Silent witnesses

Politics | Recent Democratic rhetoric about faith falls away when the candidates begin talking to core supporters

Issue: "Big bucks ministries," July 28, 2007

Reporters have since 2005 turned out a steady diet of articles and broadcast segments highlighting the religious faith of Democratic presidential candidates for 2008.

A July 7 New York Times story trained a soft-focus lens on the religion of Hillary Clinton. Her Methodist faith, the story said, has guided the Democratic presidential front-runner "as she sought to repair her marriage, forgiven some critics who once vilified her, and struggled in the world of bare-knuckle politics to fulfill the biblical commandment to love thy neighbor."

The July 15 edition of The Christian Science Monitor featured a close-up photo of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in prayer. The accompanying article noted that Obama often "speaks of the church as an abiding force in American public life" and "takes very seriously the numerous passages in the Bible that talk not only about poverty, but of people of faith taking God's words and extending them beyond the four walls of the church."

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But are the Democratic presidential front-runners extending their party's appeal to religious voters outside the four walls of the social gospel? And when they are alone with their base, are issues of faith addressed?

At the Washington, D.C., Ritz-Carlton on July 17, the answer to both questions was no. Organizers of the annual conference of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund did provide one time-slot for a nod to faith. Just before Obama, the lunchtime speaker, took the stage, Episcopal pastor Paula Clark Green said grace. With mellifluous oratorical flourishes, Green offered thanks for the "workers in the vineyard" and thanked God especially for such workers as Planned Parenthood.

But that was as far as the whole religion thing went. Entering to spirited applause and backed by huge video monitors, Obama quickly hit his stride, expounding on the gospel of choice. "We know that five men don't know better than women or their doctors what's best for women's health," he said, referring to the recent high-court decision upholding the federal ban on partial-birth abortion. "On this fundamental issue, I will not yield and Planned Parenthood will not yield!"

The audience cheered wildly. They did so again when Obama proclaimed that as president, he would make signing the "Freedom of Choice Act," a bill that codifies Roe v. Wade as law, one of his first acts.

Planned Parenthood's dinnertime speaker, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), has long championed what she calls "teenage celibacy" and since 2004 has publicly recognized the influence of religion in promoting abstinence. In January 2005, following the Democrats' electoral drubbing at the hands of "values voters," Clinton raised liberal eyebrows by calling abortion a "tragic choice" in a speech that coincided with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

But while speaking at the Ritz, Clinton accused pro-lifers of waging "a war on choice" and pledged in her "very first days in office" to reverse "these ideological, anti-science, anti-prevention policies that this administration has put in place."

The "anti-science" policy is, of course, abstinence, and the ideology in question is evangelical Christianity.

In an effort to peel off evangelical votes from the GOP, Obama and Clinton have targeted black evangelicals in particular. In late spring, both candidates made campaign swings through South Carolina. In Columbia, Clinton said that soldiers "need to be equipped with the full armor of God, which is their faith." At a shopping mall in Greenville, Obama spoke about his work in the 1980s with inner-city churches on Chicago's South Side to revitalize declining neighborhoods: "Our faith requires that we not just preach the Word, but that we act out on the Word."

But for inner-city minister Herb Lusk, pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia, such faith-speech makes Democrats sound like they're talking out of both sides of their mouths. "We need to see a lot more from the Democrats than talk about religious values," Lusk said.

As an example, he noted the hate crimes bill now under consideration in the Senate. The Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act would expand existing federal hate crimes law to include classes such as sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity. Opponents of the bill say it would be another step toward curtailing the free-speech rights of Christians who believe homosexuality is immoral.

"If you want to reach out to the church, you don't do that by muzzling the chance to preach the Bible as it is written," Lusk said.

Such approaches highlight the wide gap between the way Democrats and Republicans typically apply religious belief to public policy. "The way we have seen Democrats try to apply religious values to the big public policy questions is destructive of human dignity," said Joe Loconte, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "This is obvious on the life question, but is also observable even on issues that are not quite so obvious."


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