Talking about God’s favorite Democrats

7364898 MDaniel Burke, Peter Sachs and editor Kevin Eckstrom of Religion News Service put out an edgy pre-election feature package on Thursday focusing on one of this blog’s favorite topics — the religious left. The headline even referenced this blog (at least, I like to think so) by saying, “With the Help of a Dozen, Democrats Learn to ‘Get Religion.’”

As I read it, I thought to myself: “You know who needs to do a blog item on this one?”

That person would be Mark Stricherz, a writer and reporter in Washington who is a friend of this blog. Last time I checked, he was an active Catholic and a pro-life Democrat and he has written about religion and the Democrats all over the place. In fact, he currently is writing a book about how secular professionals took the Democratic Party away from Catholics and working-class whites. His stories on the topic can be found here, here and here.

So I asked him his thoughts on the RNS piece and here is what he sent me. He also posted this piece at his weblog, In Front of Your Nose.

Democrats Talk, Talk on Religion

Back in 1982, the English New Wave band Talk, Talk had a minor hit song called, originally enough, “Talk, Talk.” “All you do to me is talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk” singer Mark Hollis told the object of his affection. “All you do to me is talk, talk.”

The song broke no new ground instrumentally or lyrically, but the repetitive nature of the chorus made the song memorable. It danced through my head last night while I read Religion News Service’s mini-profiles of 12 Democrats who are “helping the party to rebuild relationships in the religious community.” The thesis of the story, which is mostly unstated, is that religious Christians are weaning the Democratic Party away from secularists. But really the story suggests that religious Democrats so far have succeeded in doing little more than, you guessed it, talk, talk.

Leah Daughtry, the chief of staff to Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, gets off the best, because most revealing, line in the series. Daughtry is a black Pentecostal minister who expresses weariness about Democratic politicians, presumably white, showing up at Sunday services in hopes of enticing African American voters to the polls.

“As someone who grew up in that community, we knew it like clockwork. Congressman ‘X’ would show up asking for your vote on Sunday. Quite frankly, it was very annoying,” Daughtry said. “I don’t want to hear you come and quote a Bible verse. Anybody can quote Scripture. I want to hear how you live Scripture.”

Exactly, and that’s the problem with the RNS story. It never tells us how the dozen religious Democrats live Scripture or the Talmud. But it certainly tells us how they “talk openly about spiritual journeys,” voice “public discomfort with abortion,” “share (a religious) perspective with party leaders and candidates,” “talk about their moral convictions,” “speak early and often about … faith.” By my unscientific count, the story quoted, paraphrased, stated or referred to how Democrats are talking about faith and values differently 39 times.

My point is not that talk is cheap. If the religious Democrats had referred to a human fetus as an unborn child or two men seeking benefits as homosexual unions, the talk would be dear indeed. Their language would have real implications, ones that suggest that Democrats are reconsidering their stands on policy.

My point is that the talk of the dozen religious Democrats profiled in the story is cheap. To take the most obvious example, the story refers only once to one of the Democrats’ stand on cultural issues; Rep. Rosa DeLauro supports abortion rights. But what about the other Democrats? Do they support the Democratic platform on federal funding of abortion or partial-birth abortion? Aside from cultural issues, how do they propose to eliminate or reduce poverty in America?

Aside from their view on the issues, I wish the authors of the story had at least mentioned their personal piety. Do they attend service regularly and have an active prayer life? Providing this information would give us the measure of the person. For example, it’s impossible to write about the late mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, who was Roman Catholic, without mentioning that he was a daily communicant. Even a critic of Mayor Daley would have to acknowledge that, though he didn’t mind his cops beating up protesters, he revered institutions.

I also wish the story would have explored the sincerity of the religious Democrats’ convictions. The story notes that Rep. DeLauro spearheaded an effort earlier this year by 55 House Democrats to issue a “Catholic Statement on Principles” in which the Democratic lawmakers said that their support for cultural libertarianism was an act of conscience. What the story does not say is that Ms. DeLauro is married to Stanley Greenberg, one of the party’s top pollsters. Mr. Greenberg has written two memos since the November 2004 elections saying that John Kerry lost because of the defection of white Catholic voters. Was that a coincidence?

