Wednesday, December 27, 2006

God and the Democrats

The New York Times has an article on Common Good Strategies, a political consulting firm that advises Democrats on how to appeal to evangelical and what the paper calls church-going Catholics. Common Good Strategies is headed by Mara Vanderslice and Eric Sapp. Ms. Vanderslice relates that she was born again while singing a hymn in a Bible-study group at Earlham, a Quaker college in Indiana--an occurrence that must surprise, if not alarm, some of the Friends.

Be that as it may, Ms. Vanderslice's clients did notably better among her target groups than Democrats generally. According to The Times, Vanderslice and Sapp, "pushed sometimes reluctant Democrats to speak publicly, early and in detail about the religious underpinnings of their policy views. They persuaded candidates to speak at conservative religious schools and to buy early commercials on Christian radio. They organized meetings and conference calls for candidates to speak privately with moderate and conservative members of the clergy."

The rise of Common Good Strategies has alarmed some liberals. Rev. Robert Drinan, who was my congressman in the days of Watergate, called her overzealous (he's a Jesuit). Dr. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance is concerned about maintaining (or perhaps re-establishing) the separation of church and state.

Ms. Vanderslice, on the other hand, advises her clients not to use that phrase (and points out that it does not appear in the Constitution).

While I believe in separating church and state, in the sense that formal religion should not be part of government, that as the Constitution does say, the state should not favor the establishment of any religion, we liberals have gone too far--we have confused the religious with the devout.

Applying religious impulses to politics can be a good thing. All religions that I know of champion help for the needy; that the pledge is too often honored in the breach is not an indictment of religion itself, but of its practitioners. Religions extol love over hate--would we liberals argue with that position?

The truth is that the estrangement between liberals and the kind of God-fearing people who have shifted from supporting Democrats to people like Reagan and the younger Bush is, in part, the result of liberal arrogance that disdains those who find inspiration in their religion.

In 2004, I spent a week in Florida monitoring early voting. John Ballard, my Republican counterpart, was a solid Bush supporter, a former postmaster in Ft. Lauderdale who had started his career in Memphis. A church-going man, he was kind, friendly and fair-minded; although the area where we were working was overwhelmingly Democratic, John pushed the supervisor of voters to get more machines up and running to shorten the lines waiting to cast their ballots. He and I did not spend a lot of time talking about specific issues, but I'm pretty sure that he is the kind of person to whom we Democrats might appeal, if we get back to the kind of common-good economic and social policies that made ours the dominant party for half of the Twentieth Century.

We need to find a way to talk with the vast number of Americans for whom religion is a vital factor in their lives. We need to do that, because we might learn valuable lessons if we open our ears and, if that idea does not attract, because there are so many of them, and in a democracy it behooves us to listen to the people.

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