Fearful of losing touch with an American public that is overwhelmingly religious, the Democrats running for president have begun talking more openly about their faith, and their efforts are getting mixed reviews.

The nine candidates seeking nomination until recently said they were privately religious but declined to inject their beliefs into their campaigns.

Contrasted to President Bush, however, who is described as the most overtly religious president in generations, and prodded by polls showing devout voters are more likely to vote Republican, that changed suddenly just weeks prior to the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses and Southern primaries in Oklahoma and South Carolina Feb. 3.

The most visible crossing of the line was frontrunner Howard Dean, who broke his silence on religion in an interview published Christmas Day in the Boston Globe.

”Christ was someone who sought out people who were disenfranchised, people who were left behind,” Dean said. ”He fought against self-righteousness of people who had everything…. He was a person who set an extraordinary example that has lasted 2,000 years, which is pretty inspiring when you think about it.”

A month ago, Dean, a Congregationalist who seldom attends church but says he prays daily, was criticizing Republicans for overplaying the religion card. “We’ve got to stop voting on guns, gods, gays and school prayer,” he said in Houston.

Dean now says that campaigning in the Bible Belt has taught him that folks in the South use the language of Zion more casually than in his native Northeast, where people are more reserved in discussing matters of faith.

“The campaign has changed the way I am willing to talk about religion. It has not changed my religious beliefs,” Dean said, according to the Washington Post.

The new strategy showed up in Iowa, where Dean observed: “Don’t you think Jerry Falwell reminds you a lot more of the Pharisees than he does of the teachings of Jesus? And don’t you think this campaign ought to be about evicting the money-changers from the temple?”

It also resulted in a gaffe when he answered a reporter’s question about his favorite book in the New Testament with Job, later correcting his mistake that Job is in the Old Testament.

Some spiritually minded Democrats have been saying their party shouldn’t cede religious language to the religious right. Washington Monthly in June ran a feature titled “Do the Democrats Have a Prayer?”

“To become America’s majority party again, the Democrats will have to get religion,” argued Amy Sullivan, a doctoral student at Princeton University and the author of Political Aims.

Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners and convener of Call to Renewal, a group of socially conscious evangelicals, urged Democrats to put God back into politics in an op-ed piece in the New York Times.

“For too many Democrats, faith is private and has no implications for political life,” Wallis wrote. “But what kind of faith is that? Where would America be if the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself?”

Ed Kilgore, policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council, has been pushing for candidates to use more religious imagery.

Kilgore’s talking points include “natural use” of spiritual language and connecting policies with religious values, such as describing “God’s green earth” in talking about the environment. He also argues for support of President Bush’s faith-based initiative because “It’s a uniter,” supported by 70 percent of Americans.

But some criticize the shift as being more pragmatic than principled.

Conservative commentator Cal Thomas accused Dean of pandering and promoting a “watered-down” Jesus who sounds “as if He might have been a Democrat.”

The increasing use of God talk also brought caution from the Anti-Defamation League, a New York-based organization that fights anti-Semitism.

“Candidates should feel comfortable explaining their religious convictions to voters,” Barbara B. Balser and Abraham H. Foxman, national chair and national director of the ADL, said in a statement. “However, we feel strongly that appealing to voters on the basis of religion is contrary to the American ideal and can be inherently divisive, wrongly suggesting that a candidate’s religious beliefs should be a litmus test for public office.”

While the Democrats don’t expect to make inroads into the religious right, they view a couple of demographic groups up for grabs: the so-called “Freestyle Evangelicals,” socially conservative but politically independent Christians that make up about 40 percent of evangelicals, and “Convertible Catholics,” who are culturally conservative or moderate but committed to social justice.

Dean isn’t the only Democrat appealing to his religious moorings.

Contender Wesley Clark has also started talking about his faith, telling BeliefNet.com he considers himself a “strong Christian.” Clark describes attending Immanuel Baptist Church and Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., as a boy. Today he considers himself a Catholic, but he attends a Presbyterian church.

Sen. John Edwards, a Methodist, has said his faith helped him cope with losing a teenage son killed in a traffic accident in 1996.

Sen. Dick Gephardt, a member of Third Baptist Church in St. Louis, once considered entering the ministry.

Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic, said in Vogue magazine, “We’ve got to prove we’re as God-fearing and churchgoing as everybody else.”

Rep. Dennis Kucinich was raised a Roman Catholic but has sought to connect with voters who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

“The Founders meant to separate Church and State, but I don’t believe they ever meant to separate America from spiritual values,” Kucinich told a Jewish magazine last spring.

Rev. Al Sharpton, a Pentecostal minister, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, have been most vocal in connecting their faith with public policy.

Dean was raised an Episcopalian, though his mother was a Catholic. His wife is Jewish. They considered becoming Unitarian as a compromise but neither wanted to convert. They allowed their two children to choose their own religion, and both chose Judaism.

Dean’s highly publicized break with the Episcopal Church came in the 1980s over a dispute about a bike path. A member of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Burlington, Vt., he says he likes his current denomination for its lack of centralized control.

He has said he doesn’t attend church regularly but prays every day, and he is a staunch advocate for the separation of church and state.

A NewRepublic cover story Dec. 29 labeled Dean “one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history.”

Despite that stigma, however, Dean’s Internet-based campaign has produced its own religious constituency. A pro-Dean Web site, PublicChristian.com, carries an article on “Why So Many Christians Support Howard Dean.”

“Dean exemplified many basic Christian values, especially ones ignored or under attack by the current administration,” says the article. “Therefore he deserves serious consideration by people who care about Christian values.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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