With unprecedented access to politicians, campaign advisers, and religious leaders, Amy Sullivan skillfully traces the Democratic Party's fall from grace among religious voters, showing how the party lost its primacy—and maybe its soul—in the process. It's a story that begins with the party's ineffectual response to the rise of the religious right and culminates with John Kerry's defeat in the 2004 presidential election. Sullivan documents key turning points along the way, such as the party's alienation of Catholics on the abortion issue and its failure to emulate Bill Clinton's success at reaching religious voters. She demonstrates that there was nothing inevitable about the defection of values voters to the GOP and the emergence of the God gap: it was not just a Republican achievement but the Democrats' failure to embrace their own faith and engage religious Americans on social issues.
Sullivan's story has a hopeful ending. She takes readers behind the scenes of the Democrats' recent religious turnaround. She offers insight into the ways Democrats have reoriented their campaigns to appeal to religious voters—including their successes at framing the abortion issue in less-divisive terms and at finding common ground with evangelical leaders and communities.
Timely, informative, and immensely thought-provoking, The Party Faithful is a tough and revealing analysis of the Democratic Party's relationship to religion and an essential primer for evaluating the outcome of the 2008 presidential election.
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The Party Faithful How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap
By Amy Sullivan Scribner Copyright © 2008 Amy Sullivan
All right reserved.
JESUS BUMPS AND GOD GAPS
In the summer of 2004, my dad had a heart attack. My sister and I flew home to Michigan immediately, and because I didn't have to start a new job for another month, I stayed on to help my parents adjust to their new medication-filled and cheeseburger-free existence. It turned out that I was hardly necessary. Nothing showcases Midwestern pragmatism like a crisis, and our friends and neighbors rallied. Former colleagues drove my dad to cardiac rehabilitation appointments. Relatives came over with stacks of low-cal, low-fat, heart-healthy cookbooks, while the chef who lives next door whipped up a red-wine-and-portobello risotto for the rest of us. And the good folks at the First Baptist Church of Plymouth did what they do best -- they prayed.
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. When it was time to share praises and prayer requests, I took the cordless microphone from the roving usher, thanked them all for their prayers, and reported that Dad was making good progress. "Amen!" came the responsefrom around the sanctuary. Sitting back down in a cushioned pew that still bore the remnants of some Silly Putty that got away from me during a particularly dull sermon twenty-five years earlier, I let my mind drift while the pastor took to the pulpit.
I grew up in this church, singing the rollicking tune "Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus" on Christmas mornings and learning my Bible stories from a Sunday school teacher who talked about getting "Jesus bumps" instead of goose bumps. At age ten, I walked up the aisle to the altar one morning at the end of a service and announced (although it came out as more of a squeak) my desire to be baptized. The event took place a few weeks later in the baptistery high above the choir loft, a dunking that was celebrated afterward with cake and orange sherbet in the church gym. I was a nerdy mess of orthodontics, peach plastic eyeglasses, and half-damp hair, but the congregation at First Baptist welcomed me with open arms as a child of God.
Now, at the end of what had been a gut-wrenching week, in which I had been strong for everyone else, I needed to be wrapped in that faith again. I felt comforted in this church. I felt at home. I felt as if I were finally catching my breath. I tried to remember why it had been so long since I had visited. And then I tuned back 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, and the matter-of-fact tone in which it was delivered, 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, 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: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in." At a young age, 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 at my church. An assistant pastor rebuked me for taking a course on Zen philosophy and the writings of Emerson ("The Bible says to beware of false religions"). Antiabortion 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. As a result, I sought out different church homes in other cities. But First Baptist retained a special distinction as the place that had formed my faith, and it was still the congregation I turned to in this time of crisis.
