The Common Good
March 2008

Without A Prayer

by Amy Sullivan | March 2008

How the Democratic Party lost its faith in faith.

In the summer of 2004, my dad had a heart attack. My sister and I flew home to Michigan immediately, and I stayed on to help my parents adjust to their new medication-filled and cheeseburger-free existence. On Sunday morning, I drove down leafy, tree-lined Penniman Avenue to the Baptist church where I spent my childhood. I wanted to worship with the people who had been my second family. Settling down into a cushioned pew, I felt as if I were finally catching my breath. And then I tuned into Pastor Mike’s sermon just in time to hear him declare that it wasn’t possible to be a good Christian and a Democrat.

The pronouncement knocked the wind out of me. My liberal politics were, after all, due in large part to the gospel lessons I had absorbed at First Baptist of Plymouth, over years of Sunday sermons, Wednesday-evening church clubs, youth retreats, and devotions. A painfully literal kid, I took seriously Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 25 on how to be righteous. That meant constantly worrying that I wasn’t doing enough for the “least of these,” that I might inadvertently have snubbed Jesus-in-disguise by failing to share my fruit roll-ups with a classmate who forgot his lunch. Over time this impulse developed into a more concrete political conviction that citizens—and governments—had a moral obligation to take care of the poor, the sick, the marginalized.

By the time I graduated from high school, however, those gospel lessons had been subsumed by a different kind of politics. An assistant pastor rebuked me for taking a course on Zen philosophy and the writings of Emerson. Anti-abortion messages found their way into the occasional Advent sermon. I heard less about the inherent failings of humankind and more about the moral turpitude of liberals.

Baptists believe in an active and engaged God. But there is a difference between believing that the hand of God occasionally intervenes in human events and that it pulls the lever for Republican candidates.

Pastor Mike was hardly the only one reading out of the New Republican Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible during the 2004 campaign season. Back in January, before the first party primaries, Pat Robertson informed his 700 Club viewers that “George Bush is going to win in a walk.” In dioceses around the country, Catholic parishioners were warned not to present themselves for Communion if they supported pro-choice Democrats (pro-choice Republicans, on the other hand, were almost never singled out). Several weeks before the election, the pastor of East Waynesville Church in western North Carolina told members of his flock that if they planned to vote for John Kerry, they needed to repent of their sins or else leave the congregation. Come Election Day, so many churchgoing Americans cast their votes for George W. Bush that pundits created a new phrase—“the God gap”—to explain their voting patterns. The more often you attended church, the more likely you were to vote Republican.

The arrogant assumption of conservatives that they had a patent on piety was bad enough. But Democrats seemed to buy into this conventional wisdom as well, believing that religious Americans were all conservative. The Kerry campaign turned down opportunities to reach out to Catholics in Ohio because, as one adviser put it, “We don’t do white churches.” A leading Democratic pollster proclaimed all evangelicals “unreachable,” insisting that such voters line up with Republicans on every single issue. In the Democratic glossary of terms, religious voters were Catholics and evangelicals who only cared about abortion. They were, in other words, lost causes.

That conclusion would surprise a lot of Democratic voters who are themselves practicing Catholics and evangelicals. National polls consistently show that two-thirds of Democratic voters attend worship services regularly. Yet the people who run the Democratic Party largely believe that the “God gap” is an immutable law of the political universe.

 

SO HOW WAS it that the Democratic Party lost its faith in faith? The most obvious explanation is that conservatives and Republicans have spent 30 years telling us that Democrats aren’t religious. Conservative religious leaders have relentlessly promoted the idea that there is a liberal war on people of faith (or Christmas or the Bible), a mantra that Republican politicians have lustily repeated. However,

this marriage of convenience be­tween religious and political conservatives has been ably chronicled elsewhere—and it’s only part of the story.

The tale that has remained untold involves the left’s response to the rise of the Religious Right. That story is largely one of fear, ignorance, and political deafness. For while the political, religious, and cultural forces that gave rise to the Religious Right formed a perfect storm that was bound to have a significant impact on American politics, Democrats and liberals weren’t just passive nonactors who stood by helplessly on the sidelines while it all happened. Instead of pushing back, they chose to beat a retreat in the competition for religious voters and the discussion of morality, effectively ceding the ground to conservatives. The emergence of the God gap represents a failure of the left as much as it does an achievement of the right.

