Summer/Fall 2007, Vol. 10, Nos. 1 & 2

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Articles in this issue

Table of Contents

From the Editor:

Beating Up on the New Atheists

Romney and the Mormon Moment

The Democrats Get Religion

No More Mr. Nice Pope

Establishing Religion by Executive Order

The Gospel According to South Park

People Who Loved Tammy Faye



The Democrats Get Religion
by Mark Silk

On September 26, the Democratic presidential debate in Hanover, N.H. was almost over when moderator Tim Russert squeezed in a quickie.

“Before we go, there’s been a lot of discussion about the Democrats and the issue of faith and values. I want to ask you a simple question. Senator Obama, what is your favorite Bible verse?”

The junior senator from Illinois came out with “The Sermon on the Mount” (109 verses worth, from Matthew 7-9)—“because it expresses a basic principle that I think we’ve lost over the last six years.”

Russert then gave each of the other hopefuls 10 seconds to name their own. These ranged from Sen. Hillary Clinton’s “The Golden Rule” (Luke 6:31—“do unto others…”) to Sen. Joe Biden’s “Christ’s warning of the Pharisees” (presumably Matthew 23:27—“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”)

The following day, the answers were vetted by New York Timesman Jeff Zeleny in the Times’ national political blog, Caucus. “A quick check of an on-line Bible passage search found that several of the answers cannot be found in the Bible at all,” Zeleny sniffed. Foremost among these was Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s citation of “this prayer of Saint Francis, which says, ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.’” No one, however, turned out to have committed an error as egregious as Howard Dean’s placement of the Book of Job in the New Testament during his run for the Democratic nomination four years ago.

Welcome to Election Cycle 2008, when the Democrats got religion—and the media decided to make sure they had it.

It was “in part because they let themselves be portrayed as anti-God” that Democrats lost the past two presidential elections, Biden told Nashua, N.H. Rotarians August 13, according to Holly Ramer’s AP dispatch. But in part, the Dems had brought it upon themselves—by being “too afraid to talk about faith.”

Having had it pounded into them that Republicans get the lion’s share of the votes of the nation’s most frequent churchgoers, the Democrats have started talking.

On June 4, in a forum organized by the liberal evangelical journal Sojourners and broadcast on CNN and YouTube, the top three Democratic candidates—Clinton, Obama, and Edwards—all subjected themselves to a grilling on their spiritual sides by a panel moderated by Soledad O’Brien. (The second tier got some faith-based play too, in the form of brief interviews with Paula Zahn.) Later that month, when Obama showed up in Hartford to address a convention of his co-religionists in the United Church of Christ, there was no shortage of media attention.

Over at Democratic National Committee headquarters, they are staffed up with people who know their way around a prayer book. There’s a Faith in Action initiative, created after the 2004 election, that has cranked out 150 workers to do religious outreach.

The CEO for the Democratic National Convention is Leah Daughtry, an ordained Pentecostal minister who pastors the House of the Lord Church in Washington. Daughtry, Chuck Plunkett of the Denver Post reported June 17, presides over a “faith council” whose job it is to reach out to a wide range of religious leaders.

The aforementioned Dean, the Party chair, makes a point of meeting privately with clergy on his travels around the country—including even the likes of Richard Land, chief politico for the Southern Baptist Convention. “In the past, we’ve come off as dismissive to evangelicals,” Dean told Newsweek in an October 1 article by Eve Conant. “But our party has become much more comfortable talking about faith and values.”

The beefy Clinton and Obama campaigns each have an official in charge of religion as well as state “Faith Steering Committees” to foster connections with religious folks. In September, Obama’s Illinois committee conducted a 10-day “faith tour,” featuring a “What’s faith got to do with it?” forum at each stop.

But the sine qua non for connecting with religious voters is for the candidates themselves to have a good faith story of their own to tell. This is the latest version of the traditional requirement that an American politician who would be president put out a plausible biographical narrative of moral growth and development—one that ideally turns on a moment of crisis or testing.

Though they would probably not like to hear it, the Democrats’ current model in this genre of self-presentation is George W. Bush, who established his evangelical bona fides in 2000 by letting the world in on his religious rebirth. His was the old story of the drunk transformed into a good family man and successful breadwinner by accepting Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. It came complete, as it must to all presidents since Eisenhower, with a close encounter with the Rev. Billy Graham.

