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.

What a difference four years makes. Religion has been a major presence in the 2008 presidential campaigns, and Democratic Party officials promise it will play a significant role at the convention.

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.

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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.

On the other hand, she has an advantage he didn't, at least at the beginning. Once Clinton got into the White House, he recognized that the people who were in charge of his outreach had the traditional Democratic unfamiliarity. When they would set up a faith breakfast, they would invite religious liberals. He really learned quickly that he had to supplement that himself. He eventually hired some religious liaisons and would insist on reviewing invitation lists himself and pencil in names of people who were left off.

Hillary, from the beginning of her campaign, has had a religious team led by Burns Strider. Burns is somebody who absolutely knows the language, but more importantly, knows the players and knows the constituencies, how you talk to them and how you appeal to them. That gives her a head start from where her husband was.

Like many others writing about the 2008 campaign, you note that evangelicals are broadening their concerns to include the environment, the Iraq war, poverty, and AIDS. But most evangelicals are still pro-life and concerned about policies on homosexuality. When voters reach the booth, do you believe, for instance, that an environmental policy will trump a pro-choice stance?

I think the result of the broadening of the evangelical agenda is that it really gives evangelicals more options in terms of the political parties they can support. Younger evangelicals are still very strongly pro-life, but they aren't prioritizing abortion as the issue that drives their votes the same way older evangelicals are.

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They are in a better position to hold both parties accountable. For the Democrats, they can say, "We want to reduce the abortion rate." For the Republicans, "We care about poverty and the environment, and we're not excited about the war."

How would you respond to evangelicals who may be skeptical about religious outreach from either party because they believe the parties are simply pandering to another constituency?

I don't hear those concerns from people who have actually sat down and talked with Democrats who are doing that outreach. There's a legitimate concern that evangelicals have no interest in being taken advantage of by any party. It's really just a matter of Democrats showing some respect. They don't need to go into meetings thinking they're going to change minds. They need to be willing to say, "We're here to just listen to what's on your mind; we're all operating from a position of good faith."

Has there been any backlash from within the Democratic Party against this religious outreach? Is it just one more form of identity politics?

It was thought that evangelical voters wouldn't vote for Democrats in a million years, so why would you waste your time talking to them?

But in Michigan and Ohio [in 2006] there were two pro-choice, both pro-gay rights [gubernatorial] candidates who spent a year sitting down, really doing these "get to know you" meetings, and they were able to get almost 50 percent of the evangelical vote in their states. They had success, not by moving their policies, but by being willing to listen, engaging religious voters, and working on ways to reduce the abortion rate. Now that it's been a few years, there is a better sense of what religious outreach is, and you see a lot less opposition within the Democratic Party.

You write about the June 2007 Sojourners Forum, where Sen. Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama, and John Edwards spoke about their faith. We also know that Clinton and Obama launched faith forums in various states back in the fall. However, I haven't seen much evidence of religious outreach recently. As the Democrats are desperately grabbing constituents within their own party, has it distracted them from focusing on the evangelical outreach since the primaries began?

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It's not getting covered by the media. The weekend before the Texas primary, Bill Clinton was down at Joel Osteen's church. He's the only President to go to Osteen's church, and that sends a message. That same weekend, Obama met with over 200 Hispanic evangelicals where he gave an open speech about his faith and the role of religion in public life. It was probably one of the most detailed speeches on religion, other than Mitt Romney's speech, that we've seen in this campaign.

The reality of the last two months of campaigning is that both Democratic candidates have very little time to focus on individual constituencies. It's been a much more large-scale effort to shape the image of their campaigns.

We know that Clinton hired Strider and Barack Obama hired Joshua DuBois to do religious outreach. Are they really as integral to the campaigns as others suggest?

There's no way to compare them to the surface treatment Democrats have given religion in the past. Mara [Vanderslice] was hired so that when someone called and said, 'Do you have someone reaching out to religious voters?' the Kerry campaign could say yes. There's no question that Joshua and Burns have direct lines to the candidates, and that has not happened before.

We have seen Obama speak openly about his faith, especially with his most recent remarks on his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. We've also heard from Clinton about her Methodist background and her reluctance to wear her faith on her sleeve. Can you compare their religious backgrounds, personalities, and outreach?

Joshua has been doing more faith forums in different communities and Burns has been really targeting religious leaders. At the end of the day, it's two halves of the same strategy.

