What do the death penalty, the Sudan, Iraq, and the environment have in common? Most would identify these issues with far-left hippies, protesting in tie-dye, and singing Kumbaya. While, in fact, these are issues the left cares about, they are also issues of great moral importance to the religious community.
Yet, most Democrats either refer to the religious community with scorn or put up feeble attempts to pretend that the spirit moves them too or something in between. They do this to their own political detriment. The sooner they realize they have more in common with religious communities than they think, and treat them with the proper respect, the sooner the party can crawl out of the minority.
As a progressive and a deeply religious person, I straddle between the two sides. Unfortunately, the gap between the two is getting greater, not closing. Instead of sitting down and listening to communities of faith, Democrats read polls. Polling tells them that more and more people consider “moral values” of utmost importance when determining their vote. The reaction is either to dismiss this group as “religious extremists” who are out of touch with reality, or do what far too many Democrats do, suddenly proclaim they love Jesus too.
The former simply makes religious people feel disrespected and unwanted. The latter usually sets off internal BS detectors. For instance, John Kerry’s advisors thought they were hitting a home run when they had their candidate get up and proclaim that he was an Alter Boy for years. As a practicing Catholic, I know being an Alter Boy is something your parents make you do for your $20 allowance. In an infamous gaffe, Howard Dean tried to come off as religious by saying The book of Job was his favorite book of the New Testament. Unfortunately, it is the Old Testament.
The lazy reading of the polls is what has led to such simplistic reactions to religious voters. A deeper examination finds some interesting results. Yes, for some evangelical Christians, the phrase "moral values" centrally expressed an antipathy to abortion or opposition to gay marriage. But to many other voters, “moral values” meant caring for the poor, safeguarding the environment and expressing kindness to neighbors. You know, those things that some guy named Jesus teaches us are important.
This is exactly what Democrats miss because they are not sitting down and listening to religious communities. If they did, they would learn that Catholic priests and nuns are more on the forefront of the fight against the death penalty than liberal activists like Alec Baldwin. Before the Congressional Black Caucus or the left got interested in the Sudan, evangelical Christians were on the ground there, aiding those in need. The most effective environmental message I have ever seen were billboards in the rust belt calling for conservation that read, “What would Jesus Drive?” It wasn’t the Sierra Club or Greenpeace sponsoring the ad, it was the Evangelical Christian Network. When Pope John Paul was near death, he called the President not to talk to him about abortion or gay marriage or pornography. The most important issue to the Holy Father at the time was avoiding a war in Iraq.
Bill Clinton understood this, and that it why he was the last politician to effectively reach out to the religious community. Unlike George Bush, Bill Clinton didn’t wear his religion on his sleeve. He didn’t brag about all the times he went to church, or claim that he had a direct line to God. What Clinton did, with great mastery, was sit down and listen to communities of faith and let them know he heard them, understood them, and would work with them where they saw eye to eye. On issues they did not see eye to eye on, such as gay rights, he was honest about his difference of opinion and moved on.
I ran into Bill Clinton not too long ago, and asked him about this issue. He told me that religious communities are telling him that they would like to work with the left on issues like Iraq, the environment, Sudan, and the death penalty, but since Clinton left office, no Democratic politicians are calling them anymore.
Democrats, the religious community is ready to take your call, but you better do it quick. If not, when you need them the most – 2006 for example – they might just hang up on you for good.
Flavia Colgan holds a religion degree from Harvard University. Flavia serves as an MSNBC-TV commentator.