As recently as the late 1960s, religion was a decidedly nonpartisan affair in the United States. Presidents of all political stripes sprinkled their speeches with references to the Almighty. Religious Americans led political movements to battle communism and poverty, to promote temperance and civil rights. But the relationship between religion and politics changed abruptly in the turbulent decade that spanned the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. The twin disappointments of Vietnam and Watergate led to widespread disillusionment with traditional institutions, and the cynicism tainted religious authority as well. The postmodern argument that advanced societies would progress beyond the need for religious practice or belief in a higher power took hold in educated circles and further deepened the divide between secular elites and religious believers that had broken open during the Scopes trial decades earlier.

It’s hard to imagine today, but it was the Democratic Party that first successfully responded to the disillusionment of religious voters. Jimmy Carter, the party’s nominee in 1976, was the first politician to recognize that voters wanted to know more about a candidate than simply his position on energy policy or taxes; they cared about the moral fiber of their president as well. And those voters increasingly saw religious faith as a proxy, an efficient way to size up a candidate’s character. When he used the phrase “born-again” to describe himself, Carter connected with millions of evangelicals who had previously stayed away from politics.

But while Carter was the right candidate for the new politics of values, his party was rapidly moving in the other direction. Educated elites, particularly on the left, increasingly placed their faith in the tangible power of political action rather than the unfathomable might of a divine being. Carter’s own advisers begged him to tone down the God talk. But they misread the direction of the country. Far from becoming less religious in a postmodern age, Americans remained strongly devout, with 80 percent or more consistently reporting that religion was an “important” part of their lives.

Instead of finding another way to talk about character and values, Democratic leaders rejected the Carter model altogether, effectively opting out of a conversation with evangelicals. Later, as debate over abortion laws heated up in the 1980s, Democrats compounded the mistake by ending their dialogue with Catholic audiences as well. When Michael Dukakis ran at the head of the ticket in 1988, his campaign turned down all requests for appearances at Catholic institutions. Democratic politicians with national ambitions quickly learned that they needed to renounce their pro-life positions to attract money and support from powerful interest groups. And as the Catholic Church began to put pressure on Democrats who supported abortion rights, Catholic politicians also stopped publicizing their religious affiliation, further cementing the image of the Democratic Party as secularist.

The GOP, meanwhile, aggressively courted faith voters. Ronald Reagan famously told religious conservatives, “You can’t endorse me, but I can endorse you.” Republicans never missed an opportunity to paint Demo­crats as secular heathens who would ban the Bible if given half a chance. The party also built an extensive infrastructure to mobilize and connect with religious voters, a strategy that reached its zenith in 2004.

When Bill Clinton came along, he defied the stubborn conventional wisdom that had formed about the two parties’ relationship to religion. A Southern Baptist who could literally quote chapter and verse, Clinton made the protection of religious freedom a key focus of his domestic agenda and insisted that his staff work with conservative evangelical leaders in addition to progressive religious allies. Liberal leaders chalked up Clinton’s religious fluency to his general political skill; conservatives saw him as a fake who exploited religion for political purposes and pandered to voters. The actual voters, however, responded favorably to Clinton, rewarding him with a greater share of the evangelical and Catholic electorate than any other Democrat since Carter.

But the lesson didn’t take. In many ways, Clinton’s personal comfort with religion and his ability to act as his own religious liaison masked the ongoing problems of the Demo­cratic Party, which still had no inclination or ability to reach out to religious communities. Democrats were all too happy to let Clinton meet with religious leaders and sermonize in black churches. They did not, however, go so far as to change their approach on abortion to reflect his “safe, legal, and rare” mantra. Nor did they alter the party infrastructure so as to make it more hospitable to people of faith: There were no religious outreach efforts, no strategists who focused on religious voters. By the time Clinton left the White House in 2001, the Democratic Party was as disconnected as ever from religious voters.

So it should not have surprised anyone that Democrats found themselves so outmatched in the presidential campaign of 2004. That year, the Bush-Cheney operation did more with religious outreach than any other campaign in history, employing a massive parish- and congregation-level mobilization effort. In Florida alone, the Bush-Cheney campaign employed a state chairwoman for evangelical outreach who appointed a dozen regional coordinators around the state and designated outreach chairs in each of Florida’s 67 counties. Every county chair, in turn, recruited between 30 and 50 volunteers to contact and register their evangelical neighbors. In November, 3.5 million white evangelicals who had not voted in 2000 turned out to the polls.

