Have the Democrats Gotten Religion?

Joseph M. Knippenberg

August 1, 2004

It is almost a commonplace of political punditry to note the "religion gap" between the Republicans and Democrats. Those who attend church frequently tend to vote Republican, while those who seldom or never darken the door of a sanctuary tend to vote Democratic. This difference is but one aspect of the "culture war" diagnosed by University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter more than a decade ago: religious traditionalists seem to be on one side and secular progressives on the other. One side talks of God, prayer, providence, and moral duty, the other of science, reason, progress, and choice. To put it another way, Republicans seem to be willing to accommodate religion in the public square, while Democrats seem almost reflexively to insist upon separation of church and state.

In the most religious country in the developed and democratic world, Democrats would seem to be at a disadvantage. Overwhelming majorities of Americans claim to believe in God and to want a President who does so, too. Substantial percentages at least claim to attend church frequently.

Led by former Clinton aides Mike McCurry and John Podesta, some Democratic activists have argued that their party should reach out to religious folk rather than ceding that ground to the Republicans. But for a long time this campaign season, John Kerry and his advisors resisted. Despite the fact that he was a lifelong practicing Catholic, he was uncomfortable speaking in public about his faith. Some chalked it up to his reserved New England upbringing. Testifying in public is something that decent people just don’t do. Others pointed to the celebrated diversity of the Democratic "big tent": talk about religion was sure to offend, alienate, or marginalize someone. Still others noted that much of the early money in the primary season came from the left wing of the party, from groups like EMILY’s List and the National Abortion Rights Action League, which was the most aggressively secular element in the party. And then there’s the fact that he’s at odds with the Catholic hierarchy on three hot-button issues: abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research.

Nevertheless, after having placed his toe in the water in front of selected, usually African-American, audiences, Kerry took the plunge at the Boston nominating convention, affirming "the values of family, faith, and country." Welcoming "people of faith" to his campaign, he said "I don’t wear my own faith on my sleeve. But faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday. I don’t want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God’s side. And whatever our faith, one belief should bind us all: The measure of our character is our willingness to give of ourselves for others and for our country." According to Steven Waldman, editor-in-chief of Beliefnet, "Kerry found his faith voice" in that speech.

Having put himself on the line like this, we are entitled to examine where he stands. As noted above, he disagrees with the Roman Catholic hierarchy on gay marriage, abortion, and stem cell research, which probably doesn’t distinguish him from many liberal Catholics. He is, as many say, "personally opposed" to abortion and gay marriage, but unwilling to impose his values legislatively on others. Still, as Jonathan V. Last noted in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard, "The eagerness with which Kerry stumps for abortion suggests that putting aside his ‘personal’ convictions does not cause him a heavy heart." His position on gay marriage is more complicated, or, as he would say, "nuanced." Arguing that marriage is a state matter, he opposes the Federal Marriage Amendment. In Massachusetts, he favors efforts to amend the state constitution to overturn the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision, so long as the amendment upholds the possibility of civil unions. For Kerry, by the way, a civil union is just marriage by a different name; gay couples should have exactly the same adoption rights as heterosexual couples. But that position is difficult to square with another of Kerry’s professed beliefs. Speaking last month to the national convention of the A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) Church, he had this to say: "Here is what fatherhood has taught me. Children need the love and discipline of fathers as much as they need it from mothers. Children need to get their role models at home—not from the media. Fathers need to show their children, particularly their sons, that raising a baby, not making a baby is what makes you a man." I couldn’t have said it better myself: children need fathers and mothers in the home as role models. Neither lesbian partner can be a father figure; neither gay partner can be a mother figure. Ergo, a family consisting of father, mother, and children is optimal. But of course, Kerry doesn’t draw this conclusion, for the same reason that he doesn’t act consequentially on the basis of his "personal" opposition to abortion. What he celebrates above all is choice.

Before we leave the topic of the family, I cannot resist commenting on another of his religious allusions from the convention speech. For Kerry, the principal political implication of the commandment to "honor thy father and thy mother" is that social security should not be privatized. One might think it might more appropriately be applied to parental notification requirements in laws that regulate abortion. But that would restrict choice.

