Of the many reasons cited for the Election Day "shellacking" administered by Republicans to President Obama and the Democrats, perhaps none is as puzzling to political analysts -- or as maddening to religious progressives who put so much faith and work into Obama's success -- than the Democrats' failure to mobilize the Religious Left and reach out to conservative believers.
To be sure, little was going the Democrats' way this fall, and it would have taken something on the order of an Old Testament miracle -- say, the sun standing still until employment numbers improved -- to forestall serious midterm losses last week.
But the reality is that after making great strides since 2004 in mobilizing religious progressives and convincing some Republican-leaning evangelical and Catholic churchgoers that they could safely vote Democratic, the party punted on faith-based outreach after the 2008 vote. It came back to haunt them this year as religious voters abandoned Democrats at a rate higher than that of the rest of the electorate and many of the religious progressives who turned out in force in 2008 stayed home.
"Unfortunately, once Democrats took power, instead of building on our success, we went back to the political strategies that had failed us in the past," Eric Sapp, a partner at Eleison Group, a consulting firm that worked on religious outreach for dozens of Democratic campaigns in 2006 and 2008, wrote in a post-mortem
at The Huffington Post. "Funding and staff were routed away from faith and values work and directly almost exclusively into base turnout. And the results were disastrous."
Exactly who lost the "God vote" is becoming a matter of some dispute within Democratic circles, and whether this schism widens or heals could make a key difference in 2012 as well.
Some point to the administration, and wonder how a party led by a committed Christian who is as religiously fluent as Barack Obama could allow itself to be outflanked on faith outreach.
"I do think the administration has spent too much time crafting the image of a faith-based-initiatives office palatable to liberals and has forgotten faith-based politics, which helped bring Obama into office," said a Catholic consultant and longtime supporter of the president.
Eric Sapp noted that after 2008, many of the religious progressives who had led faith-based outreach for the Obama campaign and Democrats in previous election cycles went to work for the administration, such as Joshua DuBois, who now heads the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and Mara Vanderslice, who started a Democratic faith consulting firm with Sapp after the 2004 election. The talent pool among progressive religious activists was not deep enough to easily absorb such losses.
"[T]hey have been doing good work and pushing the political side to not drop the ball on faith," Sapp told me, referring to DuBois and Vanderslice and others.
"But their new jobs prevent them from being political while the campaign committees in charge of the politics were generally ambivalent or against this work. To me the problem was that the staff who were brought in to call the shots on the political side after '08 didn't get faith or know how to do it right . . .and believed that focusing exclusively on base Obama voters in races that were almost entirely in districts Obama had not won in '08 would somehow be a winning strategy."
It wasn't a winning strategy, however, and some point a finger at the Democratic National Committee under the leadership of Tim Kaine.
In 2009, Kaine succeeded Howard Dean, who after the debacle of 2004 realized the party needed operatives who understood faith groups, and hired them. Kaine, a former Virginia governor and a practicing Catholic who took a year off from law school to work with the Jesuits in Honduras, would, like Obama, seem to be a natural at religious outreach. Yet under Kaine, the DNC did not put money where its faith was.
Burns Strider, who helped spearhead Democratic faith outreach in 2006 and 2008 and was hired by the party to help with faith outreach this year -- but didn't get rolling until August, which was far too late to make a real difference -- told CNN
that Democrats put substantially fewer resources and effort into faith-based work this year than in any election since 2004.
"It's been a real challenge organizing at the level of what was done in the last couple of cycles in faith constituencies because of a smaller staff and a small overall commitment," Strider said.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse rejected suggestions that the party did not do sufficient faith-based campaigning.
"To suggest that any one component of our election plan could have had a material effect in changing the outcome of Tuesday elections represents a fundamentally flawed analysis of what occurred," Woodhouse told CNN.
Some critics do argue that it wasn't just a failure in the Democratic political operation that led to the defection of so many faith-based voters on Election Day. Rather, they say, it was also a failure to shape a narrative in which the biblical values of social justice preached by Democrats would resonate with the economic anxieties that were driving voter decisions.
Instead, Christian conservatives had the field to themselves, framing the faith-based solution to economic problems as one that promoted the "biblical virtues" of less government, lower taxes, and reduced spending. "Social justice" was the slippery slope to Nazism or Communism, in Glenn Beck's catechism. And that populist theology blended perfectly with the tea party zeitgeist of the campaign, and inevitably carried the day for the GOP.
"It's a lot deeper than outreach," the Rev. Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical who is close to Democratic leaders, told Religion News Service
. "They haven't connected with many Americans in terms of their daily lives and values. As Proverbs says, 'Where there is no vision, the people perish.' And people are perishing."
Whether the Democrats' political fortune will perish along with them may depend on whether the party gets religion -- again.