Like it or not, the U.S. is a religious country. 85% of Americans say that religion is "an important part" of their lives and that number hasn't really budged over the past four decades. Since Republicans aren't capturing 85% of the vote, that means religious Americans--and, by extension, religious voters--are much more diverse than typical public and media discussions imply.
Despite the fact that more than 8 in 10 African-Americans are religious Democrats, a full 40% of white evangelicals are politically moderate (with another 10% self-identified liberals), and the majority of Catholics are as concerned about issues like immigration, the economy, health care, war, and poverty as they are about abortion, religion somehow became conflated with conservatism over the past 30 years.
Obviously, the religious right and the GOP spent a lot of time and effort pushing the idea. But they were able to claim a monopoly on religion because the Democratic political class bought their spin. Think about it: If your response to the idea of Democrats engaging religious voters is either "why bother?" or "at what cost?", then most likely you're assuming that religious voters are conservative.
These assumptions had political consequences. The Dukakis campaign turned down all invitations from Catholic institutions, perhaps saving their candidate from some awkward conversations about abortion but also preventing him from interacting with voters who would have appreciated his opposition to the death penalty. The Kerry campaign told liberal Catholics in Ohio that Democrats "don't do white churches," effectively eliminating the possibility of outreach to three-quarters of the electorate.
The Democratic Party hasn't been hostile to religion. The problem isn't that Democratic candidates haven't been pious enough nor is the solution that they should just start using a lot of God-talk. Instead, Democrats have earned lower levels of support from religious constituencies like white evangelicals and Catholics than they otherwise should have because activists and operatives have been indifferent to religion and have operated under misconceptions about who the faithful are.
In his review of my book, Paul Baumann writes that I suggest Democratic religious outreach will play a decisive role in the party's future success. In fact, the book makes no such claim. I actually agree with Baumann that elections don't turn on religion. National security, economic policy--these are the factors that drive elections. But, again, in a country where 85% of the people say religion is an important part of their lives, the party that doesn't talk to religious voters is at an automatic disadvantage. In close elections, that can make a difference.
More importantly--because my purpose in writing the book was surely not to tell Democrats how to win elections--an unlevel praying field (hat tip to my colleague Michael Duffy for that useful punny phrase) allows religion to be wielded as a divisive cudgel. I know it sounds unbearably counterintuitive, but one way to take religion off the table in political elections is for Democrats to engage it. Once neither party can claim a monopoly on religion, its effect is neutralized and candidates are forced to focus instead on issues that all Americans, whether religious or secular, care about: providing economic security, dealing with the mess in Iraq, reforming our health care system, improving our children's education.
I'll talk about how that has worked in campaigns already, tackle the ineviable "what about abortion?" questions, and point to evidence of shifts in the evangelical community in future posts. In the meantime, have at it.