Do the Democrats Have a Prayer Yet?
The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap
by Amy Sullivan
Scribner, Feb. 2008
272 pp., $25
Amy Sullivan has apparently won her argument. Or at least she's no longer the lone voice crying out in the wilderness for Democrats to find God. Four years ago, Sullivan's jeremiad was everywhere. "Until professional Democrats get over their aversion to all things religious, they will continue to suffer the political consequences," she wrote in the Democratic Leadership Council's magazine, Blueprint. Her June 2003 Washington Monthly article, "Do the Democrats Have a Prayer?" was one of the election's most-cited analyses, and Sullivan repeated her call in just about every outlet possible.
Sullivan, an American Baptist who describes herself as an evangelical and a liberal, is now nation editor for Time magazine and author of The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap. She spoke with Christianity Today about her book, the current Democratic candidates, and what she thinks will happen in November.
You begin your book by mapping out the history of the Democratic Party's relationship with evangelicals, highlighting the rise of the secularist revolution and of the Religious Right. Can you talk about the key turning points in the Democratic Party and in evangelicalism that led to the "God Gap"?
One of the turning points was the rising importance of religion as a political factor.
This happened right after Watergate, when people realized they needed to know more about president than just his policy positions. Watergate wasn't a failure of policy, it was a failure of character. Jimmy Carter came along, talked about being born again and promised the nation he would never lie to them. The problem is, religion is only one of many proxies by which you can judge a person's character.
For Republicans, religion became the litmus test not necessarily that you had to be religious, because you have Reagan, who didn't attend church and won the nomination. But he spoke the language to religious people. Democrats reacted the other way. They focused almost exclusively on policy language. Now, polices are almost always informed by values, but those are very rarely articulated by Democrats.
We also saw the change in the political class, among journalists, among political consultants, and among people who ran the campaigns. There was a sense that we were entering a post-religious age and religion would be less salient. You had fragmentation on the Left while you had a coming together on the Right, which kind of knocked things out of balance.
You say that Bill Clinton left the White House as the most overtly religious President the country had ever seen. What's the difference between his integration of religion and politics and the way Hillary Clinton integrates the two?
For Bill Clinton, religion was an organic part of who he was. He grew up in the South and most importantly, he became a political creature in the South, where there isn't the same kind of hesitancy about bringing religion into politics. He hadn't had that trained out of him. He also had the natural language.
One key comparison with Mrs. Clinton is [that while] she talks about being raised Methodist and being a Methodist all her life, she was taught not to put religion on her sleeve. That's such a Methodist way of putting it: to talk about faith would be prideful and boastful about your faith. For Bill Clinton, it's not parading your piety; that's just who you are. He had a language to communicate his faith that she has had to develop.