November 17, 2004

Some Democrats Believe the Party Should Get Religion


Tested by a Republican campaign emphasizing Christian faith, some Democrats are scrambling to shake off their secular image, stepping up efforts to organize the "religious left" and debating changes to how they approach the cultural flashpoints of same-sex marriage and abortion.

Some call the election a warning. "You can't have everybody who goes to church vote Republican; you just can't," Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, said last week at a forum on the election.

Religious traditionalists including Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, and Jim Wallis of the liberal evangelical group Sojourners say Democratic officials are calling them for advice on reaching conservative Christians. And they and some other theologically orthodox supporters of Mr. Bush say it may not take much for Democrats to make inroads among their constituency, if the party demonstrates a greater friendliness to religious beliefs and even modestly softens its support for abortion rights.

"It would not be hard," said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the journal First Things and a conservative Catholic who has advised Mr. Bush on how to handle the issue of abortion.

But Democrats disagree about how to establish the party's spiritual credentials. Some play down the need for changes, saying poorly framed surveys of voters leaving polls are overstating the impact of conservative Christian voters. Others argue that Democrats need to rephrase their positions in more moral and religious language. And an emboldened group of Democratic partisans and sympathetic religious leaders warn that Mr. Bush has beaten Democrats to the middle on social issues like abortion that resonate with religious traditionalists, arguing that the party should publicly welcome opponents of abortion into its ranks and perhaps even bend in its opposition to certain abortion restrictions.

In an interview, Mr. From pointed out that Republicans invited officials who disagreed with the party's position on abortion rights, like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, to speak at their national convention. Democrats should do likewise, he argued.

"I want to win some people who are pro-life, because they probably agree with us on a lot of other things," Mr. From said.

Even that, however, would shock some Democrats. No prominent opponent of abortion has come anywhere near the podium of a Democratic convention since 1992, when abortion rights groups blocked a speech on the subject by Robert P. Casey, the governor of Pennsylvania and an observant Catholic.

"Our platform and the grass-roots strength of the party is pro-choice," said Elizabeth Cavendish, interim president of Naral Pro-Choice America. The party needs more religious language, Ms. Cavendish said, but not new positions.

Many Democrats agree. Citing statistics showing that the incidence of abortion fell under President Bill Clinton and rose under President Bush, they argue that the party can reach religious voters without flinching from its current stance on abortion rights by shifting the debate from the legality to the frequency of the procedure - a reprise of Mr. Clinton's formulation that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare."

"We would like to see fewer abortions and we want our children to learn good values," said Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, a Catholic who has led her party's efforts to reach religious voters and was chairwoman of its 2004 platform committee.

Democrats need to make the case that health care, jobs and sex education can reduce the number of abortion procedures, even without making them illegal, Ms. DeLauro said. At the same time, she said, they need to emphasize the religious imperatives behind "pushing for real health care reform, reluctance before war and alternatives to abortion, such as adoption," as she put it in a letter to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington signed by dozens of Catholics in Congress in the spring.

"An overwhelming number of Democrats are people of faith,'' Ms. DeLauro said. "We need to be more explicit and more public about our convictions and our beliefs."

Democratic partisans are also stepping up efforts begun in the last months of the campaign to rally the churches and religious groups already inclined to take their side. Weekly campaign-season conference calls of progressive Christian leaders have become a forum to plot strategy and coordinate actions, just as they say conservatives have done.

When Mr. Bush named the White House counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, as his choice for attorney general, for example, liberal members of the Christian clergy immediately convened to plan a statement criticizing Mr. Gonzales for writing memorandums that appeared to support the use of torture, said Tom Perriello of Res Publica, a group that helps organize the calls.

Mr. Perriello said many of the religious leaders involved were also pushing the Democrats to be more assertive in fighting poverty and promoting "social justice" but also to soften their stance on abortion. "There is an interest in finding a middle way," he said. "It predates the election year, but there is a little more willingness to listen to it now."

In the election's aftermath, some Democrats also say their party needs to do more than talk about religion to win more churchgoer votes. They argue that Mr. Bush outflanked Senator John Kerry with carefully drawn positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. Even as Mr. Bush supported an amendment to the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, he also emphasized tolerance, breaking with his most conservative Christian supporters to repeatedly say he favored allowing states to recognize same-sex couples in other ways, like civil unions.

Mr. Kerry's official position differed only on the need for amending the Constitution, but he seldom brought up the subject. Although few Democrats are ready to give in on the proposed federal amendment, many Democrats and liberal Christians say privately that they may need to distance themselves more forcefully from the idea of same-sex marriage, standing instead near Mr. Bush in support of civil unions.

"Let's not call it marriage," said Mr. Wallis of Sojourners, who addressed religious outreach lunch at the Democratic convention this year. "The culture is not ready for that. The principle is legal protection for same-sex couples. It would take the issue away and that issue wouldn't win or lose elections anymore."

But it is Mr. Bush's careful stance on abortion that has generated the most soul searching. Although he ended federal financing for international groups that provide abortions, he has never explicitly committed to opposing the main abortion rights court precedents. Instead, he refers to the less explicit notion of a "culture of life." And he counts as a major achievement the ban on the type of procedure its opponents call partial-birth abortion, which passed with bipartisan support.

"He lets himself take credit for a hard-line stance on abortion that he has never really endorsed," Mr. Wallis said, arguing that Democrats could "change the whole landscape" by moderating their own position.

Representative Tim Ryan, Democrat of Ohio, argued that in the pivotal Midwest the appearance of inflexibility on abortion rights was a heavy burden on Democratic candidates. Like most Democrats, Mr. Ryan said he supported the court precedents establishing abortion rights, but he argued that the party should relax its opposition to the partial-birth abortion ban, parental notification laws and the bill making it a second crime to harm a fetus when harming a pregnant woman.

"In middle America, how do you argue that killing a pregnant woman is not a double homicide?" he said.

It might take only a few alterations for Democrats to start gaining traction with orthodox Christians, Father Neuhaus of First Things said.

"To be perfectly cynical about it,'' Father Neuhaus said, "what would a leading Democrat, even a Hillary Clinton, have to do? She could come out against partial-birth abortion, she could come out for parental notification. She could begin to represent herself as moderately pro-choice, maybe even with some linguistic sleight of hand, moderately pro-life."

Pollsters say Democrats might well find fertile ground among theological conservatives, if the party could get around those divisive social issues and its secular reputation.

Many conservative Christians who vote Republican because of their views on abortion and same-sex marriage are working class or middle class, and they often hold liberal views on economics, social welfare and the environment, said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who conducts polls on religion and politics. But to reach religious voters, Mr. Green said, the Democrats "have their work cut out for them.''

Some Democrats worry that the party might bend too far to please religious voters. Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, a Democrat and a Jew, argued that there was no evidence that more people voted "based on faith" this year than four years ago. If Mr. Bush renews his popular calls for federal financing of social services that hired on the basis of religion, Mr. Nadler contended, Democrats still need to oppose it. "If you use federal funding, you can't discriminate," he said. "We can't compromise on that."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company