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How about looking at the Democrats' 'secular' problem?

ASK THIS | September 19, 2005

A poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life says that only 29 percent of Americans believe the Democratic Party is 'friendly toward religion.' As Laura Olson notes, that's a good starting point for reporters.

By Laura R. Olson


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Q.  What are Americans’ views regarding the Democratic Party, religion, and values?


Q.  Why is the Democratic Party perceived as secular?


Q.  How could the Democrats change their message to incorporate religion and morality?


Americans are increasingly coming to believe that the Democratic Party does not care about religious values. New polling data from the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life show that only 29 percent of Americans feel that the Democrats are “friendly toward religion,” as compared with 40 percent who felt the same way as recently as August 2004. Meanwhile, 44 percent of Americans believe that secular liberals have “too much control” over the Democratic Party.


Religion has obviously become very important in politics, and reporters should try to find what might explain these striking poll results, and how the Democrats might respond.


In recent decades, the Democratic Party has been ceding substantial ground to the Republican Party in “middle America.” Democrats themselves have done little to challenge the prevailing image that they are coastal, secular liberals who are out of touch with the average American’s concerns and moral values. There has been a noticeable reticence among Democrats about discussing religion, either symbolically or substantively. Perhaps this is an attempt to create distance from the religious rhetoric of the Bush White House and avoid irritating the party’s non-Christian and secular constituencies. Or perhaps it is a serious strategic oversight.


The Democratic Party’s lack of facility with religious language was spotlighted during the 2004 presidential campaign. The Kerry-Edwards campaign repeatedly tried to hire an effective director of religious outreach. Religious language rarely made its way into Democratic stump speeches, except those delivered in African American churches. Many voters did not even realize that John Kerry was a committed Catholic. 


However, there were a few instances when Kerry hit on a theme that could have changed his electoral fortunes: religion’s moral teaching about poverty. For instance, Kerry said in a stump speech on October 24, 2004:


“My faith … teaches me that, ‘Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.’ That means we have a moral obligation to one another, to the forgotten, and to those who live in the shadows. This is a moral obligation at the heart of all our great religious traditions.” 


Similarly, in the third presidential debate on October 13, Kerry said:


“I think that everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith, but without transferring it in any official way to other people. That’s why I fight against poverty. That’s why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth. That’s why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith.” 


Unfortunately for Kerry, this message did not come across clearly or consistently enough to have a chance to resonate with large numbers of Americans. It had the potential, however, to profoundly change the way voters viewed both Kerry and the Democratic Party at large.


The Democrats could present an entirely different vision of moral values than the one embraced by the Republican Party, and close the “secularism gap,” by emphasizing the need to address poverty in this country in moral terms. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina threw an unwelcome but necessary spotlight on the consequences of poverty in the United States. It is gauche to think that either party could use the suffering of millions of people from the Gulf Coast region for political gain. It is acceptable, and even very necessary, however, to offer new perspectives on the problem of poverty and its consequences. If political leaders (of either party) could connect the notion of morality to the challenges of confronting poverty, the American people might just listen. 

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