Democrats’ religion gap still wide open
During the 2004 presidential campaign, Terry McAuliffe first met Rick Warren. â€œAnd what do you do?â€ the Democratic Party chairman asked one of the most famous evangelical pastors in America.
Recounting this story in â€œThe Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap,â€ Time editor Amy Sullivan effectively argues that after the 2004 election, Democrats got religion. But their salvation remains a work in progress.
Sullivan begins by neatly summarizing decades of social history to show how Vatican II mobilized Catholics and the 1960s counterrevolution galvanized evangelicals. Democrats became the â€œindividual rightsâ€ party, and Republicans became the â€œindividual responsibilitiesâ€ party. Not surprisingly, voters of faith more often began filling Republican pews.
Some Democrats saw the gap widening and tried to bridge it. Sullivan writes admiringly of Bill Clinton, a â€œBible-quoting, Catholic-educated Southern Baptistâ€ who called his 1992 platform â€œThe New Covenant.â€ Here, the authorâ€™s tightly spun argument begins to show loose threads.
For many social conservatives, one moral issue is more equal than others: abortion. Yes, evangelicals care about social justice and human rights, but they care most about what they view as life at its most vulnerable stage. Indeed, evangelicals view abortion as a social justice and human rights issue.
So when President Clinton vetoed legislation banning certain late-term abortions, his â€œsafe, legal and rareâ€ abortion policy was exposed as more slogan than solution. This did not help close the God gap. Still, the author praises Clinton for seeking a third way: Rather than outlawing abortion, he tried reducing it. Despite her efforts to rehabilitate Clintonâ€™s record, the evidence suggests Clinton was trying to reduce the politics of abortion, not the practice of abortion.
Sullivan offers faint praise for Sen. John F. Kerry and his efforts to reach evangelicals in 2004. When an archbishop in St. Louis announced that Kerry shouldnâ€™t take communion because of his abortion views, the senator didnâ€™t respond. â€œAs far as Kerry was concerned, the matter was private, between him and the church,â€ she writes dismissively. Throughout 2004, Kerry spoke little of his faith; evangelicals responded by giving him little of their support.
To Sullivanâ€™s delight, Democrats are talking about faith now. And she likes what she hears. In particular, she cites examples of how Democrats are navigating through the abortion politics maze. Yet her examples raise questions about whether Democrats are interested in the politics or the policy of the issue.
In Congress, Democratic Reps. Tim Ryan (Ohio) and Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) introduced legislation to prevent abortions and provide services for women who donâ€™t choose abortion. Ultimately, the bill was called the Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act.
But the bill was first dubbed the Abortion Reduction Act. When liberals complained that this implied there should be fewer abortions, Sullivan writes that the legislators â€œdidnâ€™t bat an eyeâ€ and changed its title. This marks a breakthrough in how Democrats view abortion?
Meanwhile, Democrat Bill Ritter successfully ran for governor of Colorado in 2006. When confronted by abortion rights supporters, Ritter promised to do little to restrict abortion. Instead, he pledged increased contraception services. â€œHis goal would be lowering abortion rates through prevention, not restriction,â€ Sullivan summarizes. But havenâ€™t most Democrats traditionally supported contraception? What makes this a different approach?
In short, Sullivan rightly claims evangelicals want abortions reduced. They do. But she wrongly assumes prevention will mollify them. It wonâ€™t. Evangelicals want to restrict abortion, too.
Despite Sullivanâ€™s eloquent attempt to dress it up, the Democratsâ€™ policy on abortion looks remarkably similar to that of years past. Democrats still appear to favor life in words and choice in policies.
Sullivan correctly warns that Republicans should not take evangelicals for granted. As former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee says, life begins at conception but continues after birth. The life agenda now includes stopping sex trafficking, helping immigrants, fighting AIDS in Africa and protecting the environment.
Democrats and evangelicals share common ground on many of these issues. Of course, the life agenda also includes opposition to cloning and euthanasia â€” areas where many Democrats and evangelicals profoundly differ.
Still, Democrats and evangelicals should get to know each other better. Sullivanâ€™s well-written, well-timed book makes an important contribution to this evolving relationship. She convincingly shows Democrats have gotten religion, even if they still donâ€™t quite get abortion.
Kasey S. Pipes wrote speeches for President Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is the author of â€œIkeâ€™s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality.â€