Recent statements by Democratic National Party Chairman Howard Dean and star Senator Barack Obama have made clear the Democrats’ intention to stop ceding religious voters to Republicans and to make them an electoral target this year. If the information provided by the Arizona Democratic Party and posted at the national Democratic Party Web site is any indication though, they have yet to grasp the job ahead of them.
As part of the Democratic Reunion campaign, resources have been made available to assist those canvassing their neighborhoods on behalf of the Democratic Party. A canvassing tip sheet at the website instructs volunteers to discuss the issues important to their neighbors and then lists things to look for in order to get an idea of what those issues are. The first two items listed are:
Bumper stickers or window decals: What issues are brought up? Do they indicate issue preferences? Do they indicate particular values?
Religious items: Do they have any religious items in view? What can you tell by the nature of their religious display?”
The tip sheet continues, “Take a quick look around. What do you see and what might it tell you about the person whose home you are visiting? What might each of the cues listed below tell you about the voters who live there?” Cues then listed include “religious symbols,” “U.S. flag,” “well tended flower garden” and “expensive car.”
Listed also on the tip sheet are various bumper stickers that might give the canvassers insight into the voters they will be addressing, including religious bumper stickers and even specifically the “Hate Is Not A Family Value” sticker.
After reading the canvassing tips, Pat Hynes, author of In Defense Of The Religious Right, said: "It is a testament as to how remarkably out of touch the Democrats are that they need to count the number of Jesus fish on the bumpers of cars to measure the values of their communities. Instead of spying on their neighbors to build their political databases, Democrats would be wise to darken the doorways of a church now and again and absorb some of the traditional moral values that play an increasing role in public life."
As Hynes’ comment suggests, much of the outreach discussed by Democratic leaders has had more to do with symbolism, or “religious display,” than it has with substance. For instance, there has been a lot of discussion about learning to talk the language of religion, but not nearly as much about how faith forms the foundation for the political views of many voters.
Last year Democratic Senators and staffers were coached to speak in "moral terms.” The problem Democrats have had in speaking to religious voters is not in choosing the correct terms to use, but rather it is in the schizophrenic nature of their positions on the role of religion in politics.
Howard Dean has encouraged Democrats to frame issues in terms of morality. In November 2005 he said, “Most important, we will talk about Democratic values, which are America’s values. The vast majority of Americans believe it is immoral to lets kids go hungry…Americans believe it is immoral that not everyone has some kind of health insurance. We agree … Americans believe that it is immoral to leave huge debts to our children and grandchildren. We agree.”
On the other hand, when a religious or morality-based rationale is cited by Republicans when arguing an issue such as abortion, for example, most Democrats call foul.
The split personality extends even to those religious figures Democrats deem acceptable to participate in the political arena. The Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton are fine. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are not. It is acceptable for Democrats like Al Gore and Bill and Hillary Clinton to give political speeches from church pulpits, but conservatives distributing voter guides at churches, or Republican politicians discussing the role their faith plays in their lives, is deemed threatening.
Until Democratic politicians decide that it is either okay for everyone to talk about how their religion relates to their politics, or that it is not okay for anyone to discuss it, many voters will remain confused.
Mort Kondracke gave some really good advice to Democrats back in 2004: “My post-election advice to Democrats is: Go to church. Don’t go to “get religion,” although it might be good for your soul. Just go, in the first instance, to “get” religion, i.e. understand what goes on in the heads and hearts of those who devoutly believe in God and how it affects their views of the world. It will help you politically.”
Hynes and Kondracke offer some simple, yet potentially valuable, advice for those leaders of the Democratic Party who want to reach religious voters. As Kondracke put it, Democrats don’t need to “get religion,” they need to “get” religion. That understanding does not come from studying “moral terms” or bumper stickers.
Lorie Byrd is a Townhall.com columnist and contributor to Wizbangblog.com