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Faith-based legacy

"Faith-based legacy" Continued...

Issue: "The waiting game," March 22, 2008

President Bush should also get credit for shifting the consensus about faith and government. He brought the subject to national attention in his emphasis on compassionate conservatism in his first campaign.

Indirectly, too, he may have helped end the Republican Party monopoly on faith and values. Polling data from the 2004 election woke Democrats to the fact that they were losing elections because they could not connect well with evangelical or faith-and-values voters.

Frequent churchgoers, for example, voted for Bush by a 64 percent to 35 percent margin. Reporters and commentators went to work on books on the subject, pondering whether the Democratic Party might work to be at least more tolerant of these voters. Pro-life candidates were welcomed to the party in 2006, helping the Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives.

Now in the presidential election the top candidates are freely talking about their faith in Christ, or their memories of Sunday school lessons from childhood.

Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and director of its Evangelical Studies Project, thinks the God-talk is a mixed blessing. "It's a huge change," he said. "You can't run for office on the Republican or Democratic side and be totally tone-deaf to religious values and religious beliefs."

He also thinks voters are getting a better picture of candidates with this issue on center stage: "It's better for reporters to be able to ask these questions. We get to find out if politicians really believe this stuff, or if they are working off talking points given to them by an assistant."

Though it seems to be a change for the better among the Democrats, Cromartie is not sure it represents a policy shift: "It is not the use of God language that persuades these voters, but where you stand on certain public policies. My impression is that Hillary's use of God language and Obama's has only secured the votes of people they already had-left-of-center mainline Protestants and Catholics."

Will their faith affect their policies, though? "If their views on partial-birth abortion haven't changed," Cromartie continued, "I don't see evangelicals swinging over to them because they can quote hymns and use religious language in their stump speeches."

Cromartie adds that the Democratic candidates have a careful balance to keep, with the history of secular influence within the party: "There's a tension in the party between religious people and secular people. The struggle in the party is how to let these candidates speak in religious language that doesn't alienate the secular base."

Looming over the debate within the Democratic Party is the shadow of an unpopular president: Without the persistent Bush advocacy for faith and public policy, these questions would likely not have arisen for the Democrats.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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