With Pastor Mike's words still ricocheting inside my head, I bristled at his implication. The God of Abraham and Isaac, the God who created the heavens and the earth, the God I was taught to trust and obey, could not be squeezed into the narrow confines of partisan politics. He wasn't anybody's campaign surrogate, and He certainly didn't do endorsements. 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 he was "hearing from the Lord it's going to be like a blowout election in 2004" and 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. Every news outlet, it seemed, had an interview with some voter explaining that she didn't really agree with George W. Bush on the war or the economy or environmental policy or stem-cell research or, come to think of it, much at all -- but she planned to vote for him anyway because he was a good Christian man. Come Election Day, so many churchgoing Americans cast their votes for 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 what really took me aback was that 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. Most forget the legacy of William Jennings Bryan, the populist evangelical who ran as the Democratic presidential nominee three times around the turn of the twentieth century. Or Dorothy Day, the social-justice activist who founded the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s and who devoted her life to promoting pacifism. They endlessly cite the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but forget that he was "Reverend King" before he was a national icon. The few who do remember the Democratic Party as a once-proud home to religious voters believe the emergence of abortion as a political lightning rod made their defection to the GOP inevitable.
I wrote this book because my personal experience told me these assumptions about religion and the political parties simply weren't correct. I didn't believe that Kerry's rout among religious voters was really preordained. I didn't believe that evangelicals and Catholics had set up a permanent home in the Republican Party. And I certainly didn't believe that Pastor Mike and other religious conservatives had a right to be so smug in their pronouncements about which issues and values qualified as genuinely religious. I was raised to honor God, my parents, and the Kennedys -- and not necessarily in that order. As a young bona fide Jesus geek, I spent Friday nights playing a card game called Bible Daughters with my sister (think Go Fish, but with Mary Magdalene and Esther) and Saturday afternoons knocking on doors for Democratic candidates. And I wasn't some weird outlier. Although they didn't necessarily advertise their religious leanings, many of the people I met in Democratic politics knew their way around a church potluck as well as a committee markup. They were liberals because of, not despite, their religious beliefs.
Sadly, however, my experience also taught me that our fellow liberals and Democrats weren't completely blameless for the popular assumption that only conservatives were religious. After graduating from college, I worked for a series of congressional Democrats because I shared their belief that government can play an important role in protecting the most vulnerable among us. But many colleagues didn't share my belief that people of faith had an important role to play in these causes. At times, they took an actively hostile view toward religion, as though it were an obstacle to progress. I lost track of the number of times Democratic aides -- and even the rare congressman -- wielded public opinion polls about evolution as triumphant conversation-enders in private meetings. If these people were too stupid to believe in evolution, they argued, how were we supposed to work with them on progressive political issues?
I last worked in Democratic politics more than ten years ago and am now a journalist whose reporting is informed by my time spent in the worlds of religion and politics. The intersection of the two is a professional interest of mine, but also inevitably personal. Although I left the Baptist Church long ago, I'm still very much Baptist and an evangelical. For me, that has meant that my faith is rooted in biblical authority instead of church tradition, it depends on a personal relationship with God, and it requires me to share my beliefs with others, although my "witnessing" is focused not on converting others but on presenting a different face of evangelicalism to my fellow liberals.
I don't much like being told that my faith is called into question because of my political views. But neither do I like hearing that my ability to participate in political debate is suspect because of my religious convictions. So while this book is primarily a response to Pastor Mike and my conservative religious friends who wonder how it is possible for Christians to support liberal politicians, it is also a plea for understanding from those Democrats who look embarrassed for me when I tell them I'm an evangelical, and who wonder how it is possible for political liberals to worship side by side with Republican values voters. And finally, of course, this book is an offering for people just like me. For the people I meet in every corner of the country who are angry with Republicans for claiming a monopoly on faith and disappointed with Democrats for giving it to them.
So how was it that the Democratic Party lost its faith in faith? The most obvious explanation is that conservatives and Republicans have spent thirty 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. If anything, the contours of the religious landscape favored Democrats: their voters were evangelical Southerners and ethnic Catholics, while Republicans appealed to wealthier Northeastern WASPs and Catholics who were more private about their faith.
