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June 22, 2004
OP-ED COLUMNIST
NY Times

A Matter of Faith
By DAVID BROOKS

 

When Bill Clinton was 8, he started taking himself to church. When he was
10, he publicly committed himself to Jesus. As a boy, he begged his Sunday
school teacher to take him to see Billy Graham. And as anybody watching his
book rollout knows, he still exudes religiosity. He gave Dan Rather a tour
of his Little Rock church, and talked about praying in good times and bad.

More than any other leading Democrat, Bill Clinton understands the role
religion actually plays in modern politics. He knows Americans want to be
able to see their leaders' faith. A recent Pew survey showed that for every
American who thinks politicians should talk less about religion, there are
two Americans who believe politicians should talk more.

And Clinton seems to understand, as many Democrats do not, that a
politician's faith isn't just about litmus test issues like abortion or gay
marriage. Many people just want to know that their leader, like them, is in
the fellowship of believers. Their president doesn't have to be a saint, but
he does have to be a pilgrim. He does have to be engaged, as they are, in a
personal voyage toward God.

Clinton made this sort of faith-based connection, at least until he sullied
himself with the Lewinsky affair. He won the evangelical vote in 1992, and
won it again in 1996. He understood that if Democrats are not seen as
religious, they will be seen as secular Ivy League liberals, and they will
lose.

John Kerry doesn't seem to get this. Many of the people running the
Democratic Party don't get it either.

A recent Time magazine survey revealed that only 7 percent of Americans feel
that Kerry is a man of strong religious faith. That's a catastrophic
number. That number should be the first thing Kerry strategists think about
when they wake up in the morning and it should be the last thing on their
lips when they go to sleep at night. They should be doing everything they
can to change that perception, because unless more people get a sense of
Kerry's faith, they will feel no bond with him and they will be loath to
trust him with their vote.

Yet his campaign does nothing. Kerry talks about jobs one week and the
minimum wage the next, going about his wonky way, each day as secular as the
last.

It's mind-boggling. Can't the Democratic strategists read the data?
Religious involvement is a much, much more powerful predictor of how someone
will vote than income, education, gender or any other social and demographic
category save race.

Can't the Democratic strategists feel it in their bones how important this
is? After all, when you go out among the Democratic rank and file, you find
millions of Democrats who are just as religious as Republicans. It's mostly
in the land of Democratic elites that you are likely to find yourself among
religious illiterates.

But of course this is the problem. Forests have been felled so people could
publish articles and books on the religious right's influence on the
Republican Party. But as the Baruch College political scientists Louis Bolce
and Gerald De Maio have suggested, the real political story of the past
decade has been the growing size and cohesion of the secular left, and its
growing influence on the Democratic Party.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, the number of
Americans with no religious affiliation has more than doubled since 1990.
There is now a surging but unself-conscious power bloc within the Democratic
Party.

Like the religious right in the Republican Party, the members of the secular
left are interested primarily in social issues. What unites them more than
anything else is a strong antipathy to pro-lifers and fundamentalists. While
75 percent of Americans feel little or no hostility to fundamentalists,
people in this group are far more hostile to them than to other traditional
Democratic bête noires, the rich or big business. They don't like to see
their politicians meddling with religion in any way.

Just as Republicans have to appeal to religious conservatives but move
beyond them, Democrats have to appeal to the secular left but also build a
bridge to religious moderates. Bill Clinton did this. John Kerry hasn't. If
you want to know why Kerry is still roughly even with Bush in the polls,
even though Bush has had the worst year of any president since Nixon in 1973
or L.B.J. in 1968, this is one big reason.

 

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


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