Any serious person would have to be skeptical. Which would be a more journalistic frame of mind than the three reporters of the story showed. Heck, any old reader of the Bible would have to wonder, “Are the mouths of these religious Democrats not open graves?”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Harris

    I also wish the story would have explored the sincerity of the religious Democrats’ convictions.

    In a word. Please.

    When was the last time this was elevated in a story about the other party? I think anyone familiar with Sullivan’s writings or of VanderSlice’s organizational work would would find the above statement incredible.

    Much of this turns on what constitutes this “sincerity.” Clearly for tmatt, CrunchCon-friend-of-this-blog, and others it boils down to taking the Right side on two issues. But to do so only testifies to the narrow defintion of religion. That there are differences between these Dems and the other party provides little evidence for questioning their sincerity.

    And as for the gratuitous insult at the end, well you may want to re-read Matt 25. “Mouths … like open graves” indeed. Dives, meet Lazarus.

  • Kevin Eckstrom

    Stricherz concludes that the story “never tells us how the dozen religious Democrats live Scripture or the Talmud.” That is perhaps a fair criticism, but in our mind, seems to miss the point.

    When we set out on this project, we weren’t trying to measure the religiosity of any one person on the list, or rate them on some sort of personal piety scale. Frankly, we’re not sure who on this list goes to church or shul, and we don’t particularly care. (For what’s it’s worth, Amy Sullivan goes to St. Columba’s DC, Mike McCurry teaches junior high Sunday School and Daughtry preaches on Sundays. Mara Vanderslice has even been spotted at Brian McLaren’s church)

    But that’s not our place. We were not out to find the folks who are frog-marching Democrats into a church on any given Sunday. What we were interested in was what effect they were having. Do they get their phone calls returned? Do people read their articles? Do they write the speeches? Can they get a meeting with Rick Warren? The answer, for most folks on the list, is yes.

    What we were looking for were the people who were trying to get Democrats to not be tone deaf on issues of religion. In our minds, it didn’t much matter who they worshipped or how. What mattered to us was what influence they had. Clearly, all the people on this list have it.

    Stricherz seems to want us to be rating these Democrats on something of an orthodoxy scale, but that’s not our job.

    Stricherz’s critiques are fair, but I think misplaced. If Stricherz thinks that Rosa DeLauro’s or Leah Daughtry’s faith is an “open grave,” then fine. But it’s clear that his frustration with this piece would be better directed at them, not the reporters.

  • Michael

    It also appears “cultural issues,” according to Stricherz is abortion, abortion, stem cells and abortion. I saw mentions of economic justice, social welfare issues, and capital punishment. In the world of Democrats and the religious left, those are “cultural issues.”

    Stricherz’s complaint is that the politicians weren’t talking about his primary obsession: abortion. That seems to be an unfair criticism unless we accept a very limited venacular of what cultural and religious issues are and use as a guideline what interests the conservative and Catholic magazines where Stricherz sells most of his work.

  • J Zahn

    Eckstrom’s comments are about the most obvious example of not “getting” religion I’ve seen in the 6 months I’ve been reading this blog.

    “Spotted” at McLaren’s church? As if to be seen at a church means you get it? Whether or not you get phone calls returned? Is that a mark of being a disciple or inform who you are?

    I know Shaun & know him to be a person of great faith. I’m assuming the others mentioned are as well. Why not talk more about that rather than whether or not they have influence or can get phone calls returned? To me, that’s much more relevant.

    It seems to me the premise of doing a story of what effect they were having was OK, but the way the story itself came out was misplaced. Getting phone calls returned, having people read their articles, writing speeches misses the whole point of what religion and faith means to those who try to live it daily. To write about what influence they have is typical inside the Beltway writing that massages the ego but does little to address the influence of faith.

  • Xavier Green

    Like sharks, the Democrats are hungry for power. They smell victory. This is good for America only if they are sincere with their efforts.

    Time is like a double decker bus and I walk with God. But only when his car is in the shop.


    The Good Doctor Green

  • Ashley

    I’m on the Left because I’m a Christian.

    What about that don’t you get?


  • Mark Stricherz

    I left the wrong impression with my “open graves” comment. It was meant as a question not a comment; it may well not apply to Amy Sullivan or Mara Vanderslice.

