by Mark Silk
On September 26, the
Democratic presidential debate in Hanover, N.H. was almost over when
moderator Tim Russert squeezed in a quickie.
“Before we go, there’s been a lot of discussion about the Democrats and the
issue of faith and values. I want to ask you a simple question. Senator
Obama, what is your favorite Bible verse?”
The junior senator from Illinois came out with “The Sermon on the Mount”
(109 verses worth, from Matthew 7-9)—“because it expresses a basic principle
that I think we’ve lost over the last six years.”
Russert then gave each of the other hopefuls 10 seconds to name their own.
These ranged from Sen. Hillary Clinton’s “The Golden Rule” (Luke 6:31—“do
unto others…”) to Sen. Joe Biden’s “Christ’s warning of the Pharisees”
(presumably Matthew 23:27—“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees,
day, the answers were vetted by New York Timesman Jeff Zeleny in the
Times’ national political blog, Caucus. “A quick check of an on-line
Bible passage search found that several of the answers cannot be found in
the Bible at all,” Zeleny sniffed. Foremost among these was Rep. Dennis
Kucinich’s citation of “this prayer of Saint Francis, which says, ‘Lord,
make me an instrument of your peace.’” No one, however, turned out to have
committed an error as egregious as Howard Dean’s placement of the Book of
Job in the New Testament during his run for the Democratic nomination four
Welcome to Election Cycle 2008, when the Democrats got religion—and the
media decided to make sure they had it.
was “in part because they let themselves be portrayed as anti-God” that
Democrats lost the past two presidential elections, Biden told Nashua, N.H.
Rotarians August 13, according to Holly Ramer’s AP dispatch. But in part,
the Dems had brought it upon themselves—by being “too afraid to talk about
Having had it pounded into them that Republicans get the lion’s share of the
votes of the nation’s most frequent churchgoers, the Democrats have started
June 4, in a forum organized by the liberal evangelical journal
Sojourners and broadcast on CNN and YouTube, the top three Democratic
candidates—Clinton, Obama, and Edwards—all subjected themselves to a
grilling on their spiritual sides by a panel moderated by Soledad O’Brien.
(The second tier got some faith-based play too, in the form of brief
interviews with Paula Zahn.) Later that month, when Obama showed up in
Hartford to address a convention of his co-religionists in the United Church
of Christ, there was no shortage of media attention.
Over at Democratic National Committee headquarters, they are staffed up with
people who know their way around a prayer book. There’s a Faith in Action
initiative, created after the 2004 election, that has cranked out 150
workers to do religious outreach.
The CEO for the Democratic National Convention is Leah Daughtry, an ordained
Pentecostal minister who pastors the House of the Lord Church in Washington.
Daughtry, Chuck Plunkett of the Denver Post reported June 17,
presides over a “faith council” whose job it is to reach out to a wide range
of religious leaders.
The aforementioned Dean, the Party chair, makes a point of meeting privately
with clergy on his travels around the country—including even the likes of
Richard Land, chief politico for the Southern Baptist Convention. “In the
past, we’ve come off as dismissive to evangelicals,” Dean told Newsweek
in an October 1 article by Eve Conant. “But our party has become much
more comfortable talking about faith and values.”
The beefy Clinton and Obama campaigns each have an official in charge of
religion as well as state “Faith Steering Committees” to foster connections
with religious folks. In September, Obama’s Illinois committee conducted a
10-day “faith tour,” featuring a “What’s faith got to do with it?” forum at
But the sine qua non for connecting with religious voters is for the
candidates themselves to have a good faith story of their own to tell. This
is the latest version of the traditional requirement that an American
politician who would be president put out a plausible biographical narrative
of moral growth and development—one that ideally turns on a moment of crisis
would probably not like to hear it, the Democrats’ current model in this
genre of self-presentation is George W. Bush, who established his
evangelical bona fides in 2000 by letting the world in on his religious
rebirth. His was the old story of the drunk transformed into a good family
man and successful breadwinner by accepting Jesus as his personal Lord and
Savior. It came complete, as it must to all presidents since Eisenhower,
with a close encounter with the Rev. Billy Graham.
