Transcript

Outlook: How Would Jesus Vote?

Amy Sullivan
Author, "The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap"
Monday, February 25, 2008; 1:00 PM

"A few months ago, while sitting on an early-morning panel discussion in the heart of Manhattan, I was startled fully awake when a man stood up to declare that Democrats who reached out to religious voters, especially evangelicals, were akin to those who collaborated with the Nazis. I put on a sweet smile of Christian charity and counted to 10. Comments like that explain why so many of us liberals who also happen to be evangelicals have stayed in the closet for so long. ... But the lingering misconceptions are also painful reminders of the cost people like myself have paid for staying silent while others claimed a monopoly on faith. And the country has paid, too."

Washington Monthly contributing editor Amy Sullivan, author of "The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap," was online Monday, Feb. 25 at 1 p.m. ET to take questions on her Outlook article about how the liberals surrendered religious voters to Republicans, the cost of that effort, and how evangelicals are beginning to return to the Democratic fold.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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Amy Sullivan: Hello, and thanks so much for joining me in this afternoon discussion about religion and politics! It's a topic that has been the source of so much division and confusion, and I'm glad we'll have the opportunity to sort through your questions and concerns for the next hour.

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Chicago: Sorry, but a real basic question: What exactly makes one an evangelical? Many articles on the subject (including yours) never actually give a definition. Especially if you're not religious, like me, this whole discussion is tough to follow without a primer. Thanks.

Amy Sullivan: Excellent question. First, "evangelical" is definitely a religious identification, not a political one. Most evangelicals say that the label refers to Protestants who emphasize four main beliefs: spiritual conversion, a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, a biblically centered faith (meaning the authority of the Bible is more important than the authority of a "church"), and the importance of sharing the Gospel.

I should add that sometimes it's hard for evangelicals themselves to know; I always assumed that all Protestants shared these beliefs, until I started attending mainline (Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal) churches and realized I didn't actually believe the same things they did!

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Hendersonville, N.C.: Amy, they are returning, but not to a party that fully accepts pro-life Democrats. Like the GOP, pro-life Democrats are not represented in the leadership and only are tolerated as party workers. I could tell you about the chilly reception we got at the State Executive Committee Meeting in January. Can evangelicals really return to a party that condones abortion? I struggle with this all the time.

Amy Sullivan: That's a real problem. In 2004, I heard from a couple who were evangelical Democrats and supported John Kerry. They told me about going to a campaign rally with a sign that said "Pro-Life for Kerry" because they wanted to show that the Democratic Party was a big enough tent to include those who were pro-life. Kerry campaign workers asked them to put down their sign because it wasn't a "sanctioned" message.

That kind of disrespect has made it difficult for a lot of pro-life voters to support Democrats, but not all -- about one-third of Democratic voters are pro-life. And it is getting better -- both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have instructed their staff to stop referring to abortion opponents as "right-wing ideologues" (a nice start!) and to talk about welcoming more pro-life candidates in the party. The elections of pro-life Catholic Democrats Tim Kaine (governor of Virginia) and Bill Ritter (governor of Colorado) have been steps forward as well.

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Plano, Texas: Amy, thanks for this insightful article. Although I am a Huckabee supporter, I have several Southern Baptist friends who are supporting Democrats this election season. They are devoted Christians and opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage; however, they (and I) believe in ethical and functional government. We believe these, too, are moral issues. Keeping our environment safe/clean, caring for people, getting rid of corruption and special interests are critical moral issues -- these issues are important to Christians.

Amy Sullivan: One of the biggest changes since the last presidential election has come within the evangelical community itself. Rick Warren, megachurch pastor and author of "The Purpose-Driven Life," sent out a pre-election message in 2004 identifying the five "non-negotiable issues" for evangelicals as abortion, gay marriage, human cloning, stem-cell research and euthanasia. I asked him about that last fall and I couldn't even finish my sentence before he said "that was wrong." He's now a leader in getting religious Americans to focus on third-world poverty, the environment, HIV in Africa, opposition to torture and other issues we always have thought of as "liberal." But as Mike Huckabee says: "Caring about the children of immigrants doesn't make me a liberal -- it makes me a human."

