Democrats Have The Religious Left. Can They Win The Religious Middle?

Jul 15, 2019
Originally published on July 15, 2019 10:54 am

Exit polls from the 2016 presidential election suggest that only 1 of 6 white evangelical voters supported Hillary Clinton. It was the worst such performance of any recent Democratic nominee.

"She never asked for their votes," says Michael Wear, who directed religious outreach efforts for Barack Obama's successful reelection campaign in 2012.

Democrats this year are making a more determined effort to reach voters whose political preferences are driven in part by their religious faith. Two presidential candidates — Sen. Cory Booker and Mayor Pete Buttigieg — are recruiting faith advisers to help in their campaigns, and the Democratic National Committee has hired a new "faith engagement" director, the Rev. Derrick Harkins.

"We're having these conversations in the summer of 2019 as opposed to the fall of 2020, because it helps faith leaders understand that we're serious about this," says Harkins, formerly senior pastor at the historically black Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. "We're not scrambling at the last minute to try to cultivate relationships that will get us over the finish line."

The new efforts have Democrats hopeful they can mobilize a religious left to counter the religious right, long a bedrock Republican constituency. Less clear is whether the outreach will resonate with those voters who make up the religious middle.

Among them is child advocate Kelly Rosati, a Colorado-based evangelical activist who promotes adoption, foster parenting and orphan care. Rosati abandoned the Republican Party after concluding it was insufficiently compassionate, but neither does she identify as a Democrat, largely because of the party's stance on abortion issues.

"I feel incredibly discouraged," she says. "I am extremely disappointed at how far the Democratic candidates have come from 'safe, legal, and rare' and [their] position on government funding of abortion and late-term abortion. At the same time, I have the exact same feeling when I look at those in the Republican Party who seem to have a similar callousness as it relates to immigrant children or people without access to health care."

Rosati is not alone. Among Christians, many Catholics and mainline Protestants see themselves as neither liberal nor conservative. Wear, who identifies as an evangelical and works now as a political consultant, sees the religious middle as fertile ground for his fellow Democrats, if they approach it carefully.

"There are large numbers of faith voters who are looking for bolder approaches on voting rights, on immigration, on pro-family policies," he says. "I do think there's a cohort of swing voters who are religious who Democrats risk losing with their move to the left on abortion."

One candidate moving hard in that direction is New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who during a recent campaign stop in Iowa compared the restriction of abortion rights to racism. "I think there are some issues that have such moral clarity that we have as a society decided that the other side is not acceptable," she said. "There is no moral equivalency when it comes to racism. And I do not believe there's moral equivalency when it comes to changing laws that deny women's reproductive freedom."

Wear, who has not yet aligned with a Democratic candidate in this election cycle, was not impressed with Gillibrand's comment.

"That's a fast track to losing an election that should be almost unlosable," he says. Wear advises Democratic candidates to follow the example of Barack Obama in their outreach to religious voters, a story he relates in his book Reclaiming Hope. He says such an effort can be successful even without abandoning core progressive principles.

"We met them where they were," he says. "There were voters who knew that Barack Obama was pro-choice, who knew that he supported same-sex marriage, but thought that he was a good guy who wasn't out to get them [and] that he understood the concerns that those who disagreed with him might have."

Such an approach is endorsed as well by Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, one of those in the Democratic Party who argues it should work harder to connect with faith voters.

Coons says: "I don't think the average voter looks at a score card of where a candidate stands on issue A and issue B and issue C as much as they listen and watch and say, 'Do I like him? Do I believe her? Do I connect with them? Would they be a good leader? Would I feel safe with that person running our country?'"

The answers to such questions come with the "gut feeling" a voter gets from a candidate, Coons says.

"To like someone, to engage with someone, and to ultimately support them and be comfortable with their leadership means knowing their heart," Coons says, "which I think means knowing their faith."

As a regular participant in Capitol Hill prayer breakfasts, Coons advises his Democrats to speak more openly about their own faith, an appeal he explained in a recent article in The Atlantic magazine.

To Coons' surprise, the article was met with a decidedly mixed response.

"Some folks were quite offended by it," he says. "[They] said politicians have no business talking about their faith at all, that this is dangerously against the separation of church and state." Such feelings, he says, may explain why Democrats have been less comfortable than Republicans in talking about the values that led them into public service.

