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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Jesus or else

Amy Sullivan: We need to bow before God to win

Preach It, Brother
Why did Kerry stop talking about faith?
by Amy Sullivan, Contributing Editor

The Democrats have a religion problem. You know it, I know it, and David Brooks knows it. According to a recent Time magazine poll, only 7 percent of Americans think that John Kerry is a "religious" man – this, in a country in which 70 percent of voters say that they want their president to be a "man of faith."

As we all know, the first step toward recovering is recognizing that you have a problem. And while there is plenty of time to change course, too many national Democrats still run the other way when the topic of religion comes up, instead of dealing with it directly.

There are a number of reasons for this. But ultimately, none of them are good excuses.

To begin, many Democratic operatives still think of religion mostly as a constituency problem – that is, they want to know how many Catholic votes in the Rust Belt they can "get" by employing a certain strategy, how many endorsements they can get from religious leaders, and have yet to be convinced that religious Americans are "their" voters. One immediate problem with this mindset is that faith leaders are under special restrictions – whether legal or self-imposed – that don't similarly bind the leaders of other constituencies. Although many would argue that recent statements by Catholic leaders regarding pro-choice politicians amount to endorsements of Republicans, strictly speaking a Catholic priest cannot endorse a candidate. Ministers may come out in support of a particular candidate in their role as individual citizens, but only if they have the support of their congregations – if a pastor appears to be leveraging his position for political influence, he can very quickly find himself in hot water with parishioners. All this is to say that assembling a "who's who" list of religious leaders that support Democratic candidates is a bit harder than finding key labor or African-American or environmental group leaders to give their endorsement.

In addition, this attitude treats religion as a purely functional tool, boiling it down to, "If we do X, we will get Y million religious votes." And that's not how it works. Millions of Americans look to the faith of their political candidates as a proxy for a general moral worldview. Many voters understand that it is possible to be a good and moral person without necessarily having religious faith. But in the midst of a campaign, it can be hard to get a good sense of what moral compass a candidate has. A moderate Democratic congressman from the South who represents a district with a large military base told me that in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, many of his constituents wanted to know that he was a man of faith because he was casting a vote about whether to send their sons and husbands and daughters off to put their lives in danger. Those voters wanted to know whether he believed in souls because they were very personally grappling with the consequences of war.

As David Brooks put it in a recent column, for many Americans, "Their president doesn't have to be a saint, but he does have to be a pilgrim." A candidate doesn't have to hit people over the head with "Jesus talk" to do this. He doesn't have to use exclusive language and he doesn't have to parade his piety. What he can do is frame his message in moral terms. Even better, Kerry already did this early in his campaign as the presumptive nominee, drawing a clear distinction between those who talk the talk (an indirect but pointed jab at Bush) and those who walk the walk. Yet that kind of language has all but disappeared from his speeches.

Another reason Democrats avoid the topic of religion is that they believe it will offend what they see as their secular base. Here's what they should know: There are two groups of people who want to think that there is a secular hold on the Democratic Party – secularists and conservatives. The truth, however, is that while the power of secularists in the Democratic ranks is legendary, it is just that – a legend. While Democratic political offices are staffed by a higher percentage of secularists than can be found among the general population, they are not representative of the party as a whole.

In his column, Brooks cites a study that has become a favorite of conservatives (who cite it constantly) because it appears to indict Democrats as overrun by secularists and as generally intolerant of religion. The problem with this conclusion is that it overlooks a major flaw in the analysis done by Baruch College professors Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio. They identified secularists within the ranks of Democratic convention delegates by looking at attitudes about fundamentalists. Anyone who held negative feelings about religious fundamentalists (I believe the Christian Coalition is specifically named) was considered to be a secularist. I don't know about you, but I know plenty of people -- and plenty of religious Republicans, for that matter -- who don't think terribly kindly of fundamentalists but who would never ever identify themselves as secularists.

David Brooks, and by extension, Amy Sullivan are dead wrong.

A lot of people, as Ron Reagan distinctly noted, are really uncomfortable when politicians use religion. I, personally, could care less if John Kerry practiced Santeria. It just doesn't matter in this country, nor should it.

Sullivan likes whipping her Bible around and I think her take on this this is dead wrong. Religion is a part of someone's life, not it's entire being. I know a LOT of religious people and they don't limit their opinions to God and worship.

Frankly, I think her whole take on "secularists" is way off base and deeply offensive. There are people who plkace their religion in their public lives, and there are many, many people like myself, who keep our religous beliefs private and as much out of our politics as possible. Just because you don't say Jesus every three minutes, which is pretty obnoxious in and of itself, doesn't mean you don't believe in God. In fact, Sullivan is practicing a rather nasty form of religious bigotry. If you aren't open about your religous beliefs, then you are a "secularist". Religion should be like sex, a private matter.

I don't know what kind of research skills Sullivan has, but I don't think it would be hard to find a bunch of pro-Kerry ministers and other church officials. The GOP has no problem with this.

What frightens me about Sullivan's screed is that she ignores the divisive and bigotted way George Bush has used religion. While he's not too big on church, he's really big on throwing religion in people's faces and using it to hide from his alcoholism. Meanwhile, John Kerry has been a mass-attending Catholic his entire life. Does he throw that fact in people's faces? No. It's not anyone's business, unless they ask. Bush uses religion as a weapon aganist his enemies, as a way to judge them.

What Sullivan is calling for is the grossest kind of pandering and a rank appeal to people on their religion alone. Which is dead wrong. She keeps quoting the rather brain dead and innaccurate David Brooks to make her point. Brooks is one of those elitist snobs who marvel that people actually shop at Target and eat at Outback after buying a Weber grill. I wouldn't rely on his observations of sunset.

The Democrats don't have a religion problem as much as Amy Sullivan refuses to respect religous views which are different and distinct than hers. Her appeal to religous bigotry should be placed in a wastepaper basket and ignored, kind of like a Jack Chick tract.

posted by Steve @ 1:37:00 PM

1:37:00 PM

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