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Tuesday, June 22, 2004

David Brooks is a tool. A fellow dkos poster noted in this diary David Brook's NYT column for today, entitled "A Matter of Faith."

Shorter version: Kerry needs to talk God if he's going to win the hearts and minds of the red states.

Longer version, gleefully stolen from my fellow poster:

A Matter of Faith

When Bill Clinton was 8, he started taking himself to church. When he was 10, he publicly committed himself to Jesus. As a boy, he begged his Sunday school teacher to take him to see Billy Graham. And as anybody watching his book rollout knows, he still exudes religiosity. He gave Dan Rather a tour of his Little Rock church, and talked about praying in good times and bad.

More than any other leading Democrat, Bill Clinton understands the role religion actually plays in modern politics. He knows Americans want to be able to see their leaders' faith. A recent Pew survey showed that for every American who thinks politicians should talk less about religion, there are two Americans who believe politicians should talk more.

And Clinton seems to understand, as many Democrats do not, that a politician's faith isn't just about litmus test issues like abortion or gay marriage. Many people just want to know that their leader, like them, is in the fellowship of believers. Their president doesn't have to be a saint, but he does have to be a pilgrim. He does have to be engaged, as they are, in a personal voyage toward God.

Clinton made this sort of faith-based connection, at least until he sullied himself with the Lewinsky affair. He won the evangelical vote in 1992, and won it again in 1996. He understood that if Democrats are not seen as religious, they will be seen as secular Ivy League liberals, and they will lose.

John Kerry doesn't seem to get this. Many of the people running the Democratic Party don't get it either.

A recent Time magazine survey revealed that only 7 percent of Americans feel that Kerry is a man of strong religious faith. That's a catastrophic number. That number should be the first thing Kerry strategists think about when they wake up in the morning and it should be the last thing on their lips when they go to sleep at night. They should be doing everything they can to change that perception, because unless more people get a sense of Kerry's faith, they will feel no bond with him and they will be loath to trust him with their vote.

Yet his campaign does nothing. Kerry talks about jobs one week and the minimum wage the next, going about his wonky way, each day as secular as the last.

It's mind-boggling. Can't the Democratic strategists read the data? Religious involvement is a much, much more powerful predictor of how someone will vote than income, education, gender or any other social and demographic category save race.

Can't the Democratic strategists feel it in their bones how important this is? After all, when you go out among the Democratic rank and file, you find millions of Democrats who are just as religious as Republicans. It's mostly in the land of Democratic elites that you are likely to find yourself among religious illiterates.

But of course this is the problem. Forests have been felled so people could publish articles and books on the religious right's influence on the Republican Party. But as the Baruch College political scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio have suggested, the real political story of the past decade has been the growing size and cohesion of the secular left, and its growing influence on the Democratic Party.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, the number of Americans with no religious affiliation has more than doubled since 1990. There is now a surging but unself-conscious power bloc within the Democratic Party.

Like the religious right in the Republican Party, the members of the secular left are interested primarily in social issues. What unites them more than anything else is a strong antipathy to pro-lifers and fundamentalists. While 75 percent of Americans feel little or no hostility to fundamentalists, people in this group are far more hostile to them than to other traditional Democratic bĂȘte noires, the rich or big business. They don't like to see their politicians meddling with religion in any way.

Just as Republicans have to appeal to religious conservatives but move beyond them, Democrats have to appeal to the secular left but also build a bridge to religious moderates. Bill Clinton did this. John Kerry hasn't. If you want to know why Kerry is still roughly even with Bush in the polls, even though Bush has had the worst year of any president since Nixon in 1973 or L.B.J. in 1968, this is one big reason.

My fellow poster's take on this was essentially that he'd like to see Kerry reject Brooks' advice in favor of a high-integrity quietness on the subject of his faith.

I have a different reaction to Brooks' column, however. First, as I pointed out in a comment on the earlier story, Brooks is right when he says that the fast-growing secular contingent of the American populace skews Democratic. As I've said before, Ruy Teixeira picked on the same factoid. But unlike Brooks, Teixeira sees this as a net gain for the Dems: the pickup in secular constituents should offset any losses in the religious sector. [Update #1: Amy Sullivan of Political Aims criticizes the methodology that Brooks and Teixeira rely on, saying the surveyers "identified secularists within the ranks of Democratic convention delegates by looking at attitudes about fundamentalists. Anyone who held negative feelings about religious fundamentalists (I believe the Christian Coalition is specifically named) was considered to be a secularist. I don't know about you, but I know plenty of people -- and plenty of religious Republicans, for that matter -- who don't think terribly kindly of fundamentalists but who would never ever identify themselves as secularists."]

But there is another problem with Brooks' analysis. He assumes that the secular group is made up of chardonnay-sipping liberal snobs who have "outgrown" religion. In fact, this is not the case. Even in the reddest of red areas that Brooks has examined, such as mid-state Pennsylvania, the number of people who do not attend any particular church is growing.

These folks are not necessarily hostile to religion; in fact, they are often nominally or "culturally" Christian. Religious practice doesn't do much for them--they feel like they've got something better to do on Sunday morning--but they're generally not opposed to religion in principle. It'll be mighty hard to drive a cultural wedge between these folks and their more observant friends and relatives. "Wandering away" is not the same as "rejecting"; just one more example of Brooks' red/blue divide breaking down under further examination.

Besides, as a participant in the Center for American Progress's conference on Faith and Progressive Policy pointed out, "seats in the pew" is perhaps not the best way to measure the effect of religious institutions. Many liberal denominations have quite a moral/ethical effect, without significantly increasing their rates of participation. There may be a silent group of non-practicing voters who are in sympathy with the social outlook of liberal faith, if not its organized trappings.

As for that "7%" rating given Kerry by Time magazine? Likely, that's a reflection of voters' overall unfamiliarity with the candidate. Believe me, if Kerry goes to mass the Sunday after the convention, people will know he's a Catholic. [Update #2: Mother Jones says that by now 30% of the electorate knows that Kerry's a Catholic. Republican attacks on Kerry as a "bad Catholic" may have backfired.]

So could the Kerry campaign stand to do some more outreach among religious voters? Sure. They always could. But is the right way to do that by "wearing his religion on his sleeve?" Probably not. A better strategy is likely to be to let the voters get to know him, and know that his values are pretty much in sync with theirs.

Bonus for anyone who made it this far down: Picked up this undated item from PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly:

Atheist Group Sues Officials of White House Faith-Based Offices
(RNS) The Freedom from Religion Foundation has filed suit against officials of President Bush's faith-based initiative, saying their actions unconstitutionally favor religious organizations.

-- Adelle M. Banks

True story: the founder of FFRF, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and her husband lived just up the block from the parsonage I grew up in in Madison, Wisconsin. She never gave us any trouble, and we never gave her any, either. The Jehovah's Witnesses who came around from the local Kingdom Hall, on the other hand, were pretty obnoxious.
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