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. The women's movement and civil rights struggles led to greater opportunities, but in an era marked by assassinations and fear of nuclear annihilation, it seemed to many that the pace of change was out of control.
This country is a better place for the enhanced freedoms and tolerance that the women's and civil rights movements delivered. That Democrats paid a hefty political price for championing these causes was by no means a reason to sit them out. The question is whether the price needed to have been as steep as it turned out to be. I believe that it did not.
It's hard to imagine today, but it was, after all, 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 now 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. With an evangelist sister and his own background as an organizer for Billy Graham crusades, Carter talked openly about his religious faith, not just in the generic "God bless America" sort of way that politicians had previously favored. When he used the phrase "born-again" to describe himself, Carter connected with millions of evangelicals who had previously stayed away from politics. And his promise "I'll never lie to you" was -- in the wake of Richard Nixon's resignation -- a potent statement for Americans of all faiths and no faith at all.
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. "We're reassuring people Jimmy won't turn the White House into a Billy Graham Bible class," adman Jerry Rafshoon told reporters at one point during the 1976 campaign. 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 freely talked to religious publications like Christianity Today. He made the protection of religious freedom a key focus of his domestic agenda and insisted 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, the ability to be everything to everyone. 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 extraordinary 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. And George W. Bush got away with arguing that his White House would protect religious organizations that had been "discriminated against" by the antireligion Clinton administration.
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 sixty-seven counties. Every county chair, in turn, recruited between thirty and fifty volunteers to contact and register their evangelical neighbors. In September, the Republican National Convention had all the characteristics of a four-day revival meeting, featuring popular acts from the Christian music world and screenings of the documentary George W. Bush: Faith in the White House. And 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 and allowed her one intern -- the two had a single telephone between them with which to recruit and contact volunteers. 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 remarkable speech about his faith and values, it took place little more than a week before the election. And because of staff concerns about abortion protesters, the senator gave his faith talk not at a Catholic university in Ohio as originally scheduled, but at a Jewish senior center in Florida with little fanfare. 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.
When I sat slightly stunned in that Baptist pew during the summer of 2004, listening to Pastor Mike utter what were essentially GOP talking points, it took all of my self-control not to leap up and stomp out of the church. As it was, I scribbled furious notes in my bulletin, sang the closing hymn on autopilot, and prepared to march on over to the pastor and lecture him on the history of religious progressives. I couldn't do much about the fact that this same scene was playing out in churches around the country, but I could at least remind this particular religious leader that he was preaching to a choir with diverse views.
Fortunately for Pastor Mike, I was intercepted on my way out of the sanctuary by a retired minister who wanted to know if I was the Sullivan girl who wrote about politics. Pleased to learn that he had the right sister, Reverend 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 rapidly dissipated. Reverend Younge came from the Billy Graham mold of ministers, more probing and thoughtful than fire-and-brimstone. I'd never seen him wearing anything other than a proper Sunday suit; he wouldn't have been caught dead in casual worship attire. 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.
As we talked, I found myself wondering what had happened to evangelicals like Reverend Younge. 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.
Reverend Younge seemed to read my mind as we shook hands before I wove my way through the pews and headed home. 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?"
Copyright © 2008 by Amy Sullivan
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Table of ContentsAuthor's Note vii
Jesus Bumps and God Gaps: Introduction 1
"The Goddam Christians": How Democrats Lost Evangelicals 13
"Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries": How Democrats Lost Catholics 49
Isaiah 40:31: Bill Clinton's Faithful Presidency 81
"We Don't Do White Churches": John Kerry's Religion Disaster 115
Pro-Life and Pro-Choice: A Breakthrough on Abortion 153
"Where Have You Been?": The Democrats Discover Evangelicals 177
A Level Praying Field: Conclusion 205
Appendix A 221
Appendix B 223