Democrats Keep The Faith

Sen. Barack Obama , D-Ill., speaks to the St. Mark Cathedral congregation on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a birthday celebration at the Harvey, Ill., church in this Jan. 15, 2007, file photo. Obama's made religion a signature part of his campaign through his own public appearances in places where Democrats rarely venture, and a faith-based voter mobilization, topped by forums in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that could prove key to organizing. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, file)
This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

In the 2004 election, according to exit polls, 78 percent of white evangelicals voted for George W. Bush. The president's deft use of religious language, socially conservative policy positions and unprecedented outreach program had galvanized highly religious voters, and there was serious talk of a permanent Republican majority built on their support.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, had been represented by John Kerry, whose campaign was dogged by the perception that it did not take faith outreach seriously and who struggled to convince voters that his religious rhetoric was genuine.

Four years later, the script hasn't exactly flipped. But the shift when it comes to religious rhetoric has been remarkable. In the 2008 election cycle, it is the Democrats, not the Republicans, who seem most comfortable discussing their faith - and reaching out to the faithful.

Consider the frontrunners for the Democratic nomination. Sen. Barack Obama has touted his "personal relationship with Jesus Christ," and said he is "confident that we can create a kingdom right here on Earth." He has organized "faith forums," says he seeks to be an "instrument of God," and speaks of his religious conversion following community organizing in Chicago-area churches.

Along with conservative Sen. Sam Brownback, he spoke about fighting AIDS at evangelical pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California. And an Obama "gospel tour" in South Carolina, though not without controversy, drew thousands of black evangelicals over the weekend.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has been less outspoken than Obama about her Methodist faith - which is perhaps why, among the frontrunners, she is seen as the least religious, according to a recent Pew survey. But behind the scenes, Clinton, who is thought to be deeply religious by those who know her, has been engaged in an impressive outreach program to win over religious voters.

Last year, Clinton hired Burns Strider, a highly-regarded white evangelical born and raised in Mississippi, to be her faith outreach director. She and Strider, who headed up the Democrats' outreach program following the 2004 election, are casting Clinton's faith as integral to her life and her policy positions on issues like genocide in Darfur. It's a strategy made more viable by the rise of pastors like Warren and Bill Hybels, who talk more about issues like poverty than the battles of the culture war.

Clinton has also done significant outreach among Iowa's relatively large Methodist community, according to Dan Gilgoff, politics editor at "She doesn't talk about it as blatantly, but her campaign reveals a very robust and sophisticated effort," says Gilgoff.

John Edwards, a Southern Baptist-turned-United Methodist, had a high-profile stumble with religious voters when two of his bloggers were discovered to have made comments before they joined his campaign that Catholics found offensive. But his populist message dovetails nicely with the new evangelicalism of Warren and Hybels - Edwards casts fighting poverty as a moral issue - and he has spoken eloquently of finding his faith following the death of his son in 1996. He has also been reaching out to progressive religious leaders.

The Republican frontrunners, meanwhile, have struggled to win over deeply religious voters looking for a candidate to rally around. Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, has socially moderate positions on issues such as gay rights and abortion that are anathema to traditional evangelicals, as well as a personal history that doesn't play well with the group. A Roman Catholic, Giuliani says his personal religious beliefs are private and generally declines to discuss them, though he often invokes God on the campaign trail.

In March, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention criticized Giuliani for how he handled his divorce from his second wife. "I mean, this is divorce on steroids," Land told the Associated Press. "To publicly humiliate your wife in that way, and your children. That's rough. I think that's going to be an awfully hard sell, even if he weren't pro-choice and pro-gun control."

Late last month, a group of prominent Christian conservatives threatened to back a third-party candidate if Giuliani becomes the Republican nominee.

Giuliani's rival Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has spotlighted his family and traditional values over the course of his campaign, presumably to draw a contrast with Giuliani. But the nature of his faith - Romney is Mormon - appears to be a significant problem for many religious voters. A September Pew poll found that just 46 percent of white evangelical Protestants have a favorable opinion of Mormons, while 39 percent have an unfavorable opinion. A Rasmussen Reports poll last year found that more than half of evangelical Christians wouldn't cast their vote for a Mormon.

Romney has made some inroads. This month he secured the endorsements of Bob Jones III and Robert Taylor of South Carolina's Bob Jones University, a conservative Christian college that teaches that Mormonism is a cult. He also won a recent straw poll among socially conservative "Values Voters" in Washington. But Romney, who until relatively recently supported abortion rights, remains a hard sell for many evangelicals.