As voters in Oklahoma and South Carolina prepare for presidential primaries on February 3, they're likely to hear more from Democrats about faith, God, and morality.

Pollsters and political analysts say that Al Gore might have won the Electoral College in 2000 if he had pursued the votes of "swing evangelicals" in West Virginia, Tennessee, and Florida. Early polls show that the November 2004 presidential reelection bid by President George W. Bush could be similarly close.

Democrats are worried that an increasingly religious public sees their party as opposing God and moral values. "I think we've made a mistake by not putting our values up front," Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) said. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) told The New York Times he is angry that "Republicans seem to suggest they have a monopoly on values in public life. They don't. We don't either, but we care about values, including faith-based values."

Republicans say Democrats are late in learning the importance of faith and morals. "Most evangelicals have been active in politics since the 1970s and are keen on distinguishing rhetoric from reality," said a senior Republican campaign adviser in Washington. "Values language has become a cliché itself, a high art in politics."

Despite some cordial overtures from Democratic presidential contenders Joe Lieberman and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Democrats "are generally in a fog" about relating to evangelicals, said Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Democrats' efforts to change their image have led to some awkward moments, even from veteran politicians familiar with church life. Campaigning in Marshalltown, Iowa, for instance, Gephardt, a Baptist, said that Jesus "was a Democrat, I think." Gephardt acknowledged "some reticence" about discussing religion during the campaign.

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean has tangled himself into knots over how to reach religious voters. On an early December morning, he was in the pivotal February primary state of South Carolina speaking of Scripture and Jesus to a sparsely attended African American church service. But by midmorning he said on Fox News Sunday that he didn't want to talk about "guns, God, gays, abortion, and all this controversial social stuff."

According to a November 2003 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll, 87 percent of U.S. voters say religion is important to them. Among moderate to conservative Democrats, 82 percent said that "we all will be called before God at the Judgment Day to answer for our sins." According to another Pew poll in 2000, 70 percent of Americans—roughly the same for Democrats and Republicans—want the President to be a person of faith.

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Primary colors

The famous red and blue maps showing how each county voted in the 2000 elections also reflect the distribution of religious and nonreligious voters. "If you went to church regularly, you went overwhelmingly Republican," said Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council. "If you never went to church, you went pretty much overwhelmingly Democratic."

In the 2000 election, Bush won 61 percent among voters who said they attend religious services more than once a week. The Gallup Poll Tuesday Briefing says its survey, taken November 10-12—one year before the general election—uncovered what could be a decisive swing toward Bush among registered voters who say religion is extremely or very important to their vote. While such voters were about evenly split between Gore and Bush in August 2000, they have tacked strongly toward the President. Bush won their support 67 percent to 30 percent over Dean, 65 percent to 33 percent over Gephardt, and 65 percent to 33 percent over Wesley Clark. Said political analyst Michael Barone, "Americans increasingly vote as they pray, or don't pray."

Nevertheless, some evangelicals might swing back to the Democrats. John Green of the University of Akron, who follows evangelicals' political activities, said about 40 percent of self-identified evangelicals are less committed to church attendance and the evangelical subculture. "Swing evangelicals" are bothered by the rhetorical style of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. They are prolife, but not decisively so. They are mostly white, live in suburbs in the South, Midwest, and Northwest, attend megachurches, and send their children to public schools.

Green said swing evangelicals helped elect Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. By 2000, however, 55 percent of swing evangelicals voted for Bush.

"Democrats have trouble with people of faith," Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), told CT. Pryor counts his voters among swing evangelicals. He prays and reads the Bible with his children daily. "It is important to me that people know I am a man of Christian faith," he said.

Pryor cites his campaign in 2002, amid sweeping Republican victories across the country, as a way for Democrats to regain evangelical voters. When a politician thinks about moral issues, Pryor says, "Silence is not golden."

In preparing for his campaign, Pryor invited a political consultant, Karl Struble, to identify his strengths and weaknesses as a candidate. Struble told him, "Mark, I never want you to give a speech in Arkansas without quoting the Bible, okay?"

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Pryor knew his faith would be attractive to his fellow Arkansans, he said, because "67 percent of them are out to church every Sunday."

Longtime political activist Amy Sherman, the daughter of evangelical Baptists who supported President John F. Kennedy, has launched a drive to reinvigorate faith among Democrats. "To become America's majority party again," she told an audience of state and local politicians, "the Democrats will have to get religion."

Blueprint for reconnecting

Sherman and like-minded Democrats are crafting a blueprint for reconnecting their party to swing evangelicals. The blueprint emphasizes Democrats' support for environmental stewardship, AIDS treatment, faith-based social service initiatives, and equal legal protection for evangelicals. It also argues that President Bush has failed to live up to his evangelical language, and blasts his association with Religious Right "jihadists."

Democrats interviewed by CT mentioned their sympathy for the recent "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign by the Evangelical Environmental Network. Some candidates, such as Lieberman, are known for their stands against pornography and violence. Democrats also plan to follow up a Mark Penn poll from last summer that showed potential support from evangelicals who want guns out of criminals' hands.

These Democrats hope their efforts will at least decrease evangelical support for Bush in this election year. Karl Rove, Bush's chief campaign adviser, told a Washington audience last spring that at least 4 million fewer evangelicals voted in 2000 than in previous years.

But even faith-minded Democrats seem to have trouble understanding evangelicals. Their discussions often conflate statistics on "religiously committed" people with those on evangelicals. Sherman says liberal Episcopal bishop John Chane's advocacy for social justice is seen as an example of appealing to swing evangelicals.

Several Democrats say that polarizing language turns off swing evangelicals, but they also demonize Falwell, Robertson, and Republicans as intolerant and extremist. Will setting evangelical against evangelical work as a wedge issue?

"Absent authenticity, everything else is simply a contrivance that won't work," said Cizik of the NAE. "Democrats have to be able to demonstrate a personal spiritual reality that isn't contrived."

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Related Elsewhere:

Other Christianity Today articles on Politics & Law include:

One Nation Under God—Sort of | We've got bigger problems than the Pledge of Allegiance. (Jan. 07, 2004)
The Twelfth of Never | Bush administration drastically lowers goals for faith-based initiative. (Dec. 22, 2003)
'A Man and a Woman' | Activists say the Federal Marriage Amendment will be the defining issue in the next election. (Nov. 24, 2003)
The Unflappable Condi Rice | Why the world's most powerful woman asks God for help. (Aug. 22, 2003)
Religious Conservatives, Stalemated Despite Friends in High Office, Rethink Strategy | Supreme Court's sodomy decision causes fresh soul searching on effectiveness. (July 16, 2003)
Faith-Based Lite | Administration still seeks 'revolutionary' change. (May 14, 2003)
The Bush Doctrine | The moral vision that launched the Iraq war has been quietly growing in the president's inner circle. (April 25, 2003)
Charitable-choice Battle Brewing | Jewish group sues over Americorps support for religious groups. (Feb. 26, 2003)
Hispanic Swing Vote Potentially Volatile | But overwhelming support for prayer in schools, vouchers, and charitable choice didn't translate into support for Bush over Gore. (Feb. 14, 2003)

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