Party over for the Party faithful?

After the 2004 election, the media freakout included claims that Christian conservatives were trying to turn the country into a theocracy or something. But liberal lions such as Sen. Ted Kennedy wondered whether Democrats could do a better job of reaching out to religious voters. And thus began key years of hard and effective work by Democrats. Data gathered during the 2006 and 2008 election showed that Democrats made tremendous gains in appealing to religious voters.

So what happened? After the enthusiastic public embrace of religion in recent years, you don’t hear quite as much about faith and values from Democrats these days.

GetReligion readers should be sure to read Michelle Boorstein’s piece in the Washington Post that takes the issue head on. Considering how many stories were written about the relative lack of religion in the Tea Party movement, I’m a bit surprised that we didn’t see similar coverage about the party in power. The article is full of facts and quotes and it leaves readers with a good understanding of where things stand:

If 2008 was the year Democrats finally got religion, will 2010 be the year the party loses it again?

This is the worry among some religious progressives, who worked to transform the image of Democrats from wary — or even hostile — toward religion to a party that hired faith consultants, advertised regularly on Christian radio and featured candidates, including Barack Obama, who spoke openly about their relationship with God.

These days, the Democratic National Committee’s faith staff of more than a half-dozen has dwindled to one part-time slot. Its faith issues Web site led this week with greetings for Passover (which was in March) and Rosh Hashanah (which was in September).

While outside-the-beltway folks are willing to complain about the lack of faith outreach, party officials downplay the significance of the drawdowns in staff and expenditures. But Boorstein balances those statements with additional facts that help put everything in perspective.

Some of the facts that she mentions deal with expenditures toward faith-based efforts. One reason why faith outreach efforts on the left did so well in recent years wasn’t just about energy and vision but funding. More conservative groups such as Family Research Council and Focus on the Family are discussed when the Republican Party is mentioned in the piece but how are things going with some of the groups on the other side? What’s the situation at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Catholics United, Catholic Democrats, and Voice of the Faithful? I assume the groups continue to get the big checks, such as the ones some were getting from George Soros’ The Open Society Institute? What about Sojourners? They’re doing good work reaching out religious liberals, right?

Or maybe there’s a money supply issue with the Party or with fielding candidates who can speak to religious voters. How much would religious outreach help someone like Martha Coakley who lost her bid for the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by Kennedy? Or maybe after all the major gains made in reaching out to pro-lifers in recent years, things went south during the debates over the health care bill?

It’s not like simply reaching out to voters is enough, right? You have to have a basis for earning their vote. What is it, exactly, that religious adherents who were swayed to vote Democratic want, issues-wise? I’m not sure I know, but I would have liked to see more about whether their needs and wants have been met by Democrats since the 2008 election. A lot could ride on the answer to that question.

Take this section of the piece which notes that major Democratic wins have been credited to faith outreach spending by national Democratic organizations and recruitment of candidates who frame their policy positions in terms of religious values. A few key victories are noted, such as “a slew” of anti-abortion Democrats in 2006 and President Obama capturing more churchgoers than any other Democratic candidate in a decade:

The Democrats didn’t make believers out of everyone. Some religious leaders and Republicans always viewed the Democratic appeal to churchgoers as little more than window dressing — much the same way that many African American leaders and Democrats dismiss GOP efforts to reach out to minority voters.

And the Republican Party still has a far more extensive infrastructure to connect with religious voters, especially evangelical Christians.

It has databases filled with tens of millions of e-mail addresses as well as long-standing ties to religious broadcasters and conservative religious groups such as the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.

“You’ve had this effort in the Republican Party to really focus on religious voters that goes back to Ronald Reagan,” said Brian Jones, a strategist who was once communications director for the Republican National Committee. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, let’s have a faith-based program.’ It’s easier said than done. It’s not done in one or two or three political cycles.”

Sure, but it was just a few weeks ago that Family Research Council told members to stop donating to the Republican National Committee, urging them to support only those individual candidates they can count on.