The Kerry campaign, meanwhile, hired one junior staff aide with no national campaign experience to oversee religious outreach. Kerry’s top advisers decided not to publicly defend their candidate against charges from some Catholic bishops that his support for abortion rights meant he could not truly be a Catholic. While Kerry did give a speech about his faith and values, it took place a week before the election. Nine days later, Kerry lost the Catholic vote in Ohio by a margin of 44 to 55. It was a six-point drop from Al Gore’s showing among Catholics in that state four years earlier—if Kerry had matched Gore’s percentage of the Catholic vote in Ohio, he would have captured the state by 41,000 votes. Instead he came slightly more than 118,000 votes short, losing Ohio, and with it, the election.

 

WHILE I SAT slightly stunned in that Baptist pew during the summer of 2004, listening to Pastor Mike utter what were essentially GOP talking points, I scribbled furious notes in my bulletin and prepared to march over to the pastor and lecture him on the history of religious progressives.

Fortunately for Pastor Mike, I was intercepted on my way out of the sanctuary by a retired minister. Rev. Younge launched into a reflection about Harry Truman and the influence his faith had on the decisions he made in the Oval Office. As he talked, my anger and frustration dissipated. Rev. Younge came from the Billy Graham mold of ministers, more probing and thoughtful than fire-and-brimstone. He was a Republican voter, in part because of the party’s acknowledgment that values in­evitably shape public policy—but he certainly didn’t think it was his Christian duty to support the GOP. And he was a figure from an earlier era, when religion wasn’t yet such a divisive political element, when it wasn’t assumed that evangelicals were cut from one partisan cloth.

I found myself wondering what had happened to evangelicals like him. There had to be a story about why they left the Democratic Party for the GOP—and, for that matter, about why Catholics made the leap as well. If Democrats were to have a chance of leveling the praying field again, they would first need to understand their own history.

Rev. Younge seemed to read my mind. Tossing in one last historical example about Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches, he reminded me that politicians of all kinds have drawn on theological language and ideas to support their causes. “Isn’t it strange,” he mused, “that we tend to forget all that now?” n

Excerpted from The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap, by Amy Sullivan. Copyright 2008. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, Inc. Portions appeared in Time magazine, where Sullivan is Nation editor. In the summer of 2004, my dad had a heart attack. My sister and I flew home to Michigan immediately, and I stayed on to help my parents adjust to their new medication-filled and cheeseburger-free existence. On Sunday morning, I drove down leafy, tree-lined Penniman Avenue to the Baptist church where I spent my childhood. I wanted to worship with the people who had been my second family. Settling down into a cushioned pew, I felt as if I were finally catching my breath. And then I tuned into Pastor Mike’s sermon just in time to hear him declare that it wasn’t possible to be a good Christian and a Democrat.

The pronouncement knocked the wind out of me. My liberal politics were, after all, due in large part to the gospel lessons I had absorbed at First Baptist of Plymouth, over years of Sunday sermons, Wednesday-evening church clubs, youth retreats, and devotions. A painfully literal kid, I took seriously Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 25 on how to be righteous. That meant constantly worrying that I wasn’t doing enough for the “least of these,” that I might inadvertently have snubbed Jesus-in-disguise by failing to share my fruit roll-ups with a classmate who forgot his lunch. Over time this impulse developed into a more concrete political conviction that citizens—and governments—had a moral obligation to take care of the poor, the sick, the marginalized.

By the time I graduated from high school, however, those gospel lessons had been subsumed by a different kind of politics. An assistant pastor rebuked me for taking a course on Zen philosophy and the writings of Emerson. Anti-abortion messages found their way into the occasional Advent sermon. I heard less about the inherent failings of humankind and more about the moral turpitude of liberals.

Baptists believe in an active and engaged God. But there is a difference between believing that the hand of God occasionally intervenes in human events and that it pulls the lever for Republican candidates.

Pastor Mike was hardly the only one reading out of the New Republican Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible during the 2004 campaign season. Back in January, before the first party primaries, Pat Robertson informed his 700 Club viewers that “George Bush is going to win in a walk.” In dioceses around the country, Catholic parishioners were warned not to present themselves for Communion if they supported pro-choice Democrats (pro-choice Republicans, on the other hand, were almost never singled out). Several weeks before the election, the pastor of East Waynesville Church in western North Carolina told members of his flock that if they planned to vote for John Kerry, they needed to repent of their sins or else leave the congregation. Come Election Day, so many churchgoing Americans cast their votes for George W. Bush that pundits created a new phrase—“the God gap”—to explain their voting patterns. The more often you attended church, the more likely you were to vote Republican.

