Democrats try to woo the faithful

Party's new focus on religion has some, but not all, saying amen.

state-religion survey 224 (photo credit: )
state-religion survey 224
(photo credit: )
As the Orthodox Union¹s Rabbi Tzvi Weinreb addressed the interfaith gathering that kicked off the Democratic National Convention on Sunday, his words on the importance of taking action elicited an "amen" from the audience. Noticing that the interjection was delivered with a broad American pronunciation, he replied, "Now let's try the Hebrew amen," leading the 3,000-strong audience in a hearty rendition of "Ahh-main" to much laughter and applause. "Now I feel more at home," he told them. That feeling, as it turns out, is a major goal of the gathering and the plethora of events focused on faith and faith-oriented constituencies at the convention this week. The Democratic Party is trying to upgrade its faith outreach so that religious voters will feel more comfortable with - and be more likely to back - the party. But it¹s a fraught calculation for the Democrats, who hope to attract new supporters but risk alienating others. The placement of the interfaith event, according to Matt Dorf, Jewish outreach coordinator for the Democratic National Committee, "speaks very much to the party's commitment to people of faith and values that make us Democrats." He noted that the unprecedented faith effort will include appearances by seven rabbis from four denominations, including Reform Rabbi David Saperstein's delivery of the invocation at the preeminent convention event Barack Obama's acceptance of the nomination on Thursday night. In addition, several faith caucuses and religion-oriented panel discussions will be held, including events on how to get out the faith vote and the role of values in foreign policy. "This is the continuation of a process to talk to voters that for a long time we weren't talking to," Dorf explained. Indeed, it's a conversation that's not just taking place at the convention. Many analysts have noted the Democratic Party's new attention to religious themes, use of religious language, participation in faith forums and outreach to voters of faith, attributing the trend largely to the poor showing of recent Democratic presidential nominees among religious voters. Republican President George W. Bush, for instance, won about 80 percent of the white evangelical vote in the presidential election of 2004. "Most American voters felt the Democrats were hostile to religion," said Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center. "America being a very religious country caused Democratic Party activists to say, 'We're missing out here.'" However, he projects that the concerted effort by Democrats is likely not to yield much, except perhaps at the margins, as religious voters will look more to the content, rather than the tone, of politicians¹ promises. "At the end of the day, being friendly to religious people isn't what matters. What's important is that the policies you promote coincide with what religious conviction leads to," Cromartie said. He pointed to more conservative religious communities as the ones that are fastest-growing and vote in the largest numbers - and who don¹t agree with Democratic positions favoring abortion choice and gay rights, among other things. While younger evangelical adherents also value issues like global warming and fighting global poverty, they expanded rather than revised their agendas, he said. Speaking ahead of the convention, he argued that merely injecting religious language that appeals to progressive religious groups won¹t change the larger social dynamics. "The mainline Protestant churches have been voting Democratic for a long time, but they¹re dying," he said. But Dorf rejected that assessment, saying the Democratic National Committee outreach efforts were already bearing fruit as religious voters take a good look at Obama. "I believe that there are voters concerned about health care and education and caring for the least fortunate among us, and that's a critical part of why they vote. And when you look at [presumptive Republican nominee] John McCain and Senator Obama and [presumptive vice presidential nominee] Senator Biden, you see a stark contrast." But whether or not faith voters can be drawn in, some other voters are beginning to feel alienated, charging that the Democratic Party is turning its back on the value of separating religion and politics that it has long stood for. Outside the interfaith gathering on Sunday, one protestor who's part of a self-described secular voting bloc held a placard reading, "Keep church and state separate." "I understand their need to court religious voters," said Geoffrey Price. "The problem is that this event feels like it was courting religious voters at the expense of nonreligious voters." He said continuing along this path could mean that he - a lifelong Democrat - and others like him would "de-register" from the party. And the effort has not sat well with some Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, which has long pushed for a strict separation between faith and politics. ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said the "distressing" focus on religion in the campaigns threatened to "change the nature of our country," which was founded on a separation of church and state. He was referring to the convention, as well as to candidates' statements and participation in religious events throughout the campaign. The first sentence of a campaign flyer being handed out here titled Faith, Family, Values begins, for instance, begins by stating that, "Barack Obama is a committed Christian and has been a leader in addressing the role of people of all faiths in American life." "It's almost a religious test we're talking about: 'Look how religious I am. Look how I believe in Jesus or Moses,'" Foxman said, then reconsidered. "I haven't heard a lot of Moses recently - or Allah. But I've heard a lot of Jesus." "It's troubling for the Jewish community. We are a minority in a majority Christian country and if we accept that candidates should make open, blatant appeals to religion, they're not going to make it in terms of Jews or Muslims, they're going to make it in the context of the majority religion, which is Christianity," Foxman said. But many of the Jewish participants in the Democratic convention differed. Steve Gutow, a Reconstructionist rabbi who will be participating in a convention forum on appealing to faith voters, said the line had not been crossed. His organization, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, has long stood for church-state separation and he said he didn't see any violations in Denver. "We definitely stand very strongly against faith controlling the decision-making process," he said, but added that there was a "balance" that allowed for a discussion of how voters' faith informs their values and the policies they support. "There's no way religion should define a policy," he said. "But religion should help us think about policy." He said that religion played a major role in shaping the values that lead to individuals' religious beliefs. He concluded, "We shouldn't be afraid to talk about it and use the language of religion" - both pronunciations of amen included.