Hillary Clinton’s faith journey looks like the distaff side of the Bush story. Not that she had to jumpstart a religious identity in the middle of the journey. Her lifelong Methodist commitment has been well attested, even in the often backsliding college years, when, as a student at Wellesley, she showed up regularly at a student group run by the college chaplain. As first lady of Arkansas, she and daughter Chelsea attended First United Methodist Church in Little Rock.

But the problem, if problem it be, was that her pre-White House religiosity seemed more to have to do with changing the world than the soul. As Michael Luo put it in a July 7 New York Times article on Clinton’s religion, “The liberal-leaning brand of Methodism that Mrs. Clinton is steeped in places a premium on social activism but tends to be reticent about discussing personal piety.”

Then, however, came the public catastrophe of her philandering husband’s dalliance with a White House intern. To Luo she spoke of “turning to Christian writers for solace after her husband’s infidelity.” The Lewinsky crisis precipitated her own encounter with Billy Graham, who helped her with “the issue of forgiveness,” according to what she told Time’s Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs for their forthcoming book, The Preacher and the Presidents.

“On the campaign trail or in other public appearances,” Luo wrote, “she increasingly is speaking more personally about faith sprinkling in references to inspiring biblical verses…, Jesus’ injunction to care for the needy and even her daily prayer life, which she credits to being raised in a ‘praying family.’”

Barack Obama’s faith journey centers on conversion as a search for identity. His father was a Muslim turned atheist; his mother, a spiritually inclusive anthropologist who had little personal use for organized religion. Obama himself grew up a skeptic. But working as a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s, he found himself continually on the receiving end of the question, “What church do you belong to.”

In due course, he found his way to Trinity United Church of Christ, led by the dynamic minister Jeremiah Wright. Obama has described his spiritual awakening in both his autobiographical books, Dreams from My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006).

In the latter, he wrote, “The questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His Truth.”

The only fly in this ointment was that Wright’s radical politics threatened to become a problem for Obama, and distance had to be put between the two—such as by disinviting him from giving the invocation at Obama’s campaign kickoff.

Rounding out the top three Democratic candidates is John Edwards, a born North Carolina Baptist turned Methodist, who seemed to lose contact with religion during his career as an immensely successful trial attorney. In his case, the spiritual return had to do with the death of his son Wade in 1996.

“The days after that, when I was trying to survive and Elizabeth was trying to survive, my faith came roaring back and has stayed with me since that time and helped me deal with the personal challenges we have,” Edwards said in an interview on the religious
webzine Beliefnet earlier this year. He went on to say that his faith had helped sustain him through the strains imposed on his family by his political career and his wife’s breast cancer.

None of the above is meant to impugn the sincerity of the three candidates’ religious convictions. But as reporter after reporter has noted, all three have put religion forward on the stump in a way they never did before. Never—even on the GOP side—have competing faith journeys played such a role in American presidential politics.

Is it all working?

There’s some survey evidence to suggest that Americans are a bit more likely than they were a couple of years ago to think that Democrats are religion-friendly. But surveys showing a greater inclination on the part of the more religious to vote Democratic—notably younger evangelicals—may say more about their concerns about health care and Iraq, and their disillusionment with the GOP, than about any new Democratic imagery.

Nor is it clear—at least at this writing—that the candidates’ religious personae are getting through. A Time magazine poll released in September found that only 16 percent see Clinton as strongly religious, as opposed to 24 percent for Obama and 28 percent for Edwards. Given the religious pitches that all three have made, this may reflect little more than a widespread assumption that white Southerners and African Americans are likely to have religion.

But there’s no question that something new is happening out there in media land. After the CNN debate, the Christian Broadcasting Network’s chief political correspondent David Brody blogged that he was “flabbergasted.”

“For the next hour I sat in my seat in awe. There was conservative Christian ‘red meat’ everywhere….I mean,
I was waiting for Soledad O’Brien to pull a ‘Mission Impossible’ move, take off her face mask and reveal…James Dobson!”


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