Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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BY Mark Stricherz
Democrats’ religious outreach is only skin-deep. Are
Democrats reaching out to religious voters?
Party officials recruited pro-life candidates to run for
Congress in 2006, most of whom won their elections.
Hillary Clinton appointed an outreach group to Catholics.
Barack Obama suggested that he would do the same to Christian evangelicals:
“There have been times,” he said at a debate last month in South Carolina,
“when our Democratic Party did not reach out as aggressively as we could to
evangelicals because the assumption was, well, they don’t agree with us on
choice, or they don’t agree with us on gay rights, and so we just shouldn’t
Do these efforts signify a new era in Democratic politics?
Not really. The soul of the Democratic Party is still
secular. Of course, the soul of the Republican Party is not religious, as it is
split between economic, foreign policy and cultural conservatives. Yet there is
no comparable battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. Secular liberals won
that victory long ago.
Democrats have modulated their rhetoric, as none of its
presidential candidates have denounced “fundamentalist preachers” as Howard
Dean did in 2004.
Democrats have modulated their policies, as its presidential
candidates talk now about reducing the need for abortion. And Democrats have
modulated their national staff, employing aides who work with religious groups.
From these developments, Democratic intellectuals conclude
that the party has gotten religion. Amy Sullivan, author of The Party Faithful,
writes that Democrats are “closing the God gap.” E.J. Dionne Jr. of The
Washington Post writes in his new book Souled Out that “the era of the
Religious Right is over.”
Those pronouncements are overstated. Only the Democrats’
skin is becoming religious.
The party’s platform on cultural issues has not changed. It
continues to support taxpayer-financed abortions. It continues to support civil
unions for homosexual couples. It continues to support federal funding of
embryonic stem-cell research and “therapeutic cloning.”
The status of culturally conservative Democrats in the
national party also has not changed. In 1992 and 1996, Gov. Bob Casey of
Pennsylvania was prevented from delivering a pro-life speech at the party’s
nominating convention. In 2003 and 2004, Democrats for Life of America was
prevented from linking its website to that of the DNC. In 2004, Rep. Tim Roemer
of Indiana, a respected member of the 9-11 Commission, lost his bid for the DNC
How could this be? As late as the 1960s, the Democratic
Party was the political agent of the Catholic Church. In Connecticut, the state
Democratic Party held its nominating convention at the biggest Knights of
Columbus hall in Hartford. Almost all of the top national party officials were
Meanwhile, the Republican Party was the home of Planned
Parenthood and (mainline-Protestant dominated) country clubs.
One reason is that homosexual persons and secular feminists
became key Democratic constituencies. As a result of the rules changes of the
McGovern Commission (1969-72), both interest groups entered the party.
While their agenda was opposed by Catholics and
working-class whites in the 1970s, they triumphed eventually. Their old opponents,
the Reagan Democrats, decamped to the GOP and the interest groups’ agenda was
not opposed by the party’s remaining constituencies — blacks, union members,
intellectuals and professionals. None of the constituencies is going away.
Another reason is that the party’s presidential nominating
system favors more upscale and secular Democrats.
Take its profusion of state caucuses, 18 in all. Caucuses
are held for only a few hours, usually in the evening, the time when many
downscale voters are working. As a result, upscale candidates like Barack Obama
often win caucuses.
Also take its hard delegates quotas for women and soft
quotas for homosexuals: Although those rules might not sound noxious at first
blush, typically the most secular of Democrats are delegates. As a result, the
party platform endorses federal funding of abortion and homosexual persons’
Changing the Democratic Party is possible. The party’s
nominating system could be democratized. Instead of being dominated by
activists, it could be dominated by ordinary voters.
If this happened, upscale and secular voters would lose
power. They might not be able to exclude culturally conservative Democrats from
the national spotlight. And a pro-life Democrat might be able to mount a
serious run for president.
Now the Democrats’ new efforts may well appeal to some
religious voters this fall. After all, Bill Clinton won the Catholic vote both
times. Perhaps Obama and Clinton will repeat the feat.
Yet Democrats should change more than their surface. They
need to change their soul. Only then will a new Democratic era have arrived.
Mark Stricherz, a contributor to Get Religion, is the author of Why the
Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party
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