Friday, April 20, 2007

Thoughts on Dr. John Green at Akron Roundtable

Dr. Green spoke on what he calls “The Faith Factor” – the interaction of religion and politics. Religion has always played a part in political choices, but the nature of the interaction has changed. Where once people made political decisions more based on group affinity with a particular party, now political decisions are more influenced by the level of religious orthodoxy. It’s all interesting and will be in the podcast on the Roundtable site.

The most interesting bit, from a strategic point of view, was Green’s discussion of religious moderates. In 2004, Bush overwhelmingly won among religious conservatives and Kerry won overwhelmingly among religious liberals and people with no religious affiliation. They just about evenly split religious moderates, with Bush doing just enough better to win. In 2006, Democrats did much better among religious moderates.

Among other things, this puts a recent flaplet about the DNC Easter message in perspective. I don’t know how deep it went, but Rothenberg got pretty lathered up about a message from Chair Howard Dean because it didn’t mention Jesus. The message, as quoted in the piece posted by Rothenberg (penned by Nathan Gonzalez) reads: "Easter Sunday is a joyful celebration. The holiday represents peace, redemption and renewal, a theme which brings hope to people of all faiths." Gonzalez quotes evangelical leader Richard Cizik about how offensive the message was because it talked only about the values celebrated by the holiday, not the Savior.

It’s true that such a message offends religious conservatives. It’s also true that Democrats can’t appeal to religious conservatives without becoming Religious moderates only want assurances that the party won’t be hostile to faith. I believe that part of the reason Strickland won so overwhelmingly was that Blackwell made people nervous. He once mentioned that he was OK with the idea of religious pluralism, but most of his campaign emphasized his highly conservative religious views and those of his immediate supporters.

Religious conservatives, particularly conservative evangelicals, seem to measure friendliness toward religion by a willingness to infuse all of public life with expressions of faith. Liberals and moderates take the opposite view – that religion is most essentially a matter of private conscience, so that friendliness toward faith means simply letting people be. By this measure, the message makes more sense. The best way for Democrats to reach out to the people of faith that can make a difference next November is to emphasize values informed by faith, and let each person hold particular beliefs in God in his or her heart.

This also avoids alienating non-Christians. And most important, it avoids troubling nonreligious people who, anecdotally anyway, appear most at risk of bolting the party for a third party candidate if there is one. (At the same time, the bloc of non-religious voters gives the Dems headaches because they can make the party look hostile to faith -- but that's another post.)

The Rothenberg/Gonzalez objection is basically that the Dems' Easter message wasn’t evangelical. Exactly.