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Flagstaff, Ariz.: Thanks so much for this article! I have been struggling with how to explain to people that I am both a Christian and a left-winger, and it is difficult for people who have been force-fed a diet of televangelists to acknowledge that this is even possible. When I do try to make the point, I get feedback from them that this is some kind of plot on the part of the evil Christians to "take over" the Democratic Party too.

I have to admit, lots of my friends are Christopher Hitchens-type atheists, so maybe I just need new friends, but I always have been a "sit down with the nonbelievers and have a meal and a conversation" type. How do you deal with someone saying directly to you that consorting with Christians is equivalent to consorting with Nazis? That is, personally, in the moment, what's your comeback?

Amy Sullivan: Thanks! And you pose a good question. I'm not sure there is one pat response that can convince people their stereotypes about Christians are too broad and often wrong. After all, there have been a lot of visible models of very conservative Christianity. I prefer to witness by example -- and also by reminding people that I'm far from alone. 87 percent of Americans say religion is an important part of their lives, and Republicans haven't been winning with 87 percent of the vote. And 50 percent of evangelicals call themselves either politically moderate or liberal. It's a mistake for anyone to assume that all evangelicals -- and certainly all Christians -- belong simply with one political party.

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Houston: Your book seems to describe much of the problem that Democrats having with people of faith as one of the professional class of consultants and activists. Despite some of the improvements you note, what more do you see as necessary before this is alleviated and what do you envision the end-state to be in terms of Democrats and people of faith?

Amy Sullivan: I'm glad you raised this point. When people say that "Democrats" don't get religion, they're certainly not talking about the vast majority of Democratic voters (who are religious) or Democratic politicians (who are also mostly religious), but about the professional class of consultants and activists.

That's starting to change for a couple of reasons. For one, the consultants always have insisted that evangelicals and moderate Catholics never would vote for Democrats and therefore should be written off. We saw in the 2006 elections that just wasn't true -- in states like Ohio and Michigan, where Democrats actively engaged religious voters, candidates improved their share of the evangelical and Catholic vote by 10-15 points. Nothing changes the minds of the consultancy class like success!

But more importantly, Democratic politicians have been more willing to condemn their party's recent squeamishness about talking to religious voters.

As for the end-state, I refer to it as a "leveling of the praying field." That means that the Democratic Party shouldn't become the "religious party" any more than the GOP should, but that people of faith should be able to have their voices heard just as any voters, and religion no longer should be a politically-divisive tool for politicians to wield. That's only possible if no party has a monopoly on religion.

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Oakton, Va.: I'm a conservative Republican evangelical, and I've had to deal with some of the same issues. I've concluded that when you get down to it, there is no political platform that is the same thing as the Gospel -- and there can't be. The Bible and political parties deal with different issues, on different levels. But our Christianity certainly should inform how we think about politics. Does this make sense?

Amy Sullivan: I think that's absolutely right. It bothers me when people say Jesus would be a Republican and when people say Jesus would be a Democrat. Religious views can inform an individual's political beliefs, but they don't dictate which party you should support.

When I do interviews on conservative radio, I always get asked how I can be a Christian and vote for politicians who support abortion rights, etc. I always tell them that when I was baptized in my church, no one handed me a list of political positions that I was then obligated to support.

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Jefferson, N.C.: Amy, I've often wondered about the relationship between an "evangelical" and a "fundamentalist" -- i.e. a person who takes the Bible as absolute truth, written by the hand of God. To me the two are the same, in that they tend to be young-Earth creationists who see the world as having been formed less than 10,000 years ago, with all life seeded on the surface soon afterward.

The scientific, rational world has found that the Earth was formed some 4,550,000 years ago. To an Earth scientist, the fundamentalist worldview is so bizarre that it appears to be insane. I find it most difficult to communicate with people who live their lives with such a worldview. For example, the title of your essay implies that there was a person named Jesus, with all the trappings of the fundamentalist Christian faiths, which tells us much about your worldview.

