Why the Religious Left and Democratic Faith Outreach is More Than PR

I'd argue the DNC and Obama's outreach is substantive.

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There’s a debate playing out in the liberal blogosphere’s churchier corners in reaction to a recent Daily Beast post from Mike McCurry, the onetime Clinton White House press secretary, titled “How my Party Found God.

The subhead on the piece sums it up well:

Liberals have practiced secular politics since the 1960s, but with the ascent of Barack Obama, the left discovered it can actually keep the faith.

McCurry, an important player in the recent resurrection of the religious left, is thrilled at today’s “faithier” Democratic Party. But a fellow lefty religionista, Pastor Dan—who blogs at Street Prophets, affiliated with Daily Kos—is accusing McCurry of practicing revisionist history:

...I wasn't aware that conservatives were the only ones to talk faith. Rather, they had a massively effective PR campaign that snowed a generation of journalists into believing that the only religious people who counted were the conservative opponents of abortion and homosexuality. Had the media been somewhat more curious, they would have found that religious progressives never went away; they've been here all along. It's just that everyone stopped listening to them.For the most part, we've got nobody to blame but ourselves for that. But losing a PR campaign and actually shunning faith are two different things. McCurry, like Amy Sullivan, Jim Wallis, etc. ad nauseum, don't seem to understand that.

Are the revitalized religious left and stepped-up Democratic faith outreach programs little more than effective PR campaigns? Has an assertive religious left and an obsequiously faith-friendly Democratic party been around for decades, even if it journalists have taken notice only much more recently? The argument has just enough truth to make it sound plausible, but it’s way off the mark.

Fact is, many of the faith-based advocacy groups currently leading the charge on the religious left—Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Catholics United, Faith in Public Life—didn’t exist until after the 2004 election, when the Democrats looked at exit polls and saw that they were losing too many of the faithful. These aren’t just PR groups; they’ve been meeting with the Obama transition team in recent weeks to push very real policy agendas, from combating poverty to reducing the demand for abortion.

That’s not to say that lefty religious concerns didn’t exit before a few years ago. They did. But they were mostly the D.C. offices of liberal mainline Protestant denominations like the Episcopalians and the Methodists or of other politically progressive religious traditions, like Reformed Judaism’s Religious Action Center. Independent of those denominationally based groups, there was no constellation of religious left organizations to counter the universe of such groups on the right, which includes the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and the Traditional Values Coalition.

The 2008 election saw the birth of straight-up faith-based political action committees and consulting—with names like the Eleison Group and the Matthew 25 Network—to help turn out religious voters for Barack Obama and for down-ballot Democratic candidates. These aren’t mere letterhead organizations. They were hired by official organs of the Democratic Party and got ads on Christian radio across much of the country. Is that just PR work? You could make that argument, but then all politics is PR. I’d argue that that they engaged in the kind of nuts-and-bolts organizing that has brought a lot religious people into the Democratic Party in meaningful ways unprecedented in recent decades.

The Democratic National Committee, for its part, only started polling so-called values voters—which is to say voters for whom religion is a major influence—after the 2004 election. The religious outreach staff that party Chairman Howard Dean built after ’04’s Democratic bloodbath, which grew to include about a half-dozen staffers and which was overseen by Dean’s own chief of staff, is unprecedented in Democratic Party history, at going back a few decades.

As Obama prepares to take office, meanwhile, his transition team is sending top policy aides to meet with faith-based advocacy groups. While the Clinton White House had staffers doing serious religious outreach, such work was never so closely integrated into policy formation. That, it seems to me, is the furthest thing from PR. In fact, it’s so substantive a role for religious groups that I’d be surprised if more secular progressive organizations didn’t begin raising their voices in opposition.

  • Read more by Dan Gilgoff.