A few years ago faith was fashionable in the Democratic Party and related interest groups. This year, not so much. Before and after the 2008 elections, various "faith outreach" schemes were promoted and much discussed, even as many of us questioned the validity of these approaches, and further questioned the apparent downplaying of core values in pursuit of conservative religious voters. (See here, here and here, for example.)
(It remains astounding to me that anyone thought it was a good idea that the 2008 presidential candidates were questioned about their religious views by a panel of clergy and later, Rick Warren.) And while faith is always in fashion in some sense -- successful pols are acutely conscious of the religious identities and interests of voters, it turned out that with a few possible exceptions, the once fashionable faith outreach schemes didn't much work and we have heard little about them since.
Last May, The Washington Post reported,
These days, the Democratic National Committee's faith staff of more than a half-dozen has dwindled to one part-time slot. Its faith issues Web site led this week with greetings for Passover (which was in March) and Rosh Hashanah (which was in September).The Post also reported that the leading Democratic political consulting firm emphasizing faith outreach had, at the time, no clients slated for 2010. Although in fairness, that appears to have changed since then, it is also apparent that the client list is padded to include multiple listings for essentially the same groups -- including its own American Values Network.
Faith consultants who once had dozens of clients did not play a role in high-profile Democratic losses in the Virginia gubernatorial race in November and in the special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat of the late Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts in January. And there was little visible new faith outreach in last week's Democratic Senate primaries, according to some party officials.
Meanwhile, the "faith" section of the DNC web site shows little activity over the past two years.
This is not to say that pols should not develop good approaches to religion in public life and find ways to appeal to voters of all kinds, religious and non-religious. They should and they do and learning how to navigate these things in our very religiously plural society is an essential skill set. There is undoubtedly a role for political consultants who specialize in these things.
But let's also stipulate that there has been little to no public discussion of Democratic "faith outreach" since the Post's story back in May about how previous efforts have fallen apart.
But let's just review some of the consequences of misguided understandings of the role of religion in public life -- across the political spectrum in recent years -- and consider the possibility that there may be good reasons to be far more careful in how we approach these things.
Generally, the party's faith outreach strategy was tailored to appeal to anti-gay and antiabortion Catholics and evangelicals who might otherwise support Democratic candidates and policy initiatives, notably health insurance reform. But at least some of the candidates who were recruited and supported under the rubric of "faith," such as Rep. Bobby Bright (D-AL) and Rep. Health Schuler (D-NC)voted for the antiabortion Stupak Amendment and against the final health care bill -- even though its proscription of federal funds for abortion made permanent the notorious Hyde Amendment -- making health reform the most draconian piece of anti-abortion legislation since Roe vs. Wade.
What's more, Democratic Party-aligned interest groups supposedly seeking "common ground" on abortion, adopted the long time antiabortion notion of "abortion reduction" as a central part of its message heading into the unproductive common ground discussions in the run up to the health care debate. The health care bill mandated a relatively small amount of money to reduce the need for abortion, as White House policy and the party platform call for. The Pregnancy Assistance Fund is administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. In partial response to recent Republican claims that the Obama administration was politicizing the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Initiatives, the director of the office said that this grant program would help "dial down the culture wars", reduce the number of women seeking abortion services, via a common ground approach. Such things as helping pregnant teenagers so that they do not have to choose between staying in school and having a baby -- is unquestionably good policy. But both the prochoice and antiabortion camps are skeptical, rightfully I think, that all this will have much impact on abortion.
And there's the rub.
There is no evidence that this or any other administration initiative can, in fact, dial down the culture wars. The Religious Right's one-sided war of aggression against the religious pluralism that under-girds constitutional democracy -- and against reproductive rights, LGTB civil rights, and separation of church and state -- has continued unabated.
The claims that the Religious Right is dead (or almost dead) and that the culture wars are over (or nearly so) have played a role in confusing wishful thinking with political reality.
Similarly, the inexplicable conventional wisdom of the past year that the Tea Partiers are secular conservatives concerned about economics and not social issues was preposterous -- as was belatedly demonstrated in a recent poll. When five Tea Party-backed candidates who won their respective GOP nominations for the U.S. Senate turned out to be rabid social conservatives who think that abortions should be banned even in cases of rape, and that one of those candidates Christine O'Donnell had been a senior staffer at Concerned Women for America (the premier women's political organization of the Religious Right), reality overwhelmed the conventional wisdom. A poll to prove the obvious became necessary. This odd dysfunction helped to obscure the Religious Right's political mobilization for the Fall elections.
Those of us who have reported on the conservative movement for many years could have told them that the Religious Right was a major part of the Tea Party movement -- and did -- just as we have challenged the many pronouncements of the death of the Religious Right.
There are profound disconnects between the realities of the role of religion in politics and the operating assumptions of way too many. It doesn't have to be this way. Better outcomes are possible.
[Crossposted from Talk to Action]