In other words, when it comes to matters of choice, Kerry doesn’t waffle.

Then there’s stem cell research. Here’s Kerry at the convention: "What if we find a breakthrough to cure Parkinson’s, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and AIDS? What if we have a president who believes in science, so that we can unleash the wonders of discovery like stem cell research and treat illness and millions of lives?" Unlike George W. Bush, John Kerry "believes in science." It is an article of faith for him. Those who don’t believe in science must be mystics or religious fanatics of one sort or another. It’s not far from this position to a telling rant by Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, published in the July, 2004 American Prospect: "The great conflict of the 21st century will not be between the West and terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The true battle will be between modern civilization and anti-modernists; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe their allegiance and identity to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is mere preparation for an existence beyond life; between those who believe in science, reason, and logic and those who believe that truth is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma. Terrorism will disrupt and destroy lives. But terrorism itself is not the greatest danger we face." The only thing we have to fear, as Senator Ted Kennedy said at the Democratic convention, is four more years of Bush.

Of course, there is more to John Kerry’s religion than this. He is fond of reminding audiences that "faith without works is dead," which amounts in part to a criticism of the President’s "compassionate conservatism." "For the last four years," he told the A.M.E. convention, "all we have heard is empty words." The practical core of Kerry’s religion comes out of the "social justice" tradition in the Roman Catholic Church. Religious people are called to care for the least among us, the widows and orphans, so to speak. But, as Kerry’s criticism of Bush makes clear, the principal instrument of that care is government. There is room neither for reasonable people to disagree about how best to care for the needy nor for the concern with changing people’s hearts that lies at the center of Bush’s approach to faith-based compassion. In other words, genuinely faithful works for Kerry are none other than the domestic program of the Democratic Party.

And as long as we are paying attention to deeds rather than mere words, it makes sense to examine how Kerry and the Democrats have chosen to reach out to their religious brethren. Earlier this year, the Kerry campaign appointed its first Director of Religious Outreach, Mara Vanderslice, whom they recruited from the Dean campaign. While she had interned for a year at Jim Wallis’ liberal evangelical Sojourners magazine, she had also worked as an organizer of anti-globalization protests, some of which turned violent. Nothing in her background suggested that she could effectively reach out to mainstream people of faith. When the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights criticized her for speaking at a rally co-sponsored by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Act-Up), the Kerry campaign cut her access to the press. Just before the Boston convention, the Democratic National Committee stepped into the breach, naming the Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson as senior advisor for religious outreach. An ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), she formerly directed the liberal Clergy Network for National Leadership Change (whose "sole mission is to get a national leadership change") and is married to John Lynner Peterson, communications director for the Interfaith Alliance, an ecumenical group at the forefront of Bush’s religious critics. Her other claim to fame, noted by the Catholic League, is that she joined an amicus curiae brief in support of Michael Newdow’s suit to take "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance. (Less than two weeks later, she resigned under fire, admitting that she couldn’t be effective in her post.) Wherever two or three are gathered on behalf of secular liberal causes, there you will find John Kerry and his (disappearing) liaisons to the religious community. Even PBS noted that "the efforts [at the convention] are mainly aimed at political and theological liberals" and that "white evangelicals and Catholics had a much lower profile." Ray Flynn, former Democratic mayor of Boston and Clinton’s Ambassador to the Vatican, asserted that "there was no room for dissenting voice or diversity on some of these issues" at the convention. By their deeds we’ll know them indeed!

I believe John Kerry when he says that he finds personal strength and solace in his faith. But his political agenda is faith-based in only the most attenuated sense. It represents the success of efforts by thinkers like Francis Bacon and John Locke to clothe essentially worldly goals with religious language, to enlist the faithful in the human conquest of the world for "the relief," as Bacon put it "of man’s estate." Kerry’s most authentic profession of faith was of his faith in the power of science to extend the scope of human accomplishment and power.

The culture war continues apace.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.