National Catholic Register


Democrats Woo Religious


Contributing Editor

August 6-12, 2006 Issue | Posted 8/7/06 at 10:00 AM


WASHINGTON — Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has a dream.

His dream is of an America where his Democratic Party, once the natural home of Catholics and many other Christian voters, can reclaim the religious vote and thereby regain its dominance over U.S. politics.

But according to Democratic pro-lifers like former Boston mayor Raymond Flynn, Obama’s vision will remain merely a pipedream if the Democrats persist in marginalizing religiously minded voters who oppose abortion and same-sex “marriage.”

Sen. Obama discussed his thoughts about reconciling religious voters and liberal politics in a June 28 keynote address in Washington to the annual Call to Renewal convention. Obama told the gathering of religious progressives that the issue became particularly personal during his successful 2004 senatorial campaign against Catholic commentator Alan Keyes.

During the campaign (see ‘Why I Lost, page 7), Keyes asserted that Jesus would not vote for Obama because of his support for abortion and homosexual “marriage.”

Obama said that while many of his liberal supporters urged him to ignore Keyes’s jibe, “Mr. Keyes’s implicit accusation that I was not a true Christian nagged at me.”

Obama said that after finishing college, he was drawn towards an African-American church while working as a community organizer for a coalition of Christian churches.

Eventually, as his faith grew, “I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith.”

Obama said that his religious conversion is “a path that has been shared by millions upon millions of Americans.” Such religious convictions are “not something they set apart from the rest of their beliefs and values,” he said. “In fact, it is often what drives their beliefs and their values.”

Added Obama, “And that is why that, if we truly hope to speak to people where they’re at — to communicate our hopes and values in a way that’s relevant to their own — then as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.”

‘Rhetorical’ Problem

The Illinois senator itemized a number of issues, such as combating AIDS, reducing Third World debt, operating daycare and senior facilities and opposing repeal of the estate tax. He said that political progressives can make common cause with religious groups.

Obama said that a key problem that Democrats and progressives experience in wooing religious voters is their discomfort with religious language.

Said Obama, “Some of the problem here is rhetorical: if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.”

Obama said that religious conservatives, for their part, need to acknowledge the benefits of church-state separation, and “translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values” that can be accepted by others.

And both sides, Obama said, have to maintain a sense of “proportion” about the importance of the issues they are promoting.

“So we all have some work to do here,” Obama said. “But I am hopeful that we can bridge the gaps that exist and overcome the prejudices each of us bring to this debate.”

Obama isn’t the only prominent black Democrat to muse publicly about the question of faith and politics. In a commentary posted July 20 on’s website, former Democratic presidential candidate Rev. Al Sharpton complained that “some high-profile black ministers” are trying to “drive a wedge” among blacks by opposing abortion and same-sex “marriage.”

Warned Sharpton, “We will not sit idly as these ministers tarnish Dr. King’s legacy by promoting their small-minded causes to the detriment of the battles truly worth fighting.”

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne praised Obama’s speech in a June 30 column. According to Dionne, “it may be the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech in 1960 declaring his independence from the Vatican.”

Former Boston mayor Flynn, a Catholic who also served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See during the Clinton Administration, doesn’t share Dionne’s enthusiasm.

“Sometimes liberal Democrats want to have it both ways,” said Flynn. “They talk like there’s a big tent here in the Democratic Party. And then the next thing you know, when it’s time for the political process to begin, they exclude pro-life Democrats like me.”

Flynn said that while Obama’s sentiments seemed sincere, he ducked the key life and family issues — particularly the Democrats’ overwhelmingly pro-abortion stance — that drive religious voters away.

“It’s not about rhetoric, it’s about substance,” Flynn said.

A “radical element” in the Democratic Party has prevented it from attracting pro-life and pro-family voters in recent years, Flynn said. He sees Obama’s speech as an indicator that prominent Democrats are beginning to realize this is an election-losing situation.

“There’s going to be a new debate in the Democratic Party in 2008,” Flynn predicted. “There’s no fun in losing elections all the time.”

Religion Counts

Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of First Things magazine, said that Obama’s speech demonstrated that the Illinois senator “is obviously a thoughtful person.”

