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Finding religion on the left

Published May 29, 2005

Listening to a Democratic meeting or political rally these days can be like attending church service. At Our Lady of Perpetual Defensiveness.

Forget outsourced jobs or missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The biggest red-meat Democratic applause lines lately are about moral values.

"Zell Miller's talking about Republicans being the only ones with decency and morals," former U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman thundered minutes before her election as chairwoman of the Florida Democratic party earlier this month. "I want to be the chairman of the Florida Democratic Party that proves those Republicans wrong. We are the party of values. We are the party that stands up for children and their education. We are the party that fights for working people, and a livable wage and safe place to work."

Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's recent lament to a group of Florida Democrats: Republicans have tried to take some of our values away from us, "particularly the values of family and faith. One of the problems for so many of us whose faith is the essence of our being is that we don't wear it on our sleeve.

"And isn't it interesting who Jesus of Nazareth condemned the most are those he called the hypocrites who would act wan and disheveled so that everyone would know that they were fasting. Or would go out in the public places and offer their prayers so that everybody would think of them as holy?"

Then there's Howard Dean, who since becoming Democratic National Committee chairman has developed a zeal for Bible verse.

"I didn't see it in the Republican platform anywhere, but I saw in the Bible that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven," Dean told southwest Florida Democrats recently. "It is a moral value to walk with the least among us. Those moral values are consistent with Democratic values, with American values, and they are sorely lacking with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who preach one thing and are hypocritical. We need to kick the money changers out of the temple and restore values to America again!"

The Pharisees and Sadducees?

Awkward as it may be at times (especially for someone such as Dean, who once called the Old Testament story of Job his favorite book of the New Testament), it's no wonder Democratic politicians have become so consumed with religion.

For the second presidential election in a row, exit polls showed that 60 percent of voters who say they attend church at least once a week backed George W. Bush. What's more, Bush gained ground from 2000 among voters who said they attend church a few times a month. Al Gore comfortably won that group in 2000, while Bush won it last November.

Christian conservatives this year accused Democrats who block presidential judicial nominations of attacking "people of faith." German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - now Pope Benedict XVI - called on Catholic bishops at the height of the presidential campaign to deny communion to abortions rights supporters such as John Kerry.

A North Carolina Baptist pastor earned national headlines after he supposedly told Kerry supporters in his church "repent or resign." And last week in North Carolina, a former state Democratic party chairman announced that he had become a Republican because of his personal convictions on abortion, same-sex marriage and the lottery.

Clearly, the Christian right has been remarkably successful at depicting Democrats as morally wrong.

A few decades ago, Democratic leaders closely aligned themselves with churches in a moral fight for civil rights. Today, Democrats are often perceived as secular or downright hostile to religion.

Since November, though, Democrats and the religious left have started fighting back aggressively. The results are mixed, but it's clear the conversation about faith and politics is no longer so one-sided.

When President Bush this month showed up to deliver the commencement address at Calvin College, a 129-year-old evangelical school in Michigan, he found hundreds of students and faculty members voicing moral opposition to his policies.

"Your deeds, Mr. President - neglecting the needy to coddle the rich, desecrating the environment and misleading the country into war - do not exemplify the faith we live by," read a letter in the the Grand Rapids Press signed by nearly 800 Calvin students, alumni and faculty.

Democratic politicians are no longer shying away from talking about their faith. The religious left has dramatically increased its profile, if not its numbers.

"When they make Jesus pro-rich, pro-war and only pro-American, then they have stolen my faith in the public arena, and it's time to take it back," says Jim Wallis, a liberal evangelical who has become the newest hero for Democratic activists.

Party leaders aren't just touting moral values to underpin their piroties. They're also talking about welcoming more diversity of opinion into the fold. DNC chairman Dean repeatedly talks of embracing Democrats who oppose abortion rights and looking for common ground to reduce abortions.

"There's a change in the party,"said Greg Rublee of Oldsmar, an evangelical Democrat running to succeed U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor. "My faith and my values are more consistently represented in today's more open Democratic party,"

Rublee acknowledged that many Democratic activists are initially wary when they hear he's an evangelical. And fellow evangelicals are suspicious to hear he's a Democrat. He's aiming to "dispel the myth" Democrats disdain family values and faith.

Leaders on the religious left contend gay marriage and abortion are just two of many fundamental moral issues for political leaders and that the Bible makes the the fight against poverty, protection of the environment and a host of other issues moral causes often ignored by the religious right.

Wallis, the founder of Sojourners magazine, has been summoned to private advice sessions with Senate Democrats. His book, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, became a best seller this year, and he draws hundreds of people to his book signings/town meetings around the country, including a recent one in Tampa.

Wallis welcomes the new Democratic emphasis on faith, while acknowledging that it can seem phony with certain politicians. Religion is no political strategy, he says.

"People want a moral compass in politics, religious or not," he told me. "I say to a politician, "If you're motivated by moral values, let you moral values shine through. If you're motivated by faith, let your faith shine through. Be who you are. But you have to authentic."'

More and more, voters can judge the religious authenticity of Democrats and Republicans alike.

[Last modified May 30, 2005, 11:11:28]

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