    However, I suspect it may apply to two religious Democrats. Rep. DeLauro is one, for the reasons stated in the post. The other is Mike McCurry. When Mr. McCurry was President Clinton’s press secretary, in April 1995 he had this to say about the exploratory presidential bid of former Governor Robert Casey: “I would find it hard, in any event, to muster any enthusiasm for comment on something so insignificant.”

    As for Michael’s criticism about my writing on abortion, I wonder if Google has given him the wrong impression. I came to Washington in September 1997 to work for the New Republic, in the pre-Google era. For the next five years, I wrote for national publications exclusively about non-cultural issues: inner-city poverty, immigration, education, federal regulation. On each of those topics my stories would probably be considered liberal or “progressive.” He is free to look through the back pages of TNR, The Nation, and Washington Post Outlook.

    Since 2002, it’s true, I have focused mainly on abortion. But I would challenge him to find evidence of factual inaccuracy, unfairness, or bias in my work. Does he think the issue is not worth writing about?

  • Michael

    Mark, I was basing my comments on your website where your clips are exclusively from conservative magazines, except for Commoneal. The Commonweal article, like most of the others, centers on abortion. In addition, I assume your upcoming book–which you said was inspired by your Commonweal article–appears also to focus on abortion. Reading your blog, you blog often about abortion to the exclusion oif other cultural issues. You compare Bush to Harry Truman, for heaven’s sake, because of his commitment to social conservative causes, arguably because he delivered anti-Roe judges to SCOTUS.

    No problem focusing on abortion, but I think it is a little blinding in the context of your comments about the story on the religious left. Just because faith-based Democrats aren’t exclusively pro-life doesn’t mean they don’t focus on cultural issues, they just focus on different things. And some of those things–like capital punishment, economic justice, and social welfare policy–were mentioned.

    If the legitimacy of the religious left and faith-oriented Democrats is going to be judged on adherence to a rigid pro-life stance or the ability to woo single-issue pro-life voters, then I think we miss the larger story.

  • Right Democrat

    Both Democrats and Republicans have done a lot of talking about faith and morality but little action. I liked the slogan of a blog that read “Trust in God, everyone else just wants your vote.”

    The political reality is that the Republicans have controlled Washington and most state governments without delivering any real results for pro-lifers and social conservatives. Social traditionalists have gotten the rhetoric but big business has reaped the rewards of having friends in power.

    There is no question that the Democratic Party needs to be inclusive of pro-lifers and move toward the center on social issues. A lot of Catholic and evangelical voters hold populist views on economic matters and would return to the Democratic Party if pro-lifers and other social traditionalists were welcomed into the party.

  • MattK

    Mr. Ekstrom, I appreciate your forthright explanation of your article, but (and perhaps I should say this here on a journalism blog) that goal of yours to report on “what influence they had” is part of the reason I rarely read newspapers anymore. I see this narrow focus not only in religion reporting but in political reporting as well. I’m genuinely interested in how Sen. Feinstein (D-Ca., Levi-Strauss heir) thinks of her Jewish faith and how that jives (or not) with what seems to be her support for state socialism. How does she work out what to me seem like fairly difficult obstacles to reconciling those two ideologies.

    To find a more purely religious example: I read a story a few years ago about bhuddist retreats in Northern California. The reporter mentioned that in some retreats meditators sit in rows but in other retreats they sit in circles facing each other. There was never an explanation of the signifigance (I don’t know if there is any) of rows or circles in Bhuddism (sp?). I mean if its just a buch of guys sitting on the floor humming, whats the poit of writing about it at all? But if these people claim to have some insight into the meaning and telos of the universe I’m genuinely interested in knowing what they think about circles and rows.

    The question I always hope religion (and politics) reporters will answer is not who has influence, and not even how will they use that influence, but what does the person believe and how are those beliefs impacting behavior.

    And I’d still like for someone to find out what Sen. Feinstein believes.

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  • Josh S

    The life issues are huge cultural and moral issues, period. “Well, Democrats think social welfare is more important” doesn’t eliminate the fact that who gets to count as being alive and who do we have the right to kill are the huge issues tearing things up around here.