Hillary Clinton’s faith journey looks like the distaff side of the Bush
story. Not that she had to jumpstart a religious identity in the middle of
the journey. Her lifelong Methodist commitment has been well attested, even
in the often backsliding college years, when, as a student at Wellesley, she
showed up regularly at a student group run by the college chaplain. As first
lady of Arkansas, she and daughter Chelsea attended First United Methodist
Church in Little Rock.
But the problem, if problem it be, was that her pre-White House religiosity
seemed more to have to do with changing the world than the soul. As Michael
Luo put it in a July 7 New York Times article on Clinton’s religion,
“The liberal-leaning brand of Methodism that Mrs. Clinton is steeped in
places a premium on social activism but tends to be reticent about
discussing personal piety.”
Then, however, came the public catastrophe of her philandering husband’s
dalliance with a White House intern. To Luo she spoke of “turning to
Christian writers for solace after her husband’s infidelity.” The Lewinsky
crisis precipitated her own encounter with Billy Graham, who helped her with
“the issue of forgiveness,” according to what she told Time’s Michael
Duffy and Nancy Gibbs for their forthcoming book, The Preacher and the
“On the campaign trail or in other public appearances,” Luo wrote, “she
increasingly is speaking more personally about faith sprinkling in
references to inspiring biblical verses…, Jesus’ injunction to care for the
needy and even her daily prayer life, which she credits to being raised in a
Barack Obama’s faith journey centers on conversion as a search for identity.
His father was a Muslim turned atheist; his mother, a spiritually inclusive
anthropologist who had little personal use for organized religion. Obama
himself grew up a skeptic. But working as a community organizer in Chicago
in the 1980s, he found himself continually on the receiving end of the
question, “What church do you belong to.”
due course, he found his way to Trinity United Church of Christ, led by the
dynamic minister Jeremiah Wright. Obama has described his spiritual
awakening in both his autobiographical books, Dreams from My Father
(1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006).
the latter, he wrote, “The questions I had did not magically disappear. But
kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s
spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to
discovering His Truth.”
The only fly in this ointment was that Wright’s radical politics threatened
to become a problem for Obama, and distance had to be put between the
two—such as by disinviting him from giving the invocation at Obama’s
Rounding out the top three Democratic candidates is John Edwards, a born
North Carolina Baptist turned Methodist, who seemed to lose contact with
religion during his career as an immensely successful trial attorney. In his
case, the spiritual return had to do with the death of his son Wade in 1996.
“The days after that, when I was trying to survive and Elizabeth was trying
to survive, my faith came roaring back and has stayed with me since that
time and helped me deal with the personal challenges we have,” Edwards said
in an interview on the religious
earlier this year. He went on to say that his faith had helped sustain him
through the strains imposed on his family by his political career and his
wife’s breast cancer.
None of the above is meant to impugn the sincerity of the three candidates’
religious convictions. But as reporter after reporter has noted, all three
have put religion forward on the stump in a way they never did before.
Never—even on the GOP side—have competing faith journeys played such a role
in American presidential politics.
it all working?
There’s some survey evidence to suggest that Americans are a bit more likely
than they were a couple of years ago to think that Democrats are
religion-friendly. But surveys showing a greater inclination on the part of
the more religious to vote Democratic—notably younger evangelicals—may say
more about their concerns about health care and Iraq, and their
disillusionment with the GOP, than about any new Democratic imagery.
Nor is it clear—at least at this writing—that the candidates’ religious
personae are getting through. A Time magazine poll released in
September found that only 16 percent see Clinton as strongly religious, as
opposed to 24 percent for Obama and 28 percent for Edwards. Given the
religious pitches that all three have made, this may reflect little more
than a widespread assumption that white Southerners and African Americans
are likely to have religion.
But there’s no question that something new is happening out there in media
land. After the CNN debate, the Christian Broadcasting Network’s chief
political correspondent David Brody blogged that he was
“For the next hour I sat in my seat in awe. There was conservative Christian
‘red meat’ everywhere….I mean,
I was waiting for
Soledad O’Brien to pull a ‘Mission Impossible’ move, take off her face mask
and reveal…James Dobson!”