In his recent keynote address at the Call to Renewal conference in Washington, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., affirmed that religious values will play an important role for his party in future elections. Citing religion's vital role in America both past and present, Sen. Obama's speech serves as a declaration that Democrats will make a concerted effort to join Republicans in using Christian moral values to back party positions.
Drawing upon these values, Sen. Obama talked about the need to commit more tax dollars toward improving education about contraception, lowering abortion rates, and “helping assure that every child is loved and cherished.” Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean has also connected policy to values, writing in an op-ed piece that child poverty and inequality in health care are immoral in the eyes of Americans.
After the much-hyped importance of values in the 2004 election, the Democrats are hoping to ride values to victory by bridging the biggest gap in the American electorate in 2004 — the division between those who attend church regularly and those who do not. Those who attend church weekly favored Bush to Kerry 59 percent to 40 percent according to the 2004 National Exit Poll Survey. In hopes of courting the church vote, the Democrats will draw attention to their party's embrace of Christian values.
The Democrats' challenge is to answer the question: How can government best uphold Christian values? The right's traditional answer is through legislating morality issues that are central to family values or the sanctity of life. It looks like the left will counter this with an expanded version of government. But will that effort ultimately fall short among the regular church attendees the left is trying to impress?
Where Democrats differ from the religious vote they are courting is their view of the extent to which government can sign itself up as a key agent in building God's kingdom. This is primarily seen with respect to responses to social issues such as poverty. Undoubtedly, Democratic candidates will follow the lead of religious left leader Jim Wallis in not-so-subtly reminding voters of the Bible's many verses (more than a thousand) concerning the poor. Acting as though the regular church attendee vote somehow missed those Sunday School lessons about compassion, Democrats will proudly package their newly-discovered Scripture passages with proposals to legislate Christian compassion.
Viewing government budgets as “moral documents” as Wallis does is certainly not a bad thing, nor is the critical reminder that God constantly identifies with the poor and oppressed in the Bible. The resulting dialogue will bring greater awareness of those most marginalized in our society and invariably place their wellbeing upon the consciences of many. Whether successful or not in implementing their policies, the left may be taking up a prophetic voice that the church — particularly the religious right — has lost at times.
The problem for the Democrats is that the majority of the regular church attendee vote put their faith — and $93.8 billion in charitable giving — in religious organizations that help the poor by meeting both spiritual and physical needs. These are far more effective than secular solutions that Democrats usually promote. Jesus transformed the many lives he touched by meeting spiritual and physical needs. Accordingly, religious people support private organizations that reach out the hand of love to the poor, the prisoner, and the brokenhearted in a way that is inseparable from the transforming power of personal faith.
The 2004 National Exit Poll Survey, conducted by the Center for Political Research at the University of Michigan, showed that in this country there is actually an inverse correlation between frequency of church attendance and support for increasing federal aid to the poor, increasing welfare programs, or even decreasing the amount poor people pay in taxes. Religious people generally believe in a different solution and back up their faith with works.
The 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, conducted jointly by Harvard University researchers and community foundations, showed that people who attend church weekly are much more likely to give to charities than those who attend church fewer than a few times a year (91 percent compared with 66 percent). The regular church attendee crowd gives on average $2,210 a year whereas less frequent attendees give on average $642 to charities. The same study showed that religious people volunteered on average 12 times a year compared with 5.8 times a year for the less religious.
If Democrats want to build policy upon the Christ's mandate for compassion, they must take an honest look at what position government can fill within the thriving armies of compassion when it is often forbidden to use the army's greatest weapon: faith. After all, it is the unapologetically sectarian, undeniably indoctrinating, resolute religious belief — in the Christian case, a belief in the transforming power of Jesus Christ to change every individual — that is at the center of effective compassion. It isn't exactly something that government can bundle neatly with food stamps and condoms to solve all of society's problems.
Instead, the Democrats would more effectively uphold Christian values by reexamining their faith in government activism and doing more to empower religious charitable organizations. This could be the party's greatest potential for gaining the religious vote. As political commentator Dick Morris writes, “Democrats own the public sector; Republicans own the private sector. But the voluntary sector — where the action is — is up for grabs.”
Beyond that, the Democrats' next best strategy would be to complement — not imitate — compassion with justice. There may be systematic injustices within the political, legal, or economic spheres that private efforts of effective compassion cannot overcome. God's intolerance for these is clear in the Bible, and policy solutions would uphold God's justice and righteousness.
As Jim Wallis writes in his book God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It , the church should only pull people out of the river for so long before they walk upstream to see who is pushing them in. When the culprit is truly unjust institutions, the Democrats should be the party that stands up for the oppressed. When the culprit is man's fallen sinful nature, however, Democrats must be honest about government's inability to keep people out of the water.
If the Democratic Party wants to win the regular church attendee vote, they must become the party that best understands the strengths and limitations of government. They must see what goals religion and