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The New Temptation Of Democrats

By Ruth Marcus
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

When mega-pastor Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church opened last year in its new Houston home, the city's former professional basketball arena, a most unlikely guest was on hand for the celebration: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a minister's son who chairs the House Democrats' Faith Working Group, headed to Dallas a few months later to worship with Bishop T.D. Jakes, an African American Pentecostal minister who's been called "the next Billy Graham."

This month, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean -- yes, that would be the Howard Dean who dismissed Republicans last year as "pretty much a white, Christian Party" -- went on Pat Robertson's "700 Club," asserting that Democrats "have an enormous amount in common with the Christian community, and particularly with the evangelical Christian community." Randy Brinson, founder of Redeem the Vote (think Rock the Vote meets Jesus), met last week with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Democrats these days are a party on a mission that might sound impossible: to persuade evangelical Christian voters to consider converting -- to the Democratic Party.

Just as Republicans have worked, and to some extent succeeded, at peeling off some African American voters from the Democratic Party, evangelical voters are too big a part of the electorate (about a quarter) for one party simply to write off.

Democrats have a shot at luring some of them, but it's a long shot, and one that poses dangerous temptations for the party as it tries to narrow the God gap.

Evangelicals have become increasingly Republican. In 1987, 34 percent of white evangelicals identified themselves as Republicans, 29 percent as Democrats. Today, that GOP advantage has grown to 51 to 22. And evangelical voters' growing dissatisfaction with President Bush doesn't appear to be trickling down into congressional races; in a recent Pew poll, 64 percent of evangelicals (compared with 41 percent of all voters) said they would vote for the Republican congressional candidate in November, about the same as in polls before the 2002 midterms.

Still, as John C. Green at the University of Akron has shown, evangelical voters aren't politically monolithic. Among the half that Green calls "traditionalist evangelicals," 70 percent identify themselves as Republicans or lean that way; they're pretty much a lost cause for Democrats. But among "centrist" (the 41 percent of evangelicals who have less doctrinaire religious views) or more liberal "modernist" (11 percent) evangelicals, Democrats have much more opportunity. Only 47 percent of centrist evangelicals and 30 percent of modernists are Republicans.

To some extent, Democrats could help themselves with evangelicals simply by showing up -- at the megachurches, on Christian radio and in other venues where Democrats have been scarce. Whether the Democrats are deploying the right messengers is more questionable: a liberal San Francisco Democrat and a civil union-signing Vermont governor may not be the party's best bet with evangelicals. More important, occasional drop-bys and clunky dropping of biblical references aren't going to do the trick. These voters weren't born again yesterday.

Rather, the Democrats' discussion with evangelicals has to get beyond linguistic "reframing" to substantive areas where the Democrats and evangelicals can find common ground: poverty, the environment, Darfur.

The question is whether differences on the much hotter-button issues of abortion and gay rights are nonetheless deal-breakers. For the traditionalist evangelicals, almost certainly they are. But some centrists may be reachable; they may be opposed to same-sex marriage, for example, but more supportive of other equal rights measures for gays.

"They don't want to be mean to gay people," Green said. Likewise, "while the centrist evangelicals tend to be pro-life, they don't tend to hold their opinions as intensely as the traditionals. There is some room to maneuver there."

The risk is that, in the process of maneuvering, Democrats' reframing and rebranding could edge into retreating on core principles. It was unsettling to hear Dean -- in the process of cozying up to evangelicals -- mangle the party platform, saying, incorrectly, that it states that "marriage is between a man and a woman." In fact, while deliberately silent on marriage, the platform supports "full inclusion of gay and lesbian families . . . and equal responsibilities, benefits, and protections."

Likewise, it's fine for Hillary Clinton to talk about the "tragedy" of abortion, or for Democrats to emphasize the importance of reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. But I get awfully nervous when Redeem the Vote's Brinson says of abortion, "As long as the national Democratic Party makes that a centerpiece of their platform or something they're advocating, as long as that's front and center and they're saying women have a right to do this, it's going to turn off religious voters."

So, by all means, let Democrats woo evangelicals and cast the message in a way that speaks to religious voters. But in doing so, keep in mind: What does it profit a party to gain a demographic but lose its soul?

marcusr@washpost.com

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