How Democrats Gave Up On Religious Voters

politics, religion, church, state, God, America
Tiffany Stanley is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

When Barack Obama burst onto the national scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he represented-among many things-the shining hope for the religious left. Here was a liberal politician who was not afraid of the language of faith, who just might reclaim territory that the Democratic Party had, willingly or not, ceded to Republicans. Red America did not own religion, Obama declared: "We worship an awesome God in the blue states."

Between 2004 and 2007, when Obama announced his candidacy for president, he became possibly the most prominent Democratic politician who was comfortable speaking about religion-a liberal who gave the impression that his religiosity was heartfelt, genuine, and important to his politics. He spoke with ease about his conversion; of the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and, in a key speech before the Call to Renewal conference in 2006, of the importance of "religion in the public square." In the 2008 presidential election, Obama's message seemed to resonate with religious people who had not, in recent years, gravitated toward the Democratic Party. He won more churchgoers than any Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton.

But, in just two short years, the left has become sluggish in its courtship of religious voters, significantly scaling back its faith-outreach programs. While many factors-primarily the economy-doomed the Democrats this fall, the consequences of this abdication nevertheless seem to be severe. In the recent midterm elections, House Democrats lost white evangelical voters in greater numbers than they did in 2004, when "values voters" flocked to George W. Bush. Reversing their Democratic allegiance from the past two elections, Catholics-nearly a quarter of all voters-favored the GOP 54 to 44 percent.

Compared to 2008, the drop-offs were steep: a 20-point decline with Catholics, a 14-point decline with white evangelicals, and a 10-point decline with white Protestants.

How and why did this happen?

The post-2004 revival of Democratic faith outreach, which reached its apex in the 2008 elections, can be traced to 2005, when House Democrats began holding a series of closed-door meetings. The gatherings, known as the Faith Working Group, were the brainchild of Nancy Pelosi, who wanted Democrats to start paying attention to religious voters.

John Kerry had just lost the election and had seemed markedly uncomfortable talking about faith. (Though a Catholic, Kerry lost the Catholic vote to Bush, an evangelical Methodist.)

More than two dozen congressmen regularly attended the sessions, or sent aides on their behalf. (Barack Obama, then a junior senator, even sent a representative.) Attendees saw presentations on getting out the "God vote"-reaching voters motivated by their religious affiliation-and met with mega-church pastors as well as leaders from the religious left.

The aim was simple: to formulate a sincere expression of progressive faith.

This idea caught on with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) as well. Though not known for his religious literacy, DNC Chair Howard Dean (whom TNR called "one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history") made faith outreach a priority in 2005. He instructed DNC staffer and Pentecostal minister Leah Daughtry to target religious voters, opened a faith-advisory council for the DNC, and kicked off the Faith in Action initiative, which, according to its mission statement, was intended to increase "the national visibility of Democrats on issues of faith and public life."

The new strategy showed promise. According to political consultant Eric Sapp, Democrats who did extended, targeted faith outreach in 2006-like Ohio's Ted Strickland and Michigan's Jennifer Granholm-fared 10 points better with frequent churchgoers than the party's national average.

By 2008, faith-related political efforts had become prominent within the Democratic Party, with Obama's campaign exemplifying the trend. Obama chose a young pastor, Joshua Dubois, to head the campaign's religious outreach, and a hefty portion of the campaign's field game was led by divinity school graduate Jeremy Bird, who adeptly merged religious outreach with political organizing.

The campaign ran dozens of faith forums in pivotal states, and the Democratic National Convention even kicked off with an interfaith worship service-a first in its history. On Election Day, Obama made modest but definite inroads among white evangelicals, Protestants, and Catholics. He did eight points better than Kerry with Catholic voters; and with voters who went to church more than once a week, he lowered the GOP advantage from 29 to 12 percent.

Voters who attended church monthly actually favored Obama over McCain, 53 to 46 percent (Kerry had lost these voters by two points). Once elected, Obama expanded a Bush-era creation, the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP), and put Dubois at its helm, hiring a number of the party's faith consultants to work under him. Obama and the Democratic Party seemed poised to command respect among the religious population they had so diligently pursued.

But, when Obama took office, the Democrats' faith outreach began to fall by the wayside. Several of those who had led the religious aspects of the Obama campaign landed in the OFBNP, which is legally barred from electoral politics, and thus faith-based political outreach.

"I accepted this position knowing it would be distinct from the electoral role," Dubois told me. Another key faith operative, Mara Vanderslice, joined Dubois in the OFBNP, abandoning her nascent political action committee, the Matthew 25 Network, which had been formed to promote progressive Christian candidates. With Dubois and others quarantined in OFBNP, many of the strongest religious-outreach coordinators were removed from the efforts in which they had been so effective.