Can Democrats find way to close the religion gap?

July 14, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barack Obama's call for Democrats to close the religion gap with Republicans shows a keen grasp of the obvious.

As Mr. Obama noted in his much-talked-about speech last month at the Call to Renewal's conference of religious liberals in Washington, the biggest gap in party affiliation among white Americans today is "between those who attend church regularly and those who don't."

Right-wing voices such as the Rev. Pat Robertson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Alan Keyes, Mr. Obama's GOP opponent in the 2004 U.S. Senate race, will continue to hold sway, Mr. Obama said, "if we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for."

The prospect of evangelicals returning to the Democratic Party is ridiculed by conservatives, but in private it probably worries them as much as Democrats are haunted by the possibility of black voters returning to the GOP. During the 2004 presidential race, black voters, particularly black evangelicals, helped give President Bush a winning edge in Ohio and in other states, spurred in part by concerns over gay marriage.

In an over-the-top distortion, Mr. Keyes declared during his 2004 Senate race that "Christ would not vote for Barack Obama." Mr. Obama's refusal to respond made sense under the unwritten political rule: Never interrupt your adversary when he is 40 points behind you in the polls. But Mr. Obama says he wishes he had spoken up anyway. "When we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations toward one another ... others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends," he said.

At the Columbus, Ohio, convention of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the nation's largest grass-roots community group coalition, on Monday, the Rev. Al Sharpton called on progressives to put bread-and-butter issues such as a minimum-wage increase on ballots to counter the "bedroom issues" such as abortion and gay marriage. That's fine as a strategic move. It's always better to fight on your home-turf issues than on someone else's, and Democrats have high credibility on wage issues.

But, Mr. Obama says, Democrats need to address the bedroom concerns too. He's not alone in his viewpoint. The Call to Renewal conference at which he spoke is part of a national conversation that liberals and progressives are holding to bridge the religion gap. It's about time.

Nevertheless, Democrats should avoid appearing to be too desperate.

They should not, for example, start waving Bibles with the desperate choreography of the 1988 Democratic National Convention delegates waving U.S. flags to close their Old Glory gap.

Instead, they need to frame their issues in ways that speak not only to the bread-and-butter concerns of ordinary voters but also to their moral and spiritual concerns about the direction in which the country is going.

There always has been a moral component to politics. It has only been in the past three decades that morality has become identified so closely with conservative politics. No one would have said that conservatives had a lock on religious voters in the era of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The divide began to open when liberal secularism and concern for religious tolerance became widely misperceived as anti-religious. Jimmy Carter's successful presidential run in 1976 brought many religious voters back, partly because he spoke with the genuine conviction of a Sunday school teacher from Plains, Ga. That's the conviction with which Mr. Obama spoke in his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, which still has people buzzing about his presidential prospects.

After years of polarized politics, the public is hungering for voices that can bring the nation together, even in matters as divisive as faith and politics. Democrats can do it, if they can bring themselves together first.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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