The arrogant assumption of conservatives that they had a patent on piety was bad enough. But Democrats seemed to buy into this conventional wisdom as well, believing that religious Americans were all conservative. The Kerry campaign turned down opportunities to reach out to Catholics in Ohio because, as one adviser put it, “We don’t do white churches.” A leading Democratic pollster proclaimed all evangelicals “unreachable,” insisting that such voters line up with Republicans on every single issue. In the Democratic glossary of terms, religious voters were Catholics and evangelicals who only cared about abortion. They were, in other words, lost causes.

That conclusion would surprise a lot of Democratic voters who are themselves practicing Catholics and evangelicals. National polls consistently show that two-thirds of Democratic voters attend worship services regularly. Yet the people who run the Democratic Party largely believe that the “God gap” is an immutable law of the political universe.

 

SO HOW WAS it that the Democratic Party lost its faith in faith? The most obvious explanation is that conservatives and Republicans have spent 30 years telling us that Democrats aren’t religious. Conservative religious leaders have relentlessly promoted the idea that there is a liberal war on people of faith (or Christmas or the Bible), a mantra that Republican politicians have lustily repeated. However,

this marriage of convenience be­tween religious and political conservatives has been ably chronicled elsewhere—and it’s only part of the story.

The tale that has remained untold involves the left’s response to the rise of the Religious Right. That story is largely one of fear, ignorance, and political deafness. For while the political, religious, and cultural forces that gave rise to the Religious Right formed a perfect storm that was bound to have a significant impact on American politics, Democrats and liberals weren’t just passive nonactors who stood by helplessly on the sidelines while it all happened. Instead of pushing back, they chose to beat a retreat in the competition for religious voters and the discussion of morality, effectively ceding the ground to conservatives. The emergence of the God gap represents a failure of the left as much as it does an achievement of the right.

As recently as the late 1960s, religion was a decidedly nonpartisan affair in the United States. Presidents of all political stripes sprinkled their speeches with references to the Almighty. Religious Americans led political movements to battle communism and poverty, to promote temperance and civil rights. But the relationship between religion and politics changed abruptly in the turbulent decade that spanned the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. The twin disappointments of Vietnam and Watergate led to widespread disillusionment with traditional institutions, and the cynicism tainted religious authority as well. The postmodern argument that advanced societies would progress beyond the need for religious practice or belief in a higher power took hold in educated circles and further deepened the divide between secular elites and religious believers that had broken open during the Scopes trial decades earlier.

It’s hard to imagine today, but it was the Democratic Party that first successfully responded to the disillusionment of religious voters. Jimmy Carter, the party’s nominee in 1976, was the first politician to recognize that voters wanted to know more about a candidate than simply his position on energy policy or taxes; they cared about the moral fiber of their president as well. And those voters increasingly saw religious faith as a proxy, an efficient way to size up a candidate’s character. When he used the phrase “born-again” to describe himself, Carter connected with millions of evangelicals who had previously stayed away from politics.

But while Carter was the right candidate for the new politics of values, his party was rapidly moving in the other direction. Educated elites, particularly on the left, increasingly placed their faith in the tangible power of political action rather than the unfathomable might of a divine being. Carter’s own advisers begged him to tone down the God talk. But they misread the direction of the country. Far from becoming less religious in a postmodern age, Americans remained strongly devout, with 80 percent or more consistently reporting that religion was an “important” part of their lives.

Instead of finding another way to talk about character and values, Democratic leaders rejected the Carter model altogether, effectively opting out of a conversation with evangelicals. Later, as debate over abortion laws heated up in the 1980s, Democrats compounded the mistake by ending their dialogue with Catholic audiences as well. When Michael Dukakis ran at the head of the ticket in 1988, his campaign turned down all requests for appearances at Catholic institutions. Democratic politicians with national ambitions quickly learned that they needed to renounce their pro-life positions to attract money and support from powerful interest groups. And as the Catholic Church began to put pressure on Democrats who supported abortion rights, Catholic politicians also stopped publicizing their religious affiliation, further cementing the image of the Democratic Party as secularist.

