Kerry and the religion thing

Posted: Aug 03, 2004 12:00 AM
For John Kerry, this religion thing is a problem. On the one hand, he wants to appeal to Dem elites who tend to be (let's face it) more secular than not. On the other hand, he doesn't want to offend the vast majority of voters who consider themselves religious folk, especially black and Hispanic Democrats.

Unlike George Bush, John Kerry has to straddle not only the difference between his base and the swing vote on religious themes, but a radical difference in taste between key constituents of the Democrat Party.

A June Time magazine poll, for example, showed just 7 percent of likely voters consider Kerry a man of strong religious faith. At the same time, a third of Kerry voters agreed that Bush's "intense religious views" worried them. How to walk that fine line? Kerry on the stump alternates between references to himself as a man of faith, with pronouncements of his strong faith in that "beautiful line" separating church and state in America. Another strategy? Market segmentation: Kerry's campaign recently began running Spanish-language TV ads in Spanish with "Faith" as a theme.

But for a real glimpse of how difficult the religion thing is for Kerry, take a look at the Democrats' checkered efforts to hire a director of religious outreach.

The Kerry campaign's first choice was a woman named Mara Vanderslice, who came to Kerry after occupying a similar position in the Dean campaign. Mara's fall from grace with Kerry came after the Catholic League outed her as a hard-left activist, according to the Washington Times: "The campaign began to marginalize Miss Vanderslice when the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights mounted a public campaign against her, saying she spoke at a rally co-sponsored by the homosexual group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Act-Up) and should be 'working for Fidel Castro.'"

Miss Vanderslice was muzzled, ordered not to speak to the press, leaving (as Amy Sullivan, a specialist on religion and the Democratic Party who addressed the Democratic Leadership Council last fall on "God, Guns and Guts," freely confessed to the Washington Times) "no one in their communications shop who is conversant in religion."

On July 23, the Democrats tried again. According to UPI, the DNC appointed one Rev. Brenda Bartella-Peterson, a Christian minister (Disciples of Christ) as the Democratic Party's senior adviser on religious outreach. "Brenda will act as liaison to religious organizations and will encourage people to let their faith inform their participation in democracy," DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe said. She comes to the Kerry campaign from her post as executive director of the Clergy Leadership Network. This is how the CEO of the CLN describes their "niche" on the organization's Web site: "We are moderate and liberal and even centrist. But the political center has been pulled so far right that we look like radical leftists."

"Brenda has dedicated her life to showing us all how religion and politics intersect with integrity," McAuliffe said. "We are proud to have her join the DNC, in order to spread John Kerry's positive vision to people of all faiths."

Now we find out that the Rev. Bartella-Peterson worked to get God out of the Pledge of Allegiance. She signed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to declare the pledge unconstitutional. She's entitled to her position, surely, but it does lead one to ask what exactly is Kerry's positive vision to people of all faiths?

What explains this ineptitude? Is the Democratic leadership unable to vet or simply unable to find a religious adviser whose views are simpatico with the American people? As Catholic League President Bill Donohue quips: "If Peterson were a plant by the Bush camp, we'd understand it. What we don't understand is political suicide."