Closing the God Gap

How a pair of Democratic strategists are helping candidates talk about their faith
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Vanderslice and Sapp helped the candidates create a new language to use in talking about faith and values, aimed in part at neutralizing hot-button issues. On abortion, for instance, they banned the word choice and pushed reduction, going one step further with Clinton’s idea that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare”: “We must work together across our differences to reduce the need and numbers of abortions by reducing unplanned pregnancies and helping women and families get the support they need when facing a crisis pregnancy,” read a brochure for Sherrod Brown, the Democratic Senate candidate in Ohio. The idea was that a lot of voters who oppose abortion don’t actually want it to be criminalized; they just want the issue to be recognized as important.

The two consultants also advised candidates to attack Republican positions on moral grounds, from the left. Where anti-gay-marriage amendments came up, for example, they expanded the issue and talked about how many marriages were disintegrating because of financial stress, which they name as the No. 1 cause of divorce in America.

Each candidate had a distinctive style, but a few themes recurred: following Christ’s example by serving others, promoting the common good, protecting the environment as God’s creation, alleviating poverty—endless references to the underserved and uninsured and out-of-work. “The central question should not be, Are you better off than you were four years ago?” said Casey in a September speech at Catholic University. “It should be, How can we—all of us, especially the weak and vulnerable—be better off in the years ahead?”

Read the speeches and it’s impossible to believe the conventional wisdom that these candidates are part of a new wave of “conservative” Democrats— populist, maybe, heirs to William Jennings Bryan or kin to the Sojourners, but definitely not conservative. All of them defy the notion that Democrats can win in competitive districts only by moving to the right.

When Sapp told me people cried during Strickland’s August 2005 speech on faith and values at the Columbus Metropolitan Club, I didn’t really believe him (who cries at a Metropolitan Club?). But if you read the speech, the crying seems plausible. It is full of a preacher’s barely contained rage, ripping into prevailing political hypocrisies without ever sounding political.

The next time some politician, in‑ cluding me, starts preaching to you a sermon on values, look us in the eye and ask us point-blank: Do your values include doing everything in your power to make sure that my hard work translates into a decent living for my family, that we have access to affordable health care, that I can offer my kids a solid, affordable education as far as their abilities will take them? …

It’s necessary to say this, because it seems, as far as the general culture and the press is concerned, one side of the political spectrum is deeply religious and deeply affected by moral values and the other side is not. I’m here to say that’s a lie that the truth won’t abide.

When asked about values, Democrats have tried this change-the-subject trick before, often with little effect. But spoken repeatedly, by candidates comfortable in the idiom, in media familiar to religious voters, the message must have come off as sincere. Add a serious outreach effort to pastors, and the Democrats’ new words carried surprising weight. Protest votes are one thing, but the sheer size of the shift in religious and evangelical votes in these seven races seems to show that when values voters are taken seriously, they will venture out willingly from the Republican fold.

For Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and secularists in the Democratic Party, or anyone else who just doesn’t want to hear a Christian sermon at a campaign rally, this development may be unsettling. At least Strickland is a pastor; Gran­holm is not, and it can unnerve you to hear a sitting governor tell her listeners that they “were born to make manifest the glory of God,” and that “Jesus is in all of our people.”

Sapp and Vanderslice, of course, welcome the development. They want religion in the public square, only they want it on their terms. Vanderslice grew up in Colorado, in the shadow of what she calls the “hateful rhetoric” of the religious right. She became a Christian in college, after a moving overseas trip working with missionaries. This year she cherry-picked only candidates with similarly “authentic” stories of faith to tell; by winning, she proved that her brand of idealism has practical applications.

Whether Common Good’s strategy can work for the whole party in 2008 remains to be seen. Winning political formulas spread quickly, but not every candidate can pull this one off. Still, Sapp argues, even small changes can make big differences. Not every Democrat has to be a pastor, he says; but put a few authentic Democratic voices on a national stage talking about right and wrong, and the party’s image can shift.

At the very least, such a change might take the sting out of the culture wars. If religious voters come up for grabs nationally, both parties will have to try to win them over the old-fashioned way: using substance and politics instead of just rhetoric.

Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic contributing editor, is working on a book about young evangelicals.
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Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of the book The End of Men based on her story in the July/August 2010 Atlantic.

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