Senate Democrats Try to Get Religion

Posted March 15, 2005 at 6:43pm

Listen to Democratic Senators criticize President Bush’s budget plan these days and one might hear the lawmakers recite Holy Scriptures as often as arcane statistics.

For Democrats, recasting their party as the flag-bearer for moral values has become a top priority, and several Senators said they believe the president’s spending plan opens the door for them to contrast the GOP agenda with their own legislative goals.

In recent floor speeches criticizing Bush’s proposed budget cuts, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) quoted the New Testament and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) referenced God.

Meanwhile, Democratic Senators and staffers are being coached on how to speak in “moral terms.” And Reid has designated one of his leadership aides — Darrel Thompson, the son and grandson of Baltimore Baptist ministers — to coordinate the effort.

The focus on the Bush budget is just one branch of a grander plan to reconnect with “values voters,” a subclass of the electorate that began drifting to the Republican Party during the Vietnam War, several Democrats and spiritual advisers said.

“For too long a period of time, the Democratic Party, unintentionally … seems to have sent the message that people of faith weren’t welcome and weren’t respected,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), an observant Jew. “Republicans got much better at describing matters that concerned them in values language and language of faith and Democrats seemed to be hesitant to do that.”

Lieberman was not hesitant to do so when he spoke freely about God as his party’s vice presidential nominee at a Detroit church in August 2000. But many people in his party thought the Connecticut Senator had crossed the line by linking politics and religion together, and some called on him to rein it in.

“I thought they were totally wrong,” Lieberman said. “Here I was in a black church speaking the language of faith about dealing with social problems and speaking of my faith in God. I don’t know how anybody would be concerned about it.”

Five years later, Democrats’ perspective on religion is changing. After watching Bush win a second term and Republicans gain a stronger foothold in the House and Senate, party leaders are rethinking how they are perceived by voters who define faith as an important part of their lives.

Democrats have turned to two evangelical ministers for advice on how to reconnect with these voters. They have also met privately with representatives from several major religious organizations.

“The Senators were fascinated with what the Bible really says about the issues that are really high on their agenda,” said Rev. Tony Campolo, who met with Democratic Senators last week. “They need to know what the Bible is saying on the issues that are high on their agenda if they are going to speak to us.”

Campolo and Rev. Jim Wallis have told Democrats one way to reach out to people of faith is to highlight the similarities between their legislative goals and the teachings of the Bible.

Primarily, the two men suggested that Democrats talk about the party’s commitment to helping the poor and hungry as well as being good stewards of the environment.

“Democrats have got to reframe policy issues in a values context not because this will help them win, but because it is right,” said Wallis, convener of Call to Renewal and editor of Sojourners magazine.

Wallis spoke to Democratic Senators during their January political and policy retreat and has since met with Democratic aides to discuss the budget as a “moral document.”

“There is nothing like a good defeat to cause reassessment,” Wallis said of the Democrats’ renewed outreach efforts.

The reassessment has led to soul searching for many Democrats, who said they are being mindful not to alienate others as they make inroads again into the religious community.

“I think there is a real recognition that although [Democrats] want to express the connection between their faith and public policy there needs to be the right way to express that,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). Lincoln, along with Reid and Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), met last Tuesday with several Protestant leaders.

Capping a week of religious outreach activities, Reid’s leadership staff also sat down Friday with officials from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Thompson, Reid’s senior adviser on religion, said several topics were discussed with the Catholic bishops and there was an understanding “that we will not agree on every issue, but are willing to work together on issues of mutual interests.” Thompson said there was also discussion about scheduling a future meeting with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, D.C.

But a major obstacle for Democrats is appealing to people of faith who strongly disagree with the Democratic position supporting abortion rights. This became an issue in the 2004 presidential contest and in some Congressional races, when a handful of cardinals and bishops declared that pro-abortion-rights lawmakers should be denied the Eucharist.

Many religious organizations maintain that outlawing abortion remains a top priority. Representatives from two of the leading religious advocacy groups said the Democratic efforts to reach out on other issues is a non-starter until they proclaim their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

“Your hear this from time to time from liberal Democrats that their values are more in line with the Christian doctrine,” said Jayd Henricks, director of Congressional relations for the Family Research Council. “But it is hard to accept that argument when they reject the most basic principles cited not only in the Bible but natural law, being right to life. To equate the interest in an increase in minimum wage to the right to life of an innocent unborn child in disingenuous.”

Jim Backlin, vice president of legislative affairs for the Christian Coalition of America, added that “abortion and homosexual marriage are two of the most fundamental problems the Democrats have right now in reaching out to the the conservative religious community.”

But Reid, who is personally an opponent of abortion, said he has not heard about abortion from the religious leaders he has met with so far. The Minority Leader also contends there are many other anti-abortion Democrats.

“The Democratic Party has a very large tent, and we are doing our best to make sure everyone is included,” he said. “We have people in our Caucus who are pro-life and we have candidates who are going to be running that are pro-life.”

One of the anti-abortion candidates is Pennsylvania Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., who is the prohibitive Democratic nominee to challenge Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) next year. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is also actively recruiting Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.), another opponent of abortion, to challenge Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.).

As for same-sex marriage, Campolo suggests opposition from evangelicals on this issue is misunderstood.

“Most evangelical people want gay people to have their civil rights,” said Campolo, professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa. “But they view marriage as a sacred institution.”

Abortion, Campolo said, is a different matter. Campolo said the Democratic rhetoric on abortion needs to change, and he suggested the party copy former President Bill Clinton’s publicly stated belief that it ought to be a rare procedure.

“They need to communicate clearly that they do not see abortion as a means of contraception, which it has become in America,” he said. “They need to point out that abortion is an emergency situation, if it exists at all.”

While Democrats are mainly focusing their religious rhetoric on the budget, they are also testing it on other policy issues. During the recent Democratic barnstorming tour to oppose Bush’s Social Security proposal, the Senators invited Rev. Arthur White, president of the Pennsylvania State Baptist Convention, to join them at their Philadelphia rally.

White criticized Bush’s plan to reform the Social Security system, and in an interview yesterday said it is misleading for the president to “think of himself as a compassionate conservative [when] in his policies and programs he has not been very compassionate to people who really need the compassion.”

Still, most observers expect Democrats to face an uphill battle to win the hearts and minds of the values voters.

“What they are facing is mobilized fundamentalists,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Still, Saperstein, who is one of the religious leaders who has met with Reid’s leadership staff, predicts Democrats “will be successful in recapturing this classic Biblical concern about peace and protection.”