The Democrats are fielding a group of Presidential candidates that are all pro-choice and that are largely pro-gay rights. Conventional wisdom in the past would be that there was little chance that any Democratic candidate would pick up many more religious voters than in the past. As the Congresssional Quarterly reports. conventional wisdom is wrong:
For organizers of last week’s forum in Washington on religion and politics, featuring the three leading Democratic presidential candidates, the aim was to broaden the religious “values agenda.” In particular, it was part of an effort by left-leaning evangelical activist Jim Wallis to focus attention on the moral dimensions of poverty.
For the candidates invited to “Pentecost 2007” — Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama — it was a chance to dispel the perception of many religious voters that Democrats don’t take religion seriously and to make a case that their party’s policies on poverty and other social issues speak to the concerns and values of religious people.
Lessons of past campaigns, when abortion and gay marriage dominated the religious agenda and Republicans seemed to have a lock on the religious vote, suggest that those involved in the forum were wasting their breath. But in fact, political scientists, pollsters and religious leaders say religious voters could be in play this political season in broader and more unpredictable ways than ever before.
Religious activists are involved in a wider sphere of issues, including poverty, the environment and human rights. That broader agenda, said political scientist John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, gives candidates such as Edwards, Clinton and Obama more opportunities to connect with religious voters.
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No one is arguing that an Edwards or a Giuliani could win over big segments of conservative religious voters. But religious voters — people for whom religion plays an important part in shaping their positions on public issues — are diverse in their views. And in a crowded primary or a closely balanced election, as the general election next year is expected to be, small shifts in the electorate can make a big difference.
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Mara Vanderslice, an evangelical and a Democratic strategist who advises candidates about how to reach religious voters, said Democrats have the best chance with Roman Catholics and with younger believers who are thinking differently than previous generations about faith and the issues. They might also reach “moderate-right evangelicals who are less politicized,” particularly in the Midwest and border Southern states, such as Tennessee and Virginia. The party can also speak more generally to “true compassionate conservatives” who put a great emphasis on poverty, human rights and similar issues, said Vanderslice, who was director of religious outreach for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.
Catholics are a swing constituency. Exit polling found that Bush won 52 percent of their vote in his 2004 race against Kerry, who is Catholic. That was up from the 47 percent he received in 2000. But the advantage edged back toward Democrats in last year’s election, with 55 percent voting Democratic.
Evangelicals remain a strong GOP constituency, but activists there are trying to broaden the focus beyond abortion and the other cultural concerns that brought them into active politics. That’s causing tensions inside the movement, and it holds the potential to move evangelicals in directions that politicians will find hard to predict or control.
“There is a really significant emerging constituency of evangelicals who are not going to be pro-choice, but we are going to be broader about the issues we consider when we go to the polls,” said Joel Hunter, pastor of an evangelical church in Florida who turned down the presidency of the Christian Coalition last year because he said the group’s leadership resisted his plans to broaden its agenda.
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Evangelicals and other conservative religious voters will remain a tough sell for Democrats, whose party many religious people think has either a tin ear for religion or is dominated by liberal secularists.
Republican candidates who are not strongly anti-abortion also face a tough time trying to win the GOP nomination.
But Americans — though a deeply religious people who for the most part want their leaders to be rooted in religious faith — also have been growing more and more tolerant of people with different moral or religious views, said John White, a political scientist at Catholic University. He said that polling shows increasing numbers of Americans agreeing with the statement that someone could be a good Christian or Jew even though he did not attend church or synagogue.
In 1963, when Gallup asked that question just about Christians, 67 percent of respondents agreed. In 1994, when U.S. News & World Report commissioned a poll asking the question, 82 percent agreed.
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DNC Chairman Howard Dean attempted to make this same point in a speech to the Nevada Democratic party yesterday. Read more about it at The Lead.