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Silent witnesses

Recent Democratic rhetoric about faith falls away when the candidates begin talking to core supporters

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Reporters have since 2005 turned out a steady diet of articles and broadcast segments highlighting the religious faith of Democratic presidential candidates for 2008.

A July 7 New York Times story trained a soft-focus lens on the religion of Hillary Clinton. Her Methodist faith, the story said, has guided the Democratic presidential front-runner "as she sought to repair her marriage, forgiven some critics who once vilified her, and struggled in the world of bare-knuckle politics to fulfill the biblical commandment to love thy neighbor."

The July 15 edition of The Christian Science Monitor featured a close-up photo of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in prayer. The accompanying article noted that Obama often "speaks of the church as an abiding force in American public life" and "takes very seriously the numerous passages in the Bible that talk not only about poverty, but of people of faith taking God's words and extending them beyond the four walls of the church."

But are the Democratic presidential front-runners extending their party's appeal to religious voters outside the four walls of the social gospel? And when they are alone with their base, are issues of faith addressed?

At the Washington, D.C., Ritz-Carlton on July 17, the answer to both questions was no. Organizers of the annual conference of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund did provide one time-slot for a nod to faith. Just before Obama, the lunchtime speaker, took the stage, Episcopal pastor Paula Clark Green said grace. With mellifluous oratorical flourishes, Green offered thanks for the "workers in the vineyard" and thanked God especially for such workers as Planned Parenthood.

But that was as far as the whole religion thing went. Entering to spirited applause and backed by huge video monitors, Obama quickly hit his stride, expounding on the gospel of choice. "We know that five men don't know better than women or their doctors what's best for women's health," he said, referring to the recent high-court decision upholding the federal ban on partial-birth abortion. "On this fundamental issue, I will not yield and Planned Parenthood will not yield!"

The audience cheered wildly. They did so again when Obama proclaimed that as president, he would make signing the "Freedom of Choice Act," a bill that codifies Roe v. Wade as law, one of his first acts.

Planned Parenthood's dinnertime speaker, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), has long championed what she calls "teenage celibacy" and since 2004 has publicly recognized the influence of religion in promoting abstinence. In January 2005, following the Democrats' electoral drubbing at the hands of "values voters," Clinton raised liberal eyebrows by calling abortion a "tragic choice" in a speech that coincided with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

But while speaking at the Ritz, Clinton accused pro-lifers of waging "a war on choice" and pledged in her "very first days in office" to reverse "these ideological, anti-science, anti-prevention policies that this administration has put in place."

The "anti-science" policy is, of course, abstinence, and the ideology in question is evangelical Christianity.

In an effort to peel off evangelical votes from the GOP, Obama and Clinton have targeted black evangelicals in particular. In late spring, both candidates made campaign swings through South Carolina. In Columbia, Clinton said that soldiers "need to be equipped with the full armor of God, which is their faith." At a shopping mall in Greenville, Obama spoke about his work in the 1980s with inner-city churches on Chicago's South Side to revitalize declining neighborhoods: "Our faith requires that we not just preach the Word, but that we act out on the Word."

But for inner-city minister Herb Lusk, pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia, such faith-speech makes Democrats sound like they're talking out of both sides of their mouths. "We need to see a lot more from the Democrats than talk about religious values," Lusk said.

As an example, he noted the hate crimes bill now under consideration in the Senate. The Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act would expand existing federal hate crimes law to include classes such as sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity. Opponents of the bill say it would be another step toward curtailing the free-speech rights of Christians who believe homosexuality is immoral.

"If you want to reach out to the church, you don't do that by muzzling the chance to preach the Bible as it is written," Lusk said.

Such approaches highlight the wide gap between the way Democrats and Republicans typically apply religious belief to public policy. "The way we have seen Democrats try to apply religious values to the big public policy questions is destructive of human dignity," said Joe Loconte, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "This is obvious on the life question, but is also observable even on issues that are not quite so obvious."

On drug addiction, for example, Democrats lean toward "harm reduction" strategies such as needle-exchange and methadone programs. "That's not leading people out of addiction, that's subsidizing addiction, instead of getting at the root causes which are much more spiritual in nature than Democrats want to admit," Loconte said. "Democrats are going to have a hard time convincing conservative orthodox religious believers that, for example, Hillary Clinton is going to represent their views on key moral issues."

But there is an emerging group of young evangelicals who focus less on moral issues like abortion. Initiatives on AIDS by Rick Warren and his Saddleback Church and other social issues have touched a cord with that group, Loconte said. Still, Warren has managed to extend the "social gospel" aspect of his ministry without sacrificing the gospel itself, something that has not been true of the mainline churches to which the faith-talk of Clinton and Obama seems to appeal.

Thus far, Democrats' faith-talk leading into the 2008 campaign has not seemed to produce many "swing evangelicals," an elusive voter demographic that electoral scholars insist is waiting in the wings. In November 2006, Democrats swept both houses of Congress. But exit polls showed that Democratic gains were concentrated among non-Christian and secular voters, with only slight gains among weekly church attenders, including white evangelical Protestants (3 percent), white mainline Protestants (2 percent), black Protestants (4 percent), and white Catholics (6 percent).

"Some people seem very eager to find this vital swing vote in the evangelical community," Loconte said. "But Democrats have been talking about faith since at least 2000. If the swing evangelical is out there, the question is, when are they going to start swinging?"

For people like Herb Lusk, the answer may be never: "Until the Democratic Party changes its core values and philosophy," he said, "their religious outreach is going to fall on deaf ears for me."

-with reporting by Priya Abraham in Washington, D.C.

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is executive editor of WORLD Magazine and producer/host of the true crime podcast Lawless. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen nonfiction books, including Same Kind of Different As Me and Indianapolis. Lynn lives in the mountains east of San Diego, Calif.


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