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 show up.”

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 Chairmanship.

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 Irish Catholics.

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’ rights.

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 (Encounter Books).