The point is that all of these allegiances, be they on the left or the right, really come down to whether the politicians are delivering. Little slights can add up and it’s great that at least one major paper is interested in the phenomenon, much less the causes. The religious left may receive more favorable coverage than religious adherents on the right, but certainly it’s never terribly substantive. And it’s also much harder to find stories about the varied actors that comprise the religious left.

Here’s hoping for more interesting and comprehensive coverage of a group that has played a key role in recent elections.

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  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Mollie,

    Is the elephant in the room Obama and the fact that he has not picked a new church and doesn’t seem all that interested in doing so? Or is that an overly naive analysis? I mean, to some extent, I would think that plays into the media narrative.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I continue to argue that the elephant is that Obama is what he is, a person who sincerely joined America’s most theologically liberal oldline Christian denominations. But the old mainline world is no longer growing — it is demographically imploding and its statements on moral and doctrinal issues would hurt him with the mushy American middle. So where does he go?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Meanwhile, on the issue of the Soros links to the faith initiatives, here is one of the most fascinating links that I have seen.

    Check THIS ONE out. Where is Richard Cizik these days?

  • dalea

    This struck me as the key description:

    The party, at the behest of the White House, has reshaped how it reaches out to all constituency groups and has opted to expand its network of grass-roots volunteers and shrink its national staff of organizers who were in the past broken down by race and religion.

    This is classic Chicago machine style politics. Each ward has organizers who get out the vote and communicate voter concerns upwards. Once after a particularly bad blizzard, the local ward had workers with loudspeakers going thru the streets calling out to people unable to go out. They were coordinating with local parishes to deliver food etc to these people. The work with religious folks was handled on the local level. At this level, religious people work directly with others to achieve goals.

    What the Dems have done is put the link to religious voters outside the beltway. In Chicago, the precinct captains are loyal to the ward committeeman who is loyal to the alderman who is loyal to the mayor. But the outreach is at the precinct level.

  • dalea

    I feel that the article fundamentally misunderstands the Democratic Party. It is not set up in the same way the Republicans are. And any analysis that relies on looking at the Dems in Republican terms fails.

    First off, the Democrats are much more a bottom up party. There is no real central authority. Instead there exist thousands of centers of influence, which cover a huge part of the ideological spectrum. Democrats are demographically diverse; racial minorities tend to vote for Democrats by large margins. The Gay and Lesbian vote tends to go about 80% Democratic.

    Then there are all the independent groups like MoveOn. Plus the religious left is represented online. The story is looking at a wide coalition in terms of a centralized system.

  • Dave

    There may be an unstated cui bono? behind all these shifts. Namely, what is the net gain in votes from a Democratic outreach to the faithful? How many pro-choice votes became unpredictable as a result of the compromise with Sestak in the health-care debate, for example? At the level of votes, politics is a zero-sum game and smart players play it that way.

  • http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber H. E. Baber

    Who are these “religious voters”? In virtually all reporting they’re portrayed as a special interest group and, by implication, a minority.

    But last time I looked, most Americans–over 70%–professed to believe in God, and the percentage who characterized themselves as atheists or agnostics was in single digits. There is really a disconnect here between journalists, who are overwhelmingly non-religious, that the majority of Americans whose political behavior they are discussing. Same thing with politicians, the majority of whom (I suspect in both parties) are secular, who regard religious folk as a peculiar minority special interest group.

    Genuine question though: who are these “religious voters” supposed to be? Anyone who believes in God? Anyone who doesn’t tick either the atheist or agnostic box? Anyone who, in the past year, has gone to a church service that wasn’t a wedding or other rite of passage?

    Or is being a “religious voter” a matter of voting religiously, so to speak–being a voter whose political decisions are influenced by specific religious commitments?

    What are the criteria for counting as a “religious voter”?

  • Dave

    What are the criteria for counting as a “religious voter”?

    I daresay that, from a politician’s viewpoint, a religious voter is one whose vote can be changed by a religious argument.

    To a journalist, I daresay that a religious voter is someone who says they are a religious voter.

    This drives a disconnect between news and coverge of news.