- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Pop Quiz: Which presidential candidate opened a recent event in South Carolina with: “Giving all praise and honor to God. Look at the day that the Lord has made.” Former Baptist Minister Mike Huckabee? Nope. Former Mormon Bishop Mitt Romney? Nah. Catholic school-educated Rudy Giuliani? Not even close.

Those are the words of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, whose remarks, spoken at Redemption World Outreach Center in Greenville are typical of the religious rhetoric emanating from the Democratic presidential candidates.

The campaign has in recent weeks focused on the Republican candidates’ views on religion’s place in politics. But it is religion’s role in the Democratic Party that may prove most determinative come Election Day.

After decades of dismissing, and losing, the faith-based vote, the Democratic Party has resurrected its fondness for faith-based politics. The phenomenon is most evident among the party’s presidential contenders, who have hired religious outreach staff, participated in religious forums and even organized “faith tours” in key primary states.

Most conspicuously, the Democratic candidates are talking candidly about their personal faith experiences. In late November, Hillary Clinton addressed a California mega-church and told the congregation that her faith got her through her marital problems, and that, “I was fortunate enough to be raised to understand the power and the purpose of prayer.” Mrs. Clinton also says she has felt “the presence of the Holy Spirit on many occasions.”

When Mr. Obama speaks at evangelical churches, he often exhorts worshippers to pray that he becomes “an instrument of God” and join him in creating a “kingdom right here on earth.” Not to be outdone, John Edwards talks about his “deep and abiding love for [his] savior, Jesus Christ.” And so on.

You might think all this God talk would put the Democrats in good stead with religious voters. After all, a 2006 Pew poll found that 61 percent of evangelicals think there is not enough expression of religious faith and prayer by political leaders, while just 7 percent believe there is too much. But that’s not the case. After capturing 22 percent of weekly (or more) churchgoers in 2004, Democrats inched up to just 27 percent in 2006, despite major gains among many other voter groups. Even worse, an August 2007 poll found that only 30 percent of voters feel Democrats are “friendly to religion,” down from 42 percent in 2003.

Why have the Democrats failed to narrow the “God gap”? Here are two important reasons. First, religious voters have learned that strong religious sentiment is not a reliable predictor of policy. History is instructive. In 1976, openly evangelical Democrat Jimmy Carter catapulted to the presidency by capturing the support of 6-in-10 Bible-believing white Protestant voters. Just four years later, however, Mr. Carter lost the same voting bloc by 25 percentage points to Ronald Reagan.

What happened? Though Mr. Carter was an ardent “believer,” he did not, by supporting abortion and policies that stifle religious freedom, govern like one. Conversely, Mr. Reagan, though not a regular churchgoer, knew that America’s liberty comes from God, and he understood that it was wrong to destroy innocent human life — and his policies reflected that understanding. Ever since, religious voters have recognized that policy, not piety, matters most.

This is a lesson the Democrats seem reluctant to learn. When the Democratic candidates visit “progressive” churches, they often wax philosophical about the moral imperative of universal health care or the $10 minimum wage; but at these churches they are preaching to relatively small, and largely Democratic, choirs. But until they moderate their strident support for abortion-on-demand, homosexual unions and other extreme positions, the Democrats will continue to alienate religious voters.

A second obstacle for Democrats (and one that amplifies the first) is the intraparty squabble between religious and secular Democrats. Non-churchgoers, though comprising only a small share of the electorate (15 percent in 2004), are decidedly liberal (John Kerry received 64 percent support from them in 2004; President Bush received 34 percent). What’s more, non-religious Democrats constitute a significant portion of the party’s interest groups, funders and activists.

As author Arthur C. Brooks has noted: Secular liberals, and especially those who are explicitly nonbelievers, have become a major force on the political left. Researchers have found, for example, that delegates to the Democratic National Convention — the politically active folks who nominate the Democratic candidate for the presidency — are more than twice as likely to be completely secular as the population at large.

Not surprisingly, secular liberals are uneasy about the prospect of a faith-based Democratic Party. National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy summed up the sentiment of many secular Democrats when she said, “I don’t want a progressive evangelical movement any more than I want the conservative one we have right now.” Which means when Mr. Obama proclaims that, “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square,” he does so warily.

By discussing their faith more openly, the Democratic presidential candidates have shown that they recognize the central role of religious belief in America’s heritage. But the Democratic candidates still have significant obstacles to overcome before most religious voters will take the ultimate leap of faith and vote for them.

Gary L. Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.

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