By Leah Daughtry
Saturday, January 26, 2008 12:00 AM
Religion will play an important role in today's South Carolina Democratic primary, just as it did in last week's South Carolina Republican primary. The difference is that we'll learn less about how religion affects today's vote than we learned about how it influenced last week's contest.
Last week, thanks to exit polls, we understood the religious breakdown, how often voters attended religious services, whether they considered themselves born-again or evangelical Christians, whether they said the candidates' religious beliefs mattered and what they thought about abortion. And the polls helped to shape the news coverage, so we saw headlines such as: "Evangelical Republicans Drive S.C. Primary" and Ideology, Religion Important in "S.C."
If previous exit polls this cycle are any indicator, religion will be much less central to the exit polls today. At most, Democrats have been asked which religion they identify with and how often they go to church. In Iowa and Michigan, Democrats weren't asked about religion at all. And that, in turn, has shaped the news coverage, making it appear that one party has a monopoly on religion in this race.
I'm chief of staff of the Democratic National Committee and CEO of the 2008 Democratic Convention. I'm also an ordained Pentecostal minister. So I've been encouraged by the growing attention paid to the role of religion in politics as we go about the important task of electing our next president. I've been disappointed, however, with the focus of the discussion so far.
Democrats have been, are and will continue to be people of faith. My own support for the party stems from my sense that it is most emblematic of gospel values. Democrats believe in equal opportunity for all Americans, that no child should go to bed hungry or go without health care, that we should be good stewards of the earth, that we shouldn't pass on debt to our children, and that people who work hard should be able to earn a living wage so they can support their families.
As a "big tent" party, we embrace and represent people from a number of faith traditions. The religious diversity of our party reflects the rich religious diversity of our nation -- and this includes those who don't identify with a religious tradition.
But, for too long, we allowed the other side to define us and our values. Some Democrats were reluctant to talk about faith on the campaign trail. While strong, our faith was a personal, not partisan, matter.
Following the 2004 election, it became clear that Republicans used religion to create a divide. And, as people of faith and as Democrats, we had a responsibility to speak out. That's what we're doing now.
The DNC has been actively engaging people of faith who share the core values and principles of the Democratic Party. We've assembled a team of religious leaders -- including pastors, theologians and organizational leaders -- to open a dialogue and build coalitions around our shared values. And America has seen the Democratic presidential candidates sharing their own faith journeys, talking about how faith informs their politics.
We know the support is there -- and growing. In fact, Democrats narrowed the Republican advantage among weekly churchgoers in the 2006 election, and a recent Pew survey found that the number of young evangelicals who identified themselves as Republican dropped by 15 percentage points, from 55 percent in 2001 to 40 percent today.
Yet the exit polls and the media reports and the pundits have largely missed this story. They often fail to acknowledge that people of faith are and can be Democrats.
To be sure, exit-poll questions asking Republicans if they are born-again or evangelical Christians may be trying to approximate questions in years past about identification with the "Religious Right." But this is an outdated script that leaves the impression that religion and faith matter only to Republicans.
Religion will continue to play a prominent role in the Democratic nominating process as well. And pollsters and pundits and all the media would do well to examine this interesting and important dynamic.
The writer is chief of staff of the Democratic Party and CEO of the Democratic Convention in Denver.