Three Christian Congressmen examine their party’s purpose and direction.

Democrats, still smarting from their near shutout in last year’s presidential election, are reassessing their party’s future. There is widespread talk of the need for change, with few apologists for the status quo. U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in a recent speech, “We cannot afford to blame the voters. For the critical question is not what they failed to see, but what we failed to show.”

Elected Democratic office holders who also are evangelical Christians have a particular set of concerns they hope to communicate to the party leadership. Three of those office holders agreed to talk with CHRISTIANITY TODAY about how their faith influences their approach to politics.

Congressmen Don Bonker, Tony Hall, and Bill Nelson represent Washington State, Ohio, and Florida respectively. They span a wide range of political opinion, from Nelson’s southern conservatism on defense issues to Hall’s advocacy on behalf of the hungry to Bonker’s liberal outlook on human rights abroad and environmental issues.

Bonker, elected in 1974, chairs a Democratic task force on trade, a bipartisan study group on exports, and a subcommittee on international economic policy. He breaks ranks with traditional liberals on economic matters, noting that welfare programs provide only marginal help.

Hall is from a district encompassing southwest Ohio. He has emphasized human rights abroad and care for the poor at home during his four terms in Congress. Frustrated that a total of eight standing committees have jurisdiction over hunger issues, he fought successfully for the establishment of a select committee on hunger in the House of Representatives.

Nelson represents the Florida district that includes Orlando with its multiple tourist attractions, as well as the Kennedy Space Flight Center with its related high-technology and defense industries. He chairs the House Science and Technology Space Subcommittee. He is the most conservative of the three men interviewed, elected in 1978 as an advocate of more military spending, a balanced federal budget, and strict disclosure laws for political candidates.

How do you assess the shape your party is in today?

Bonker: At the state and local levels, the Democratic party is holding its own. It’s numerically dominant in more states. We do less well at the national level because the perception of our party’s leadership has not been the best. Until we have someone in the White House who can lead effectively and articulate Democratic party positions, we will continue to have problems.

Article continues below

Nelson: The image of the leadership—specifically (Speaker of the House) Thomas “Tip” O’Neill—just doesn’t fit with what America looks for today in a leader. O’Neill’s frame of reference is from another generation and another philosophy. That has made it difficult for Democrats from conservative or moderate districts. Second, the activists in the Democratic party, who basically are left of center, have formed the image of the party. That is not representative of the Democratic party in the South or in much of the Sun Belt.

Bonker: Nor the West.

Hall: Nor in the Midwest.

What about the Democratic party’s underlying political philosophy? Should government promote a common public virtue or simply manage competing interests?

Hall: Government cannot solve all the problems. As Christians, we need to acknowledge that there is nothing more basic in Scripture than what we are to do for the poor, the hungry, the elderly, the widow. It is the second-most talked about theme in the Bible. The Democratic party has always had a reputation of concern for the downtrodden. That is basic to our party, and it ought to be basic to government.

Bonker: Tony’s absolutely correct, but we shouldn’t let those concerns obscure our commitment to realistic and pragmatic leadership that is able to deal effectively with domestic and international problems. The Democratic party has been made up of the “grand coalition”: farmers, small business, labor, various ethnic groups, environmentalists, teachers, senior citizens. We must learn to speak directly to these voters and not filter our message through groups that claim to speak for them. We should not be held hostage by any single group.

Hall: We need to be a party that steps out and says, “This is what we stand for.” I want the Democratic party to be one that is way out in front, not saying, “We’ve got to do this because special interests like it.” We should do it because we think it’s right.

What reasons would you give a Christian in your district for becoming active in the Democratic party?

Nelson: The political stability of this country is built on a strong two-party system. If we start organizing political parties according to ideology, with conservatives in one party and all the liberals in another, what will happen is fragmentation. We’ll have the centrist party, the progressives, the ultra-left, the ultra-right. Each party needs to operate as a broad umbrella, under which all different political philosophies can gather. Therefore, I would tell a person in my district, “We need conservatives and moderates in the Democratic party because we need a viable party, and we will only do so if we can keep it in the mainstream.”

Article continues below

Bonker: Christian involvement is necessary to keep the Democratic leadership accountable to the values, and supportive of the issues that are important to evangelicals. If Christians do all their work in one party, and that party is not in power, they’re not going to have much influence on policy. The Christian community would be much stronger if it were perceived as being more bipartisan.

Hall: The Democratic party includes lots of Christians, lots of Jewish people, lots of poor people, lots of wealthy people. If Christians want to have an impact, they need to be involved in the two-party system. What would be the reason for Christians to join only the Republican party? If they did that, they would be missing out on a large segment of the American people. Christians are to be mindful of the needs of others and have an impact on everyone, not just on one particular group of people.

A common perception left over from the last election is that Republicans generally welcome religious influence in public policy making, while Democrats prefer to keep it out of the public square.

Bonker: My perception is that Washington-based conservative groups have been actively recruiting evangelicals to the GOP based on a political agenda that they find very appealing. I believe that well-intentioned evangelicals are, in this manner, being manipulated politically. These conservative groups have successfully brought about a major political realignment, notably in the Bible-belt South.

Nelson: I’m not offended by religious lobbyists. For a good airing of the issues, we need input on all sides. What concerns me is when groups say their position is God’s position on a host of issues—issues that one would strain to find mentioned in the Bible.

Hall: The only person on the campaign trail last year who talked about Jesus Christ was Jesse Jackson. He had great courage in talking about the issues and in the same breath talking about Jesus. Democrats for the most part did not try to distance themselves from him.

Many evangelical voters were influenced in the last national election by the parties’ positions on moral issues, including abortion and gay rights. Are these issues going to be reassessed by Democrats?

Bonker: The Democrats have not handled the abortion issue well at all. We are concerned about many issues, of which abortion is one. There is no consensus in either party on the abortion issue, but the Republicans by and large are on the right side according to evangelicals. Regrettably, the Democrats come up short on questions of personal morality. There are important moral and religious issues, but I think people who have only abortion or pornography on their political agenda ignore much about what the Bible says our priorities ought to be.

Article continues below

Nelson: It is very important to me that the Democrats be perceived to be what the majority of Democrats are in this country, and that is people who favor a strong national defense, people who are God fearing, people who want prayer in their homes and generally want prayer in public schools. The way we have to change that is to change the perception of the national Democratic party.

Hall: The danger is that the Democratic party might think it has to capture the high ground morally just for the sake of its image. We should be more concerned with doing what is moral rather than trying to appear moral. If we believe that something is absolutely right, we should not be afraid to take a stand, regardless of what our polls show.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.