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.
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.
Strider shares similar theological commitments: His family of four attends Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church across town. When given an opportunity to express his stance on abortion, the former lead staffer of the Democrats' Faith Working Group said he has "never supported criminalization." He believes politicians should work to reduce the number of abortions without making them illegal, a position many Democrats share.
Joshua Dubois, Sen. Obama's director of religious affairs, is guarded in discussing his personal positions. The stepson of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, he did not offer his view of abortion during a WORLD interview, but he spoke readily of his college conversion to Christianity. He said a childhood spent going through the evangelical motions turned into a robust and genuine faith: "I am saved by the grace of God. I'm a strong believer in Jesus Christ."
Such explicit born-again language is more likely to resonate with Bible-believing evangelicals. DuBois, who maintains membership at a United Pentecostal Council Assemblies of God church in Cambridge, Mass., intends to use such credibility to vouch for the authenticity of Obama's faith. "He's also a Christian, a very strong one at that," DuBois said of his employer.
Unlike Clinton, Obama entered the fray of speculation over the 2008 presidential race largely undefined in the minds of American voters. Tapping DuBois to manage the faith outreach of his prospective campaign fits well with the Illinois senator's consistent efforts to project an evangelical image. Obama raised eyebrows on both sides of the political aisle when he spoke at the AIDS conference of evangelical megachurch pastor Rick Warren last month. The charming Democrat also has broadcast his faith in numerous interviews and speeches since taking national office in 2004.
But does such behavior merit surprise? Many evangelicals contend that Obama does little more than support liberal politics with liberal theology-hardly ground-shaking conduct. His adult conversion to Christianity took place in Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, where he and his family remain members. Trinity is an African-American congregation fiercely committed to liberation theology and income redistribution. Such doctrines have largely shaped the faith of a man with little prior religious experience. The stepson of a Muslim, Obama split his early primary education between Islamic and Catholic schools in Jakarta before moving to Hawaii at age 10 to spend adolescence with his white middle-class grandparents, who did not attend church.
DuBois admits that Obama's outspoken faith only appears novel in light of Democrats' recent deference to the party's avowed secularists. In reality, Obama's brand of religiosity amounts to a social gospel, emphasizing the humanitarian example of Jesus over the way His death and resurrection solves humanity's sin problem. "The progressive movement in the early part of the last century was infused with Christian values and people of faith-same with the civil-rights movement," DuBois said. "So this isn't a new thing, but it's a good thing that it's happening now."
Significant portions of the Democratic Party disagree, decrying such an open discussion of faith from their leaders. Many left-leaning bloggers responded to Clinton's and Obama's hiring of religious outreach specialists with the literary equivalent of rolling eyes. "Some folks on the left are uncomfortable with these topics," DuBois said. "There is a constitutional and clear separation between church and state embedded in the fabric of our country. And some folks think that means we have to be separate not only in our legal approach to policy but also who we talk to, who we engage with, whose concerns we can listen to."
Some pundits question whether the chance to scrape off evangelical votes from the GOP is worth the risk Democrats face of deflating their secularist base. But religious consultant Shaun Casey believes political pragmatics will soften any resistance to evangelical outreach: "Even the most hardened secular Democrat can count."
Casey, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, advises Kerry, among other Democrats, and has helped the Massachusetts senator move beyond the awkward Bible quotes of his 2004 presidential run. Casey wants Kerry to articulate his Catholic sensibility without apology for his many disagreements with official church teaching.
The former minister's theology is often far more conservative than the political candidates he coaches. Casey, 49, attends the evangelistic Fairfax Church of Christ in Virginia. He considers himself more of a theologian than a political operative, telling WORLD that no party platform can compare to the gospel of Jesus and His work to save sinners.
Casey argues that the scale of human suffering and worldwide injustice demands government efforts to fund and organize sufficient relief. He dismisses the objection of religious conservatives that government-funded charity excludes spiritual elements, stating that employees and volunteers of such organizations may always share their faith off the clock.
Casey also rejects the conservative idea that compassionate citizens should be the arbiter of their charitable dollars rather than having to pour taxes into secular programs they do not support. "It's not our money, anyway," he said in reference to the biblical teaching that all things ultimately belong to God.
Should Kerry run for president a second time, such values-based defenses of Democratic policies would no doubt play a greater role than in 2004 when the candidate paid little attention to Casey or evangelical adviser Mara Vanderslice-despite the pair's involvement with the campaign.
Vanderslice has since proved her counsel is worth heeding. From her new role as director of Common Good Strategies, an independent consulting firm she founded in 2005, the born-again strategist significantly boosted the Democrats' midterm landslide. Exit polls showed that the candidates she advised pulled in an average of 10 percent more evangelical voters than other Democrats.
Fellow Common Good Strategies consultant Eric Sapp told WORLD such results could signal the beginning of a grand reshaping of the political landscape: "My hope would be that Christians become a perennial swing vote."
Like Vanderslice, Sapp's political involvement goes along with his evangelical faith. He attends Heritage Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Alexandria, Va., calls himself a Calvinist, and believes fallen humanity requires government action to alleviate suffering: "The social justice side of the gospel has to be front and center in what you are as a Christian. Government is definitely not the only solution, but if you're trying to solve things with private means and it's not working, you have to figure out another way."
Compassionate conservatives argue that government means have worked poorly and that groups offering challenging, personal, and spiritual assistance help the poor much more. Evangelical voters have two years to decide which view they will follow.
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