How do you, as a literate individual, reconcile the differences between the fundamentalist worldview and that of the secular world of science and technology? How do you relate to the problems of global climate change and peak oil, both of which appear before us? What do you (and your evangelical friends) think about the idea that there are already too many people living on Earth, and that after peak oil we may no longer be able to feed the present population, let alone add more people, if civilization is to continue?

Amy Sullivan: I'm glad you asked, because "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" are not always -- or even usually -- the same thing. Between 35 percent and 40 percent of American adults are evangelical, but only about 10 percent of Americans are fundamentalist. That means that some evangelicals are biblical literalists and creationists, but not all.

Most Christians, in fact, don't understand why some on both the far left and far right insist that they must choose between their faith and science. Take evolution: As a Christian, I believe in evolution and I believe in the creation story in Genesis. I can hold the two simultaneously, as do most Christians. But when a conservative tells me that means I'm not really a Christian or a liberal tells me I have to choose between "theology and reason," I'm frustrated.

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Woodbridge, Va.: What's your sense about evangelical participation in the election this year? Do you think they'll participate to the extent they did in the most recent election without an evangelical candidate?

Amy Sullivan: The role of evangelical voters in the November elections will be one of the most interesting things to watch this year. We already have seen evangelical party affiliation change in the past three years. In late 2004, 50 percent of evangelicals were registered Republicans; that's now down to 40 percent, driven largely by younger evangelicals who are becoming independents and Democrats. If Barack Obama were the Democratic nominee, there would be good reason to think those younger evangelicals might support the Democratic ticket in November; a recent poll by Relevant magazine (for young evangelicals) found that Obama was the biggest vote-getter among the magazine's readers.

But I wouldn't be surprised to see that some of the 4 million first-time evangelical voters the Bush/Cheney campaign brought to the polls in 2004 decide to stay home and sit out this election. There isn't a lot of enthusiasm for John McCain among religious conservatives and that may be a factor as much as any Democratic outreach to religious voters.

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Fairfax, Va.: While I don't subscribe to equating reaching out with collaborating with Nazis, why should a candidate need to reach out to a religious group? Any belief or ideal that is pertinent to the job as president should be answered in a public discourse. I think any religious group that needs to be specifically addressed in order to gain votes has a fundamental problem.

Amy Sullivan: I'm glad you asked this. Most religious voters are sitting back and waiting to be specifically approached by Republicans or Democrats before they'll support a candidate. But at the same time, it's just not right for a party to completely write-off a whole class of voters. For decades, many Democratic campaigns flat-out have refused to appear before Catholic audiences because they were worried about having to answer questions about abortion. That's 25 percent of the electorate! But beyond being politically inadvisable, it also means that those voters didn't have a chance to be heard -- not just on abortion, but on all the other issues they cared about, from the war to immigration to the death penalty.

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Alexandria, Va.: Thank you for your article. I too am an evangelical Christian who is a liberal Democrat. I too have had to stay in the closet and acknowledge my other liberals with a wink and a nod (or secret handshake). In fact, I was told one time that I could not be a Christian if I were a Democrat. My question is this: In your article you discuss the use of the evangelical label to gain power in the political system. My belief is that their end goal actually was to establish a theocracy by slowly eliminating the separation of church and state -- see statements such as "bring the Constitution in line with the Bible." Can you comment on this?

Amy Sullivan: There have been a number of books and movies in the past few years -- "American Theocracy," "Kingdom Coming," "Jesus Camp" -- that have focused on those religious conservatives who believe the separation of church and state should not exist in the U.S. So they do indeed exist, but they are a fairly small portion of the population and (outside of a few states where they do have a problematic influence) they are not a factor in national politics. Republicans certainly pander to them and bring them in for photo ops, but that's very different from taking actions based on their theology.

And as someone who grew up in the Baptist church, I can tell you that Baptists were the original proponents of the separation between church and state. They understand that it's intended to protect the church from the interference of the state just as much as to protect the state from religious influence.

