Democrats Are Trying to Make a Leap of Faith

Times Staff Writer

Hoping to loosen President Bush’s hold on voters who regularly attend church, Sen. John F. Kerry’s campaign has launched what many observers say is the most ambitious Democratic effort in recent times to reach people of faith.

Through values-laden language, grass-roots organizing and Kerry’s increased discussion of his faith, the Democrats are trying to show that the party’s presidential ticket reflects religious principles, pointing to their platform on healthcare, poverty and the environment.

The Kerry campaign -- which has three staff members assigned as liaisons to various denominations -- is aiming to create “People of Faith for Kerry” groups in every state.

And it recently launched community service projects to bring together Kerry supporters with strong religious beliefs.


“I think the Democrats are clearly becoming wiser about opening a dialogue with the religious community,” said Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical leader who addressed an interfaith luncheon at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

But the effort is likely to prove difficult, and has hit some snags.

For instance, a clash between liberal ideology and religion led to the recent resignation of the Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson, the Democratic National Committee’s first director of religious outreach.

Peterson left her post Wednesday after fielding criticism for joining with other clergy members to sign a legal brief supporting removing “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. A DNC spokesman said a successor would be hired soon.

And although Kerry is a Roman Catholic who once considered entering the priesthood, he does not speak about faith with the ease of former President Clinton, who was able to draw on his Southern Baptist roots to connect with many churchgoing voters.

Kerry’s political record may be even more difficult for those voters to swallow.

“Even the moderate Catholic vote might be somewhat turned off to his pro-choice stance [on abortion] and opposition to a ban on gay marriage,” said Gerard Heather, a professor at San Francisco State who studies religion and politics.

Since the early 1980s, worship habits have been one of the most reliable predictors of political preference.


Voters who regularly attend religious services overwhelmingly vote Republican, while more secular voters overwhelmingly back Democrats.

“Religion is one of the biggest dividing lines in American politics,” said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. “There isn’t much that’s stronger.”

Democrats said they were under no illusion that they would win the votes of a majority of regular churchgoers, who broke for Bush over Al Gore by a 2-to-1 ratio four years ago.

But Kerry’s advisors think the Massachusetts senator can make inroads in that community, noting that after he made an explicit appeal to people of faith in his convention speech, campaign polls showed he picked up 5 to 7 points among those voters.


“It’s very simply important for Democrats to get out there and say, ‘We are people of faith, we are guided by spiritual values, and the Republicans don’t have an exclusive franchise when it comes to God,’ ” said Mike McCurry, Clinton’s onetime press secretary. He has been prodding Democrats to address religious voters more directly.

To that end, Kerry’s campaign has started a “friend-to-friend” writing campaign among religious backers. And it is marketing bumper stickers, signs and T-shirts with messages such as “Christians for Kerry” and “Muslims for Kerry.” Last month, the campaign began running a Spanish-language television commercial emphasizing Kerry’s Catholic faith.

The efforts mark a departure from the party’s approach to religion in recent years.

“Sometimes it seems as if Democrats have said, ‘I have faith, but don’t worry -- it won’t affect anything,’ ” said Wallis, the head of Call to Renewal, a nonpartisan coalition of religious groups aimed at eradicating poverty.


Kerry, however, has been peppering his speeches with references to values, and has emphasized his support for faith-based community service groups.

At the convention he noted, “I don’t wear my own faith on my sleeve.” But he has been speaking about religion in increasingly personal terms -- mainly at visits to churches or in remarks to largely African American audiences.

During a stop at a nondenominational church in Springfield, Ohio, Kerry told parishioners he had been “guided and affected by faith,” noting that it helped him cope with his military service in Vietnam.

“I went through a period of my life when I experienced great loss because I was in a war -- lost several of my best friends,” he said at Greater Grace Temple Church. “And I sort of questioned, you know, ‘How has this happened? Why has this happened? What’s going on?’ We all questioned. And we learned that even through suffering, through loss, we get in touch with the power, with the being, with the Almighty, and we understand purpose.”


Republicans scoff at Kerry’s efforts, saying his stance on abortion and gay marriage will turn off churchgoing voters.

“He seems to think that the way to appeal to those voters is to discuss his religiosity,” said Ralph Reed, former president of the Christian Coalition, who now heads Bush’s reelection campaign in the Southeast. “The truth is, voters of faith are not looking for someone who goes to the same church they do or worships God in the same way they do. They’re looking for leaders who share their values and vote for their issues.”

The Democrats’ challenge in reaching those voters can be seen in western Michigan, where several dozen people recently formed a People of Faith for Kerry chapter.

Last month, the group -- clad in light-blue Kerry T-shirts that read, “He Shares Our Values” -- cleaned up the warehouse of a Grand Rapids charity organization. They’re planning similar community service projects.


“We have decided to try to make the point that people of faith have values besides the values of fundamentalists,” said Peter Vander Meulen, one of the group’s leaders.

But Vander Meulen frets that his group will not be able to persuade many of the area’s churchgoing voters to support Kerry. He said most of the people at his church backed Bush because of his antiabortion stance.

“If the Democrats want to make serious inroads into communities of faith, frankly, they’re going to have to do more than just put T-shirts on some of us,” he said. “They are going to have to make room in the party for those us of who are deeply uncomfortable with the party’s hard-core position on abortion.”

But many party leaders think Democrats can show they represent religious values by broadening the discussion from controversial social issues.


The Kerry campaign’s focus on faith comes amid a Democratic push to reclaim religion, buoyed by a resurgence of political activity by liberal clergy members.

Several party leaders joined a forum at the Democratic convention titled “Red God, Blue God: The God Gap in Presidential Politics,” conducted by Wesley Theological Seminary, a United Methodist school.

“There are a number of us who were sick and tired of what had become a common perception in the media that being religious equated to conservatism,” said John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, who spoke at the seminar.

Through his center, the former White House chief of staff under Clinton is working with a coalition of religious leaders on various policy projects. “We thought it was important to reignite that moral voice on the progressive side of the argument,” he said.


Not everyone is comfortable with their effort.

McCurry said that after he gave a presentation to members of Congress about the need for Democrats to talk about faith more openly, several expressed wariness.

“They’re nervous about something that sounds overly evangelical,” he said. “You have to break that association.”