The Dems Get Religion
A new approach for the 2008 campaign
John Kerry struggled to overcome his secular image in 2004, but the current crop of Democratic presidential front-runners is determined not to repeat his mistakes.
One of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's first campaign hires was a top evangelical staffer on Capitol Hill. U.S. News has learned that an aide in Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's office tasked with religious outreach is joining his presidential campaign this week. And former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is framing poverty relief as a moral issue that's helping to drive his campaign. "Two thousand eight could be the first time since Jimmy Carter that the presidential candidate who's really good on faith issues is the Democrat," says Eric Sapp, a Democratic consultant. So the Democratic primaries could see serious competition among candidates for the faith vote.
Clinton, a scourge of the religious right, was raised in a conservative Methodist home. "Over the years, Senator Clinton has expressed her faith often in speeches and books, and I've always been impressed with its authenticity," says Burns Strider, the Capitol Hill staffer who became Clinton's new faith outreach director. But Clinton is sure to encounter skeptics. When she donned a crucifix while campaigning for re-election last year, some pundits called it a ploy to moderate her image. "I got deluged with calls from New York reporters who had this view of her as a nonreligious person," says John Green at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "But ... she's a very serious social-justice Methodist."
Faith. Strider says the campaign will focus on liberal "social justice" Democrats but on socially conservative Democrats, too. Clinton raised eyebrows in 2005 by calling for fewer abortions before an audience of family planning providers. "For a long time, Democrats forfeited part of the electorate by choosing not to have a conversation about faith," says Strider.
Obama attracted attention last year when he addressed evangelicals on fighting AIDS at Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Southern California. This week, Obama's Senate religious outreach coordinator, Josh DuBois-active in the conservative Assemblies of God church-will join the campaign. Obama often discusses his relationship with his Chicago pastor and his work with black churches as a community organizer. "I ... worked closely with my fellow members of the religious community long before this campaign began," Obama says. Obama aides say religious leaders will play a role in policy, as they did when Obama cosponsored legislation last year to protect charitable donations from bankruptcy proceedings.
Edwards has not hired religious outreach staff but has built bridges to the progressive faith community through projects like promoting state amendments to raise the minimum wage. His campaign launched One Corps, a volunteer program that combines political organizing with service projects like building houses for the poor; aides describe it as translating faith to action. "He practices his religion personally in a more profound way than any political leader I've associated with," says Edwards's campaign manager, David Bonior.
But Edwards upset religious Democrats in February by declining to fire two Internet bloggers who were attacked by a Roman Catholic group for making offensive comments toward Catholics before joining the campaign. The bloggers left the campaign anyway. "We should have had a better vetting process," says Bonior. It's the kind of mistake that Democrats are trying to avoid this time around.
This story appears in the March 5, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.