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Democrats strike back on faith issue

Group launches initiative to stress religious roots of policies as polls show party faces a 'church gap.'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 9, 2004


For much of the 20th century, the language of faith infused politics on the left on issues ranging from civil rights to a living wage for farm workers.

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In 1968, for example, labor leader Cesar Chavez ended a three-week fast with prayer and breaking of bread. His speech to 8,000 supporters, read by a minister, ended with the rallying call: "God help us to be men!"

But since the rise of the Christian right in the 1970s, the mantle of faith-toned politics has been ceded largely to Republicans.

Now a group of Democrats is eager to revive the historic role that religion has played in their party. It is launching a multiyear project Wednesday to amplify the religious roots of "progressive" policies, ranging from the economy and environment to social issues.

A key reason: Religion is now the biggest predictor of vote, after party identification.

In a presidential election that could pivot on a few swing states, the fact that Democrats are losing the vote of regular churchgoers by a 2-to-1 margin could be decisive.

"The gap between people who go to church regularly and those that don't is twice the gender gap," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "It's huge."

To advocates, the new focus on church-pew politics represents an opportunity for peel off crucial voters without losing the party's more secular base. But big gains won't be easy, analysts say.

Protestant registered voters favor President Bush by a nine-point margin over presumptive Democratic challenger John Kerry - a gap that jumps to 18 points for those who say they attend church regularly, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday. While Senator Kerry has jumped to an eight-point advantage among registered Roman Catholic voters in the same poll, it's a far cry from the 56-point lead enjoyed by John Kennedy among Catholics in 1960.

"Bush's pro-religion messages will surely help to solidify his appeal among more conservative Protestants, while trying to peel Catholic support away from Kerry," writes Jeffrey Jones, Gallup Poll managing editor.

The "church gap" worries Democratic activists, who are united as rarely before to try to take back the White House and the Congress this November.

"There is a public perception and a press perception, fueled by the religious right, that if you're a person of faith, you're a conservative," says John Podesta, CEO of the Center for American Progress, which Wednesday launches the new project on faith and progressive policy. "That is in dire need of correction, if you want progressive social change in this country."

The effort comes as the Bush campaign steps up efforts to mobilize the GOP vote in evangelical churches, where Republicans claim a big edge.

But winning back those votes is hard. At least at the top of the Democratic Party, advocates on issues such as abortion and gay rights were recruited not from the ranks of the dispossessed, but from professional classes. They cast their appeals in the language of law and individual rights, leaving faith-based appeals to opponents on right. In response, many conservative Democrats bolted the party.

It's not the first time that Democrats have tried to revive their religious roots. In 1992, President Clinton backed a constitutional amendment to return voluntary prayer to public schools - a rallying point for Reagan Republicans. New Democrats supported faith-based initiatives. "I have never believed the Constitution required our schools to be religion-free zones," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a contender on the presidential ticket in 2000 and 2004.