Obama has talked more about his faith, and in part it's been in response to these really vicious attacks claiming that he's a secret Muslim or trying to tie him to the statements of his pastor. He's had more of a reason to be proactive about his faith. We saw Obama speak at Ebenezer Baptist church. I cannot name another year in which a Democrat has spoken about faith in this way in a primary season.

You argue that the Democrats need to shift their language. For example, you say that Democrats need to emphasize abortion reduction. Have the two Democrats used this kind of language or do they still need to alter it?

That's been one area of disappointment. It's hard to tell how much of it is intentional. There's still a sense that you do not win a Democratic primary by backing away from Democratic orthodoxy on abortion. They could try to reach common ground on ways to reduce abortion rates, but neither of them has talked about this in the primary. It leaves them open to questions in the general election.

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If you were running the campaigns, what else would you suggest they do to attract evangelical voters?

I really think that this year, evangelicals are not going to be that different from non-evangelical voters. We have so many real, serious problems that need to be addressed — the economy, war in Iraq, health care. I don't think that most voters have religious issues or social issues at the forefront of their minds in this campaign.

So long as someone like Obama or Clinton can meet the threshold, which is to say they can communicate their moral foundation and their personal faith, and also demonstrate their campaigns are completely open to evangelical and Catholic voters, voters will be very happy to make their choices on other issues instead of just religion.

We haven't seen the exit polls ask Democrats whether they are evangelical the same way they ask Republicans, so is there any indication that Clinton's and Obama's efforts are working?

In the 2004 election, about 50 percent of evangelicals were registered Republican. Now 40 percent of evangelicals are Republican. We're seeing more Independent registration than Democratic registration, but they're moving away from Republicans.

Looking forward to November, what challenges will the Democrats face once a nominee is chosen?

One of the problems Democrats have had in the past is thinking of evangelicals as a different species that they couldn't communicate with. But we know that many evangelicals, even conservative evangelicals, can and do take liberal stances on things like universal health care, environmental policies, and using negotiation as a first step instead of military action.

The question for many evangelicals is whether to vote for the Republican Party, which has done very little for abortion reduction. Is abortion going to trump all the other issues? My theory is that evangelicals are going to be more in play, more willing to consider the Democratic Party as a viable option than in the past.

Can you talk about your faith experience and how you became a Democrat?

I've been a Democrat my entire life and I've been an evangelical for 24 years now, essentially my whole life. The two have always been very closely related. Yet I often hear from people on the Left and the Right — how can you be a Democrat and an evangelical?

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I'm a Democrat because of my faith, not in spite of it. It's been one of the things that has guided my political development, particularly the imperative to care for the most vulnerable in our society. I know there are really genuine disagreements between people of good faith, not whether we should care for the poor, but who should do that, the government or the private sector. It's been clear to me that the scope of what we face is too large for individuals to tackle on their own. As a good Baptist, I was taught that we are all flawed because we are human. Humans are inherently sinful and if you leave it up to individuals to give their money to others, in many cases, they will not.

What concerns me, as a person of faith, is to see the term evangelical treated as a political label. It's a theological label. Certainly, the book was meant as an explanation of how we got to this point, where people conflated evangelicalism with political conservatism. I bought into this for a good long time when my Baptist church became pretty overtly political around the time I was in high school. I stopped thinking of myself as an evangelical because, well, I'm not a political conservative, so therefore I must not be an evangelical.

I place a good deal of blame on myself and people like myself who remained silent. We didn't stand up and witness and provide a very visible, very vocal example of what it's like to be evangelical and not be conservative. I was deathly shy as a child, but what I have learned is, I need to go into Democrat circles, call myself an evangelical, and put up with the questions that come with it to get beyond the caricature of evangelicals and explain who we really are.

Related Elsewhere:

The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap is available from and other book retailers. Time, Scriber, and Beliefnet offer excerpts.

The Washington Monthly, The New York Times, The Hartford Courant, and Politico reviewed the book. She was interviewed by and readers.

Our other articles on Election 2008 are in our special section. Liveblog also has news and commentary on the candidates.

Other coverage of Democrats' religious outreach includes:

The Megachurch Primaries | How the leading Democratic candidates are trying to win evangelical votes. (Christianity Today)
Closing the God Gap | How a pair of Democratic strategists are helping candidates talk about their faith. (Hanna Rosin, The Atlantic Monthly)
Democrats seek to close the 'God Gap' | The 2004 election gave the Democrats a serious wake-up call. (BBC)