How the Democrats Got Religion

Ed. Time magazine signals the Democrat base that the rules have changed.

Time | Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy | July 12, 2007

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A president has to be a preacher of sorts, instructing, consoling, summoning citizens to sacrifice for some common good. But candidates are competitors, which means they seldom manage to talk about faith in a way that doesn’t disturb people, doesn’t divide them, doesn’t nail campaign posters on the gates of heaven. Republicans have been charged with exploiting religious voters, Democrats with ignoring them: Hillary Clinton’s voice gets tight as she recalls the mocking response she received when she first spoke in spiritual terms about the longing that people felt to invest in causes larger than self-interest. “I talked about my faith years ago and was pilloried for it,” she says, and it is hard to tell if she is more impatient with the conservatives who presumed they held the patent on piety or with the liberals whose worship of diversity all but excluded the devout.

Only 30 years ago, the party of Jimmy Carter had religious voters locked up. How it lost this crucial bloc is a story of fear, ignorance and political deafness

But maybe, she suggests, candidates have learned something from the holy wars of recent years. “Maybe we’re getting back to where people can be who they are,” she says. “If faith is an element of who you legitimately, authentically are, great. But don’t make it up, don’t use it, don’t beat people over the head with it.”

In this campaign season, if Clinton and Barack Obama and John Edwards are any measure, there will be nothing unusual in Democrats’ talking about the God who guides them and the beliefs that sustain them. Clinton has hired Burns Strider, a congressional staffer (and evangelical Baptist from Mississippi) who is assembling a faith steering group from major denominations and sends out a weekly wrap-up, Faith, Family and Values. Edwards has been organizing conference calls with progressive religious leaders and is about to embark on a 12-city poverty tour. In the past month alone, Obama’s campaign has run six faith forums in New Hampshire, where local clergy and laypeople discuss religious engagement in politics. “We talk about ways people of faith have gone wrong in the past, what they have done right and where they see it going in the future,” says his faith-outreach adviser, Joshua DuBois. Speeches on everything from the budget to immigration to stem-cell research are carefully marinated in Scripture. “Science is a gift of God to all of us,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a debate on increased embryo-research funding, “and science has taken us to a place that is biblical in its power to cure.”

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