Why Democratic platform uproar points to deeper challenge for party

Democrats restored the words 'God' and 'Jerusalem' to their platform Wednesday, saying the omission was an 'oversight.' But with a growing share of Democrats turning away from organized religion, 'God talk' can cause some tension.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Los Angeles Mayor and Democratic Convention Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa calls for a vote to amend the platform the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday.

Why the words “God” and “Jerusalem” were excised from the Democratic platform is not exactly clear – Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz called it a "technical oversight." But even if it was a mistake, it points to the Democratic Party's challenge of recognizing its robust and integral religious supporters while also acknowledging that a growing share of members see organized religion as a diminishing priority. 

To be sure, the optics of reinserting the words into the platform Wednesday as some conventioneers seemed to boo were not ideal. But convention Chairman and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has said President Obama insisted on the change, and the reasons are clear.

“For your undecided voter in Nevada, North Carolina, in Florida, in Ohio, in Pennsylvania – those key swing states, yeah, of course God matters,” says Davis Houck, a communications professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “And that’s why Obama basically said, ‘You better put that back in – we can’t be seen as the party taking God out of the platform.’ ”

Support for Mr. Obama among religious voters was high in several key states in 2008 and could be key again in 2012. “In an election as close as this one will be, we can't ignore something as central to most Americans as faith,” Democratic political consultant Eric Sapp wrote on Huffington Post in June.

But while religious voters remain crucially important to the Democrats' prospects in November, the party is also seeing growth in the number of supporters who have little or no connection to organized religion. The percentage of Democrats who seldom or never attend church grew from 35 percent in 2000 to 52 percent in 2011, according to Gallup.

“Within the Democratic Party there are strong Democratic constituencies that take faith very seriously, whether it’s African-American protestants or Hispanic Catholics,” says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio, who studies the intersection between politics and religion. “But another large constituency are the unaffiliated, who are not involved in organization religion – including atheists, agnostics, and those who are spiritual but not religious.”

Religion talk – God talk – can create tensions within the Democratic coalition; some people respond positively, other people react very negatively, and I don’t know what [role] that tension might’ve played” in the phrases being removed from the plank, he adds.

The move to rewrite the plank after its approval on Tuesday came after the widely read Drudge Report, a conservative news site, linked to a story pointing out how the party had excised the phrase “God-given rights” and had taken out language in the 2008 plank that referred to support for Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The revised sections now read as follows:

  • "Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel. The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations. It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.”
  • "We need a government that stands up for the hopes, values, and interests of working people, and gives everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential."

Republicans, who are managing their own religious tensions between social conservatives and libertarians, quickly jumped on the slip up, hoping it would upstage the convention’s main speakers, including Bill Clinton, and drive home a campaign message that Democrats are out of touch with mainstream America.

“If booing God and his holy city is a part of the Democratic Convention happening in this universe, I’ll take the alternative universe Bill Clinton said the GOP lives in,” writes RedState blogger and CNN contributor Erick Erickson. “This is why Barack Obama stands a good chance of losing. It is the Democrats who have disconnected from America.”

For some religious Democrats, the whole incident seems an innocent, yet potentially damaging, mistake.

“I’m personally convinced that this was on nobody’s agenda – that what we’re looking at is an incredibly stupid happenstance,” says Stephen Schneck, the national co-chair of Catholics for Obama and a board member for Democrats for Life, who acknowledged that he, too, missed the change when he read the plank. “But I’ll acknowledge that the optics really stink, and it’s an opening for believing right-wingers to suggest that the Democratic Party is not friendly to religion, which I personally know is fundamentally false.”

If anything Mr. Schneck faults a “tightly held” plank-writing process that he himself witnessed. “It was very tough for pro-life Democrats, who are one-third of the party, to get someone on the platform committee to return our phone calls,” he says.

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