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A Blueprint for Democratic Revivalism

Amy Sullivan, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008)

Even taking into consideration Pastor Mike Huckabee’s quixotic run for the presidency, the 2008 presidential campaign has been noticeably devoid of discussions about religion and so-called moral values. For many Americans (and especially many New Yorkers), the change has been a welcome one. Unlike in 2004, when the manipulative pandering of President Bush and Karl Rove filled the airwaves with talk of gay marriage amendments, abortion, and stem cell research in an effort to draw conservative Christians to the voting booths, in 2008, the societal concerns of fervent evangelicals have taken a back seat to the failing economy, the health care system, and Barack Obama’s message of hope.

But atheists and secularists shouldn’t conclude that the age of religiously influenced politics is over. Amy Sullivan’s The Party Faithful serves as an ominous reminder to Democrats that God’s role in American politics is far from dead. The book is both a perspicacious recent history of evangelical participation in American government and a playbook instructing Democrats how to win over religious voters in the future. Time and again throughout the work, Sullivan counteracts the notion that the Democratic Party and evangelical Christians can’t coexist harmoniously. And she meticulously illuminates the avowed religiosity of such Democrats as Obama, the Clintons, and John Edwards—a fact that many liberals are all too anxious to overlook. One only need recall that Jimmy Carter is a Democrat to realize that faith used to play an important role in the Democratic Party platform.

Just reading this review, sirens are surely going off in the heads of many liberal readers worried that their party will abandon its core principles. Many liberals would question Sullivan’s very premise: why do Democrats need religious votes at all? But Sullivan isn’t a belligerent partisan. Her reasoning is measured and grounded. She doesn’t want the U.S. to become a theocracy. Nor does she think that religious doctrine should unduly influence the creation of legislation in this country. Her argument is more nuanced. An evangelical herself, as well as Time’s nation editor, Sullivan is an expert on her subject and she is convinced that Democrats can appeal to religious voters without becoming more conservative on social issues in the process. Her book is a plea for Democrats of all persuasions to realize that religion, as a factor in elections, isn’t going away anytime soon. In her mind, Democrats need to be practical. Instead of condescending to or ignoring religious voters, she argues that Democrats can and should make efforts to win evangelicals over by changing the way they discuss issues like abortion and gay rights. While continuing to endorse a woman’s right to choose, Democratic candidates, Sullivan says, should also emphasize their desire to keep abortions rare.

Sullivan provides numerous examples of campaigns that have been successful using this method. She cites the 2006 gubernatorial victories of Democrats Jennifer Granholm in Michigan and Ted Strickland in Ohio as campaigns that others in the party can learn from. She writes that Granholm and Strickland, who both support a woman’s right to choose, “split the evangelical vote in their states,” but that “The only change [Strickland and Granholm] made was to use language of abortion reduction in addition to choice, and to proactively bring up the issue instead of avoiding it or reacting defensively.” Sullivan goes on to say, “There is a new, if still wary, openness to pro-life candidates in the Democratic Party. But just as important, the realization that pro-life and pro-choice candidates can win with the same approach to abortion reduction has eased the fears of Democrats who foresaw a future in which the party simply became pro-life.”

It’s a fine line, but Sullivan manages to walk it. Throughout the book, she makes frequent mention of a statistic showing that 40% of evangelicals are moderates as evidence that Christianity and the Republican Party do not go hand-in-hand. While her argument is weakened because she never defines either what moderate means or how the number of 40% was arrived at, her point is still valid. Not all religiously minded voters cast their ballots based solely on abortion. Democrats can appeal to the more moderate Christians, many of whom already vote for them. Obviously, Sullivan doesn’t believe that all evangelicals can or should be swayed to the Democratic side, but if Democratic candidates actually connect with the pious, instead of acting as if close to 90% of the American populace weren’t actively religious, they might have a better chance to win now and in the future.

With many evangelicals disillusioned with the Republican Party after seven years of unkept promises from President Bush, Sullivan’s conception has its appeal. And surely, her proposal is better than the strategy adopted in 2004 by John Kerry, when despite being a staunch Catholic, he lost the Catholic vote in the decisive swing state of Ohio, in part because he was so ambiguous about his faith. At the same time, Sullivan is perhaps being overly optimistic. She’s correct to point out that for many evangelicals, abortion and gay rights are far less important than the environment and assisting the poor, but it seems unlikely that Democrats can make abortion a permanent non-issue simply by changing their message. That isn’t to say Democrats shouldn’t try. But after years of weakly caving into any and all of Bush’s demands on everything from the Iraq War to FISA legislation, Democrats need to be careful not to seem too similar to their alternate party. They have to be careful not to lose the voters they already have while they’re trying to gain the ones they don’t.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2008

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