    Talking about faith and morality while not saying how you think this relates to human life issues in today’s situation is ridiculous.

  • Martha

    I have to say, I’d be more in tune with what Mr Stricherz wants to know rather than what Mr Ekstrom says he uses as a gauge.

    It’s easy to talk the talk, and we’re suddenly seeing a lot of politicians reminiscing about the little white chapel they went to with their folks, or Granny’s rosary, or how hey, I used to be an altar boy, you know!

    What I’d like to know is yes, but are you still going to that little white chapel? has Granny’s rosary been thrown out with the piles of old newspapers she hoarded? are any of your sons or daughters altar servers, or is it a case of ‘we’re spiritual, not religious’?

    That point about how, like clockwork, come the election, the politicians would all of a sudden show up at the local church – oh, yes indeed, that strikes a chord. What matters is whether they ever darkened the door of the church *before* the election, or if they showed up the next Sunday *after* the election. Being religious does not mean you’re stupid, and the people sitting in the pews can tell if a politician is only gladhanding for votes or if he/she is sincere about their faith. It is annoying to be used as a prop in a campaign to show how you can trust Congressman X, and white politicians of whatever party should think very seriously about how condescending and patronising it is to appear in a black church shilling for votes from black churchgoers when they are not members of that congregation and the people at that service know damn well that after the election, Representative Y will never be seen in that neighbourhood again.

  • Harris

    First, thanks for putting Mark’s comments in blockquotes, that clarifies greatly.

    Second, to add to themes in Martha’s post. It is difficult for national figures in politics or out to have a private or personal faith — not because it they lack one, but because the public (and its intstruments, e.g. the press) invariably cast that private life in terms of the public. That is especially true as the election season comes around. Politicians show up at inner city churches, afterwards (if Kuo is to be believed) there may be disparaging of those same forces.

    I would think the real story is not that of the faith of national candidates, but the role of faith among the activists on the left side of things. It is easy to highlight a few celebrities, but the bigger story seems to be that of state and local Dems conciously framing their issues in terms of faith. This is not merely talk-talk, but a recognition of the faith that is already there.

    What is new is that this recognition has moved beyond the older bounds of mainline protestantism where political engagement was a function of social justice. What I see on the street are far more mainline and evangelicals framing the issues in terms of faith, but then practicing their faith in the stuff of retail politics, on the phones, at the door, and often in running for office.

  • Martha

    “It is difficult for national figures in politics or out to have a private or personal faith — not because it they lack one, but because the public (and its intstruments, e.g. the press) invariably cast that private life in terms of the public. That is especially true as the election season comes around. Politicians show up at inner city churches, afterwards (if Kuo is to be believed) there may be disparaging of those same forces.”

    I suppose there are two points here which are entangled; one is that it’s a bit rich of a politician suddenly finding God or his/her religious community roots when it’s a matter of votes, yet never (so far as anyone knows) darkening the door of a church and the second is the blatant stumping for votes.

    To take (once more) the example of John Kerry; I believe his local parish or the church he attends or whatever is the Paulist Centre in Boston which describes itself as “a worship community of Christians in the Roman Catholic tradition in Boston, Massachusetts. The Paulist Center attracts individuals and families throughout the greater Boston area who are drawn to the Center’s ministries of worship, family religious education, and social justice.”

    Right off the bat, I have a twinge of doubt about a place that calls itself a ‘centre’ rather than ‘Church of the Assumption/St Augustine/Sacred Heart’ or the like. But whatever about it being a Roman Catholic church, what is certain is that Mr Kerry is not a member of a Charismatic/Evangelical/Baptist/First Only True Bible Church congregation, yet he has no problem showing up there for photo opportunities and looking for votes.

    Now, he was there by invitation, and that’s fine, but are there really no other locations or activiites where he could address the people? No openings of community centres or school fundraisers? Nothing?

    And this is the big objection: that the church going voters are assumed to be thick as two short planks and that just by turning up and saying how you read the Bible at your mother’s knee, they’ll fall for the idea that you’re ‘just plain folks’ like them, with *their* values and beliefs, and they’ll mark X on the ballot paper opposite your name like obedient little robots, and your party (Republican or Democrat) can then treat them with disdain because they’re signed, sealed and delivered.