I remember the first time I heard Gov. Howard Dean speak, more than a year ago. Dean sharply criticized the move toward war in Iraq and wondered out loud why the other Democrats were not willing to challenge the Bush administration. At the time, the faith community had been active in opposition to the war, but while protests erupted around the world, our leaders in Washington remained painfully silent. Dean broke through that silence with what to me was a prophetic voice in a time that desperately needed politicians to be truth-tellers.
I was so inspired to see a candidate who was willing to stand up for the things I believed in that I decided to leave my job to work on the Dean campaign. As a Christian, I passionately wanted to galvanize the faith community around the candidate that had captured my heart and imagination. I headed to Iowa, where I managed to convince the Dean campaign to hire me to do outreach to religious communities. I was quickly dubbed the "church lady" as I tried to convince senior staff that, although many people of faith supported Deans positions, his secular image would hurt him in the election.
My appeals for intelligent language about faith were met with skepticism. I was told that Dean supporters were not religious and liked him because he didnt talk about religion. A senior staff member who came into Iowa in the final weeks even asked me, "How in the world did you get hired?!" He just couldnt comprehend expending resources to reach out to the religious community. "Its not that Im against it," he said, "its just I would have never thought of it. Who would have known religious people could get behind us?"
When Dean abruptly started talking about religion, his comments came across as insensitive and out of touch: He said he would only talk about religion when campaigning in the South; he called Job his favorite "New Testament" book.
I was amazed by the ignorance about religious people that I found among campaign workers, who seemed unable to comprehend Christians being Democrats. What an odd misconception, considering that an overwhelming percentage of Democrats are religious; according to George Barna, one of the most respected pollsters on religious matters, 79 percent of Democrats attend a Catholic or Protestant church. It was not the right wing Dean was alienating, but the very base of his party.
PRESUMPTIVE DEMOCRATIC nominee John Kerry need not make the same mistakes. Kerry and his wife Teresa have publicly emphasized the importance of their Catholic faith. Kerry spoke recently to a church audience quoting from James on how faith without works is dead. If Kerry continues to use religious language appropriately (and not only when speaking in the South) and embraces the millions of religious Americans that are the base of his supporters, he might just change some assumptions about the "secular" Democratic Party, and in the process, pick up a crucial constituency that could tip the balance of the election.
Ultimately, I cant separate my Christianity from my values or my values from my politics. For me, being engaged in politics is an expression of my deepest held religious beliefsit is about actualizing a collective commitment to protect the integrity of Gods creation, its about meeting the needs of the "least of these," and about our nation being a generous and trustworthy leader in the world. There are certainly positions taken by leading Democrats with which many Christians wont agreeand many Christians are appalled by what they see as the exploitation of religion for political gain on the part of the Republican Party. The bottom line in applying our beliefs in the political arena is making an across-the-board assessment of who best represents the values we hold most dear.
The best way to overcome the misconceptions about the role of religious people in politics is to get involved. Christians should join a campaign, educate their faith community on the issues they care about, and get mobilized to register and vote. And if we do, politicians of all stripes will start to listen.
Mara Vanderslice, a Christian activist and political organizer, was the religious outreach coordinator for the Dean for America presidential campaign in Iowa.