The 2004 presidential election put the fear of God into Democrats. Republicans had been pushing issues like gay marriage and stem-cell research to the forefront of voters’ minds, and the results were overwhelming. Twenty-six percent of voters identified themselves as evangelical Christians, and 78 percent of those evangelicals voted for George W. Bush. According to Amy Sullivan of Washington Monthly. 2004 forced Democrats to realize the political potential of religious groups, and efforts are underway to court evangelical voters disillusioned with the Republican Party.
‘Like an abusive boyfriend,’ Sullivan writes, ‘Republicans keep moderate evangelicals in the coalition by alternating between painting their options as bleak and wooing them with sweet talk.’ For the past 30 years, Republicans have succeeded in portraying the Democratic Party as one hostile to religion. Years ago, prayer in school and abortion were the wedge issues used to stir up fear. While those issues still play a major role, gay marriage and stem-cell research have made matters worse for Democrats. By focusing on these controversies and creating a ‘culture war,’ Republicans have been able to gain the religious high ground without resorting to policies that promote welfare for the poor and public education.
According to Randy Brinson, a conservative evangelical Christian, ‘The power structure in the Republican Party is too entrenched with big business. It’s not with evangelicals — they’re a means to an end.’ Sullivan points to Brinson as part of a growing trend of conservative Christians who are abandoning the Republican fold. While his political organization, Redeem the Vote, was one of the many evangelical organizations that helped catapult Bush to his second presidential victory, Brinson has met with advisors of Democratic top brass like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California). As Sullivan reports, ‘Brinson wanted to connect with politicians who could deliver on a broader array of evangelical concerns, like protecting programs to help the poor, supporting public education, and expanding health care.’ While such programs have long been Democratic policy mainstays, a connection between Democratic policy and Christian ideals has been largely absent.
Now, political thinkers like Sullivan and Brinson are trying to bridge the gap between Democrats and evangelicals. Sullivan believes that Democrats must aggressively stake out a more pro-religious stance by supporting legislation like the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, a bill sponsored by Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) and Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) to protect religious rights in the workplace. In doing so, Sullivan believes the Democratic Party could shed its anti-religious image, and win votes away from the Republicans.
Many on the left disagree. Even Sullivan’s colleague at Washington Monthly, Kevin Drum, is skeptical of attempts to woo evangelicals to cross the aisle. Drum believes that many evangelicals, ‘care way more about sex and ‘moral degeneracy’ than they do about helping the poor,’ although he concedes that Sullivan makes a very compelling argument. Considering the minute margin by which Bush won, if even a few more evangelicals began to vote Democratic, ‘the result could,’ Sullivan argues, ‘alter the electoral map in a more significant and permanent way.’ And that would have a lot of Democrats singing ‘Hallelujah.’
— Bennett Gordon
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