Democrats closed some of the so-called “God gap” with Republicans in Tuesday’s mid-term elections. They did so with candidates who claimed Jesus, quoted the Bible and talked about lessons learned in church, sounding sometimes more like preachers than politicians.
In Ohio, Ted Strickland, the gubernatorial candidate, offered the best definition of a Democrat of faith. “For me, the goal is not to be a liberal Democrat or a conservative Democrat,” he said. “For me, the goal is to be a Golden Rule Democrat.”
Strickland, currently a member of Congress, is a Methodist with a divinity degree from Asbury Theological Seminary. “Being a Golden Rule Democrat means you do your best to treat other people the way you yourself would want to be treated,” he said. “In a political context, it means working for a government rooted in sound judgment, having a thirst for justice and committed to serving its people.”
Ohio’s Democrat senatorial candidate, Rep. Sherrod Brown, a Lutheran, said, “I have long considered the Sermon on the Mount to be the core of Christ’s teachings, and perhaps also the best political speech ever delivered.”
In Tennessee, Democratic senate candidate Rep. Harold Ford, a Baptist, talked so much about his faith that his Republican opponent all but surrendered the religion issue to him.
Frustrated Republicans attacked Ford’s churchmanship in a TV ad. The staff of Republican candidate Bob Corker lashed out at the very end of the campaign: “To question a Republican’s love of God is absolutely over the top and has no place in this campaign.”
Ford established the pattern for how future Tennessee Democrats can compete against Republicans with religion.
In North Carolina, two Democratic congressional candidates, both Baptists, made faith central to their campaigns to unseat Republican incumbents. Heath Shuler talked about his love for God and respect for life.
Larry Kissell, a Sunday school teacher and deacon at First Baptist Church of Biscoe, made “real family values” one of his four main planks. He felt running for office was a divine calling. When a fundamentalist preacher attacked Kissell’s faith, Kissell’s pastor stoutly defended his church member’s character.
In Indiana, former Democratic Congressman Baron Hill ran a TV ad showing his family praying at the dinner table and talking with a minister outside of church, saying “marriage between a man and a woman is sacred.” Another Hill ad accused the incumbent Republican congressman of breaking his pledge to ministers.
Seeking to unseat a Republican congressman with strong ties to the Religious Right, Brad Ellsworth, another Indiana Democrat, said on his Web site that the lessons he learned in church guided him to be concerned about justice and fairness.
In Colorado, Ed Perlmutter, a Democratic congressional candidate in the Denver area, said in a TV ad, “My faith teaches that family comes first.” He identified himself as a co-founder of the Applewood Community Church.
What makes the emergence of so many Democrats of faith remarkable is that they were fighting an uphill battle against two forces.
First, they were battling the pervasive claim of divine blessing on Republicans, who had been ordained repeatedly over 25 years as the party of God, first by the Moral Majority, then by the Christian Coalition and recently by Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Religious Right had successfully redefined GOP as God’s Only Party and banished the Democratic Party as an illegitimate house of faith—until now.
Second, Democrats of faith were competing as individuals against the muscular, zealous, religious organizations with lots of money, mailing lists and media outlets.
Democrats faced robust Religious-Right organizations that cranked out voters in 2004 for Republicans and did everything they could to elect Republicans in 2006. The theocrats blamed the media for the moral failures of Republican officials, downplayed Republican-rooted corruption and diverted the attention of their constituency away from war failures and race baiting.
The SBC’s chief lobbyist colluded with Republicans by backing off his usual high-decibel condemnation of homosexuality. He avoided criticizing the Secretary of State’s appointment of an openly gay man who was accompanied by his partner at his swearing in ceremony. He put off for two weeks any criticism of Mark Foley.
Faithful Democrats campaigned effectively without a religion machine behind them and against the prevailing perception that their party was anti-religion.
Those accomplishments still leave them at the front end of closing the “God gap.” But make no mistake, Democrats are now far more competitive for the votes of people of faith.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.