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Alexandria, Va.: Thanks for doing this discussion! I've already sent the link to the rest of my evangelical friends, who happen to be Democrats. We're a lonely bunch hanging out in the closet together. And I agree, it's generally easier to keep quiet on the matter. My question is: Do you think that Obama (assuming he wins the nomination) will be more open with his faith during the general election?

I chose to vote for him because of two speeches that he gave last year where he was incredibly open with his faith and how it impacts him. The first was the one he gave at Saddleback on World AIDS Day and the second was at the Call to Renewal Conference. My thought/hope is that he's been less open with his faith during the primaries to win over the less-religious side of the party, and then will come out more about it during the general election to win the middle-of-the-roaders. Of course, as a Virginian, I also would do a dance of joy if he brought Tim Kaine on as running mate!

Amy Sullivan: Thanks for spreading the word! Evangelical Democrats need to form a club or support group or something to let people know they exist...

Both Obama and Clinton already have been much more open about their faith than we've seen in most Democratic primary campaigns. Obama, in particular, gave a very interesting speech to the annual convention of the United Church of Christ last summer in which he talked about becoming a Christian as an adult. And, as you note, he's also spoken very movingly at Saddleback and Call to Renewal about faith.

His campaign has a senior advisor who focuses on religion outreach, but it's interesting that Obama -- like Bill Clinton before him -- is so thoughtful a nd knowledgeable about religion that he's almost his own religious liaison. If he does become the nominee, I think you're likely to continue hearing about his faith (and unfortunately, you're also likely to hear untrue attacks about his church in Chicago and suggestions he is a Muslim).

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Rockville, Md.: Sorry, latecomer to the discussion. I wanted to ask a follow-up on the first question defining an "evangelical." If one is to lead a biblically centered life, does your view of the Bible have to be a literal translation? I may try to use the Bible as my main guide, but I have a feeling that my interpretation of certain passages diverges greatly from what most evangelicals would seem to consider correct.

Amy Sullivan: You'll get different answers from different evangelicals on this question, but I don't think that a biblically-centered life requires a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible. As I said earlier, it wasn't until I started learning about mainline Protestant denominations, and the role of church authority in their traditions that I realized my reliance on the Bible (even if I use my own interpretation) is part of what still makes me an evangelical. As a Baptist, I was taught that the core of my faith was my personal relationship with God, which meant that no human could tell me that my relationship or interpretation was wrong. But I've certainly had conservative evangelical who disagreed and tried to save me again anyway...

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Washington: How does Time feel about one of its editors "coming out" as a liberal?

Amy Sullivan: I don't want to speak for any of my higher-ups, but before the book was published we talked about this, and they were comfortable with the fact that I'm equally critical of Democrats and Republicans -- and that my even-handed coverage speaks for itself.

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Kensington, Md.: Just as a practical matter, isn't it a much better strategy for evangelicals to try to work with both parties to win grounds of common agreement on matters such as abortion, rather than simply demonize the Democrats? And isn't it better for the Democrats to reciprocate rather than freeze out party members such as the one from Hendersonville, N.C., above?

The way I see the polls, there are majority-held opinions backing a woman's right to choose and supporting modifications of that right in many circumstances (late-term abortions, etc.). I recognize the natural impulse on both sides of this debate to frame the issue in black-and-white terms, but is this really getting them -- or us -- anywhere?

Amy Sullivan: Absolutely! The biggest argument of my book is that both parties have erred by forcing Americans to choose ill-fitting labels for the purposes of political battle instead of doing the hard work to develop real solutions to difficult problems. As you point out, the majority of Americans believe there should be some restrictions on abortion, but don't want to see it outlawed.

The real divide on a hot-button issue like abortion isn't between those who are "pro-life" or "pro-choice" but between those who support a pragmatic approach to the issue or a purist stance.

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Amy Sullivan: Thank you all for your questions! It has been a pleasure and I apologize to those of you I wasn't able to answer in the hour. Your voices have been heard, and I've been so pleased to see that it is possible to have a civil discussion about religion and politics. I hope that's the real trend in our political life moving forward.

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