Father Neuhaus is a convert to the faith. In the 1960s, he was a Lutheran pastor of a poor congregation in a minority area of New York City. He was active in the Civil Rights Movement and a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like Flynn, Father Neuhaus believes Democrats must make concrete changes on moral issues — especially on abortion — if they hope to win a larger share of the religious vote.

“There’s no easy way of accommodating the difference on the single most critical question, namely abortion, between those who believe this is an illegitimate killing of an innocent human life and those who think it is essentially a matter of choice or reproductive rights of women, as they put it,” Father Neuhaus said. “And until that question is addressed in a believable way, there will be no very believable bridging of the gap.”

Father Neuhaus said that since 1972, the dominant influences in the Democratic Party have held a “thoroughly secular” vision of American society. While this secularist stranglehold remains in control, he said, its grip on the party is weakening.

Said Father Neuhaus, “When you look at the situation 22 years ago when I wrote The Naked Public Square and the situation now, it’s obvious even militant secularists are reluctantly coming to recognize that religion and religiously based morality, whether they want it to or not, will continue to play a powerful role in our public life.”

Tom McFeely is based

in Victoria, British Columbia.

Alan Keyes: Why I Lost

WASHINGTON — Many political pundits believe that Alan Keyes was trounced by Barack Obama in the 2004 Illinois senatorial race partly because of Keyes’ passionate pro-life and pro-family campaign pronouncements.

But two years later, Keyes says he is content to have lost, if that was the price for remaining true to his religious and political convictions.

Speaking to the Register about his former political rival’s speech to the Call to Renewal Conference about reconciling faith and politics, Keyes said he agreed with Sen. Obama about the significance of the topic.

“I obviously believe that there is almost no more important issue in American political life than the question of the proper relationship between faith and politics,” said Keyes. “I think it has to be handled with care and a respect for truth.”

But it’s in the area of truth where Obama’s ideas fall short, Keyes believes.

“He refuses to take seriously the challenge of truth,” Keyes said. “If I am going to take the truth seriously, then I am going to have to apply my faith-based understanding of truth when I cast my vote and when I act as a participant in society at any level.”

One area where Obama’s speech departed from the truth is in his comments on the separation of church and state, Keyes said. In reality, the founders of America’s republican form of government weren’t at all concerned with keeping politics free from religion, Keyes noted; the guiding principle of the founding was the protection of religious freedom.

Said Keyes, “He talks about the separation of church and state in a way that is not true to historical facts.”

American Principles

Another major problem with Obama’s speech, Keyes said, is his argument that political issues must be addressed in a way that can encompass all possible religious beliefs, and even the beliefs of those with no faith. This conflicts with the actual basis upon which America was founded, which involved an explicit recognition of God’s existence and of the necessity to judge actions according to divinely established standards.

According to Keyes, an American politician has a fundamental responsibility, when addressing a specific issue, to apply the principles enshrined in the U.S. Constitution in a reasonable way.

“If you take those things seriously, there is no way to justify in light of a reasonable application of American principles, the positions that are taken by people like Barack Obama on the left with respect to infanticide, abortion, euthanasia, homosexual ‘marriage.’” Keyes said. “It can’t be done.”

And as a Christian, he said, an individual has an even more profound responsibility to bring faith to bear in every area of life, including politics.

“This is the challenge I have, which I don’t think Barack Obama takes seriously,” Keyes said. “And that is the challenge of living as a Christian person in truth, where you don’t use some excuse that separates action from faith.”

Keyes, a Catholic, admits that in the current cultural climate, speaking out about Christian convictions on moral issues can mean that a candidate is likely to lose out politically.

“I don’t care,” he said. “As a Christian person, am I supposed to choose victory over truth? Never!”

Added Keyes, “And that’s part of the problem I sense with Obama’s speech. Even if it’s coming, as I hope it is, from a heart that is sincerely searching for a Christian walk, that Christian walk will require that you confront what may be the fundamental opposition between the price of victory in corrupt times and the discipline of the truth. And he nowhere takes this seriously.”

— Tom McFeely