Democrats Talk Faith on Capitol Hill
Not long ago, many Democrats stumbled when talking about faith. While Republicans embraced Biblical language, built grassroots networks with influential pastors and took faith outreach to unprecedented levels during the 2004 election, Democrats largely failed to articulate moral convictions in a way that resonated with religious voters.
This storyline has changed over the last few years, as chronicled by Time magazine’s Amy Sullivan, whose 2008 book The Party Faithful shows how Democrats are learning to connect with voters by articulating their values and identifying common concerns rather than relying simply on wonky policy arguments. Over the last few years, we’ve seen the Democrats recruit candidates more comfortable with religious appeals, endorse common-ground efforts to reduce abortion and recognize that ceding the values debate to the Christian right makes for both bad policy and bad politics.
Today on Capitol Hill, ten Democratic senators – including Debbie Stabenow, Sherrod Brown, Dick Durbin, Amy Klobuchar and Sheldon Whitehouse – fielded questions from religion reporters as part of an hour-long roundtable discussion organized by the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee. The wide-ranging forum included observations about how faith-based organizations impact legislative debates and the personal struggles Members of Congress face when they publicly disagree with Church leaders.
Sen. Stabenow, who chaired the meeting, acknowledged that without the tireless advocacy of many faith-based groups health care reform would have fizzled. On difficult issues such as abortion, she said, Democrats are seeking common ground across ideological lines even as they emphasis a broad social justice agenda. “It’s very easy to stereotype issues and narrowly define them,” Stabenow said. “But there is a broadly shared set of values.”
Sen. Durbin, a Catholic, acknowledged his personal disagreement with aspects of Catholic teaching, and also lamented the Catholic bishops’ opposition to the final health care bill. He praised the work of Catholic sisters who supported reform. “I struggle with my Church on many issues,” he said. “For me it comes down to conscience. It’s not about dogma…My Church teaches it’s wrong to give out condoms in Africa. I can’t explain or justify this.” This prompted Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Lutheran, to reflect on his support for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s recent vote to allow gay ministers. He also added a word of praise for the Catholic Church. “There is no one who has done more for economic justice in the world than the Catholic Church,” Brown said.
It’s clear that Democrats have made strides in talking about faith. They still have work to do. The meeting opened with a full-throated defense of the Democrats’ economic policies (complete with a detailed graph on display) that sounded more like the day’s standard talking points than the values message the Senators came to discuss. Ten minutes into the presentation, religion reporters’ eyes were glazing over until someone finally mentioned the words faith and values.