The GOP, meanwhile, aggressively courted faith voters. Ronald Reagan famously told religious conservatives, “You can’t endorse me, but I can endorse you.” Republicans never missed an opportunity to paint Demo­crats as secular heathens who would ban the Bible if given half a chance. The party also built an extensive infrastructure to mobilize and connect with religious voters, a strategy that reached its zenith in 2004.

When Bill Clinton came along, he defied the stubborn conventional wisdom that had formed about the two parties’ relationship to religion. A Southern Baptist who could literally quote chapter and verse, Clinton made the protection of religious freedom a key focus of his domestic agenda and insisted that his staff work with conservative evangelical leaders in addition to progressive religious allies. Liberal leaders chalked up Clinton’s religious fluency to his general political skill; conservatives saw him as a fake who exploited religion for political purposes and pandered to voters. The actual voters, however, responded favorably to Clinton, rewarding him with a greater share of the evangelical and Catholic electorate than any other Democrat since Carter.

But the lesson didn’t take. In many ways, Clinton’s personal comfort with religion and his ability to act as his own religious liaison masked the ongoing problems of the Demo­cratic Party, which still had no inclination or ability to reach out to religious communities. Democrats were all too happy to let Clinton meet with religious leaders and sermonize in black churches. They did not, however, go so far as to change their approach on abortion to reflect his “safe, legal, and rare” mantra. Nor did they alter the party infrastructure so as to make it more hospitable to people of faith: There were no religious outreach efforts, no strategists who focused on religious voters. By the time Clinton left the White House in 2001, the Democratic Party was as disconnected as ever from religious voters.

So it should not have surprised anyone that Democrats found themselves so outmatched in the presidential campaign of 2004. That year, the Bush-Cheney operation did more with religious outreach than any other campaign in history, employing a massive parish- and congregation-level mobilization effort. In Florida alone, the Bush-Cheney campaign employed a state chairwoman for evangelical outreach who appointed a dozen regional coordinators around the state and designated outreach chairs in each of Florida’s 67 counties. Every county chair, in turn, recruited between 30 and 50 volunteers to contact and register their evangelical neighbors. In November, 3.5 million white evangelicals who had not voted in 2000 turned out to the polls.

The Kerry campaign, meanwhile, hired one junior staff aide with no national campaign experience to oversee religious outreach. Kerry’s top advisers decided not to publicly defend their candidate against charges from some Catholic bishops that his support for abortion rights meant he could not truly be a Catholic. While Kerry did give a speech about his faith and values, it took place a week before the election. Nine days later, Kerry lost the Catholic vote in Ohio by a margin of 44 to 55. It was a six-point drop from Al Gore’s showing among Catholics in that state four years earlier—if Kerry had matched Gore’s percentage of the Catholic vote in Ohio, he would have captured the state by 41,000 votes. Instead he came slightly more than 118,000 votes short, losing Ohio, and with it, the election.

 

WHILE I SAT slightly stunned in that Baptist pew during the summer of 2004, listening to Pastor Mike utter what were essentially GOP talking points, I scribbled furious notes in my bulletin and prepared to march over to the pastor and lecture him on the history of religious progressives.

Fortunately for Pastor Mike, I was intercepted on my way out of the sanctuary by a retired minister. Rev. Younge launched into a reflection about Harry Truman and the influence his faith had on the decisions he made in the Oval Office. As he talked, my anger and frustration dissipated. Rev. Younge came from the Billy Graham mold of ministers, more probing and thoughtful than fire-and-brimstone. He was a Republican voter, in part because of the party’s acknowledgment that values in­evitably shape public policy—but he certainly didn’t think it was his Christian duty to support the GOP. And he was a figure from an earlier era, when religion wasn’t yet such a divisive political element, when it wasn’t assumed that evangelicals were cut from one partisan cloth.

I found myself wondering what had happened to evangelicals like him. There had to be a story about why they left the Democratic Party for the GOP—and, for that matter, about why Catholics made the leap as well. If Democrats were to have a chance of leveling the praying field again, they would first need to understand their own history.

Rev. Younge seemed to read my mind. Tossing in one last historical example about Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches, he reminded me that politicians of all kinds have drawn on theological language and ideas to support their causes. “Isn’t it strange,” he mused, “that we tend to forget all that now?”

Excerpted from The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap, by Amy Sullivan. Copyright 2008. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, Inc. Portions appeared in Time magazine, where Sullivan is Nation editor.

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