The Democrats have been gettin’ preachy lately. Their initial attempts at religious talk post-2004 came off like a Tourette’s syndrome for Democrats, with politicians randomly spouting scripture verses and twitching to some unheard hymn in the background. There are still some afflicted with this disorder. But more recently we’ve started to hear a different sort of Democratic oration on faith. It’s more considered, more authentic, and perhaps, as a result, more effective.
The best models of the new Democratic approach to faith have come from Sens. Barack Obama and John Kerry and then-Senate candidate Bob Casey. In anticipation of questions about why this, why now, Kerry explained to an audience at Pepperdine University in September that he made a mistake during his presidential campaign by not engaging the issue of his faith more openly. And he advised other Democrats to learn from his mistake.
“I learned how important it is to make certain [that] people have a deeper understanding of the values that shape me and the faith that sustains me,” Kerry told the mostly conservative Christian crowd. Despite his aversion to highlighting his faith, he learned that “if I didn’t fill in the picture myself, others would draw the caricature for me.”
What Kerry and others have learned is that it’s all well and good for Democrats to decide that their faith is private and they’d rather not talk about it in public, thank you very much. But that doesn’t mean that their faith will remain private. It just guarantees that their faith—or purported lack thereof—will be defined by the opposition.
As long as 70 percent of Americans continue to say they want their president to be a person of faith, religion will be an issue in political campaigns. The lesson many Democrats are beginning to grasp is that it is far better for them to be proactive and define themselves for the public instead of waiting for Republicans to start the inevitable painting of them as godless secularists. Tellingly, it was this mistake to which Obama also confessed in his speech to religious progressives at a Sojourners/Call to Renewal conference in June. He talked about his insufficient response to Alan Keyes’ charge that “Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama.” In late September, Rep. James Clyburn told a similar story to a gathering on Capitol Hill, recalling a campaign in which he lost a county in his district for the first time after his opponent called him the “most un-Christian person I’ve met.”
Democratic politicians tend to ignore charges like these because they are absurd (and they are), but the attacks have an impact if Democrats don’t affirmatively explain who they are. That could mean anything from talking about the philosophical principles they use to ground their political positions or the religious beliefs that anchor their policy priorities. That’s what Kerry and Casey each did by using their speeches to explain the ways in which Catholicism has influenced their positions in four areas: poverty, environmental stewardship, abortion, and an adherence to just war principles.
None of these recent speeches were tactical plans for “using” religion to obtain electoral success for the Democratic Party. Nor were they “We are too religious!” rebuttals to their critics. Instead, these speeches were all affirmative statements of belief, visions of “how to reconcile faith with our modern pluralistic democracy,” as Obama put it. John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Mario Cuomo in 1984 each gave seminal speeches on faith and democratic politics, but they were primarily concerned with defining their own faith—Catholicism—in terms of what it was not.
At the end of Kerry’s Pepperdine address, after hearing about his faith journey from cradle Catholic to spiritually wounded and questioning soldier to mature Christian, the standing-room-only crowd gave him a standing ovation that I doubt the former Democratic presidential nominee expected. He came away having confirmed a fundamental political truth that Democrats have too often forgotten: Voters don’t have to agree with you on every issue in order to respect you. But they do need to believe that your positions are based in conviction.
Amy Sullivan is a contributing editor at The Washington Monthly and author of a forthcoming book on religion and the Left (Scribner, fall 2007).