize the principles of kindness rather than a personal relationship with Jesus. During her White House days she attended Foundry United Methodist Church, a D.C. congregation with a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Group, and has attended UMC churches throughout her life. Asked what church Clinton currently attends, press secretary Sam Arora said he did not know.

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