"As a result," he says, "there is a misperception in middle America that the folks who are religious and elected are Republican, and the folks who are Democrats and elected are not [religious]."

At the Democratic National Committee, the work of changing that reputation now falls, in part, to Harkins, who served most recently as a senior vice president at Union Seminary in New York.

"Square One is making sure people know they are being heard and not being dismissed," Harkins says. He will meet soon with faith leaders around the country from across the political spectrum to find out about their concerns and priorities.

"And then the responsibility falls on me and our work here, to act on those issues in the way that we can."

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Some Democrats who are running for election in 2020 intend to pay special attention to people of faith. The faith-based message is not one that candidate Hillary Clinton embraced in 2016. And that may have cost her votes among evangelicals and Catholics. Many of them are swing voters. So what's it going to take to bring them into the Democratic fold? Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: For decades now, Republicans have had a solid hold on those conservative Christians who make up the religious right. Lately, Democrats have been courting those people of faith who support progressive causes - the religious left. Now there's another group up for grabs - the religious middle, faith voters with a mix of views. It includes people like child advocate Kelly Rosati. At an Evangelicals for Life conference earlier this year, she chided fellow Christians for not going beyond their anti-abortion rhetoric to consider adopting children who need homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELLY ROSATI: And so as pro-life people - more importantly, as followers of Christ, if we aren't the families that these kids can be welcomed into, then where are the families?

GJELTEN: Reached by phone at her home in Colorado, Rosati said she identified politically as a Republican until she decided the party lacked compassion. But she's not all that enamored of the Democrats, either, whom she sees as lurching to the left.

ROSATI: I feel incredibly discouraged.

GJELTEN: And without a political affiliation.

ROSATI: You have this extreme embracing of abortion from those in the Democratic Party. And at the same time, I have the exact same feeling when I look at those in the Republican Party who seem to have a similar callousness as it relates to immigrant children or people without access to health care.

GJELTEN: And Kelly Rosati is not alone. Among Christians, there are also Catholics and mainline Protestants in the middle. Michael Wear, himself an evangelical and a Democratic Party consultant, says it's fertile territory for Democrats if they don't blow it.

MICHAEL WEAR: There are large numbers of faith voters who are looking for bolder approaches on voting rights, on pro-family policies like paid family leave and child care. I do think there's a cohort of swing voters who are religious who Democrats risk losing with their move to the left on reproductive rights and abortion.

GJELTEN: That risk can be minimized, Wear says, if candidates go out of their way to at least show respect for people with different views. Having worked on faith issues in the Obama campaigns of 2008 and '12, Wear saw people with conservative views on social issues who were still won over.

WEAR: Voters who knew that Barack Obama was pro-choice, who knew that he supported same sex - marriage but thought that he understood the concerns that those who disagreed with him might have - I think Democrats in 2020 need to have that approach.

GJELTEN: So does Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware.

CHRIS COONS: I don't think the average voter looks at a scorecard of where candidates stand on Issue A and Issue B and Issue C as much as they listen and watch and say, do I like him? Do I believe her? Do I connect with them? Would they be a good leader? Would I feel safe with that person running our country?

GJELTEN: Questions, he says, answered by a gut feeling. That's where a candidate's faith comes in.

COONS: To like someone, to engage with someone and to ultimately support them and be comfortable with their leadership means knowing their heart, which I think means knowing their faith.

GJELTEN: As a regular participant in Capitol Hill prayer breakfasts, Coons advises his fellow Democrats to speak more openly about their own faith. At least two current presidential candidates, Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg, are looking to hire faith advisers to help in their campaigns. And the Democratic National Committee has a new director of faith outreach, Reverend Derrick Harkins, formerly the pastor of the historically black Nineteeth Street Baptist Church in Washington. His counsel - meet faith voters where they are.

DERRICK HARKINS: Square one is making sure people know they're being heard and not being dismissed.

GJELTEN: So Harkins will soon be meeting with faith leaders around the country from across the political spectrum.

HARKINS: And then the responsibility falls on me and our work here to act on those issues in the ways in which we can.

GJELTEN: Harkins says he's already met with Catholic leaders. In the last presidential election, exit polls showed most Catholic voters chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Harkins also foresees meetings with evangelical leaders. That could be a tougher constituency to crack. White evangelicals are believed to have chosen Trump by a 5-1 margin.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.