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Did the Democrats' Loss of Faith Lose Them the House?

4 years ago
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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.

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As a democrat we can not believe in something where rules keep us from doing the things that must be done for human survival. Write a new book and we as a party can consider it.

November 18 2010 at 7:36 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

IT has been amusing for the last week or so listening to the left trying to figure out what went wrong and how they lost seats in the House and over 600 seats in local legislatures. Didn't we communicate?? Was it the religious right?? Did the young stay home?? Were there women who swung to the other side?? They still don't get IT so its useless to discuss the election anymore. Even with the least experienced people in politics getting elected they can't figure it out. Time to throw out your copy of Alinsky the American people have rejected him.

November 09 2010 at 8:13 PM Report abuse +13 rate up rate down Reply
Rob & Kathy

No, their arrogance and indifference displayed toward the American people did...

November 09 2010 at 8:12 PM Report abuse +12 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Rob & Kathy's comment

They forgot who elected them to office and why. They are their to represent us. That means they listen to the people and not take it upon themselves to dictate what is good for us and what isn't. They forgot it is we the people that tell them what we want and do not want. Last week will be repeated until someone learns to listen.

November 09 2010 at 9:06 PM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply

David Gibson's article follows a delusional, er... wishful philosophical tangent which likes to assume that the Progressive Left occupies an admirable and viable niche in the American political spectrum. It does not. Opine all you want; the majority of Americans simply don't want a Socialist State. Period. But, while the Progressives wistfully yearn for the U.S. to become "more European", Europe is now shouting their collective warning to us that Socialism does not work! And when middle America realized it had been duped by the smoothest of Politicians in 2008 and saw its government openly and unabashedly usurped right along with the banks and auto makers, it amassed a counter-revolution that now runs extremely deep, all the way from Congress right down to the very core of local political office, i.e., a massive right turn at ALL levels of government. The Senate outcome merely means that Republicans, too, must be controlled and counter-balanced. Judging by the historic depth of this Republican win, a mandate HAS most certainly been given. And it's not that Conservatives now rule; it's that SOCIALISM will NOT BE ALLOWED to rule! Of course, that's far too simplistic to be tolerated at the Progressive Brain Trust..., but who cares. Socialism, Mr. Gibson, is the only religion Progressives have ever preached. And America is not converting.

November 09 2010 at 8:12 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply

As a well-known practicing Christian, President Obama will have a unique opportunity to call out the persecution and abuse of Christians in Indonesia. Will he make a stand for human rights? Stay tuned...

November 09 2010 at 7:10 PM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply

Politicians have been for too many years trying to TELL me what I need and not listening to what I WANT!!

November 09 2010 at 6:18 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

The whole answer to this last election was the politicians in office did not listen to those that placed them in office to represent not dictate.

November 09 2010 at 6:17 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

As a lifelong Democrat, I did not see any difference between Pelosi and Gingrich..arrogant, power hungry and failing to unite and work with the other party..Truth is Dems rammed most of the laws and failed to do what they were sent there to accomplish.. end the war..balance the budget . create jobs..undo the W's spiral .. instead it was just more of the same.. bartender, another round.. Got our asses kicked and deservedly so..Next round in 2012, we better we ready..

November 09 2010 at 4:24 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

I am utterly amazed at the elderly, already on Medicare and Social Security, who decry the socialist movement of this country. There definitely should be a "means testing" for the wealthy retirees who should pick up more of their health care costs. This group will scream like "stuck pigs" once they realize that Boehner, McConnell, Cantor, and Rand Paul have already touched this third rail. But then the elderly area a convenient target, aren't they?

November 09 2010 at 2:02 PM Report abuse -10 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to zoedantin's comment

obamacare takes 600 million out of funds we paid for all our lives for medicare. this is to pay for the increase in medicaid... i don't know about you, but this is stealing from our seniors. aarp is a joke because they support will be like england, with with a priority list.. the more productive years you have left puts you at the top of the list for surgery etc. wake up seniors......they steal our funds and put us at the bottom of the list.

November 11 2010 at 6:39 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Nos, that is 600 BILLION out of Medicare, not 600 million. Yes, Billion with a B.

November 13 2010 at 2:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Demos lost the election of '10 because of Tarp? I don't believe it. Republicans are corrupt maybe, but the demos are the class of corruption. Republicans thwarted the demos and Broncobama? I don't see the evidence of that. demos controlled the office of the President, both houses of Congress by large majorities. The demos were strong enough to get anything they wanted with out Republican support. demos, ask the Independents and moderates, who changed their support, why the demos lost. Fyi tarp was signed into law in October of '08 by the President, and Broncobama was still a US Senator. This article is about religion in politics, in this election religion was kept out of the election. Be happy.

November 09 2010 at 1:28 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to onebrainless's comment

Guess you didn't watch the Bush interview last night. Tarp was set up ny the Bush Presidency which was another failure blamed on President Obama but Bush said it is what ended the Recession and he was the one who did it.

November 09 2010 at 1:38 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

.TARP has been paid back with interest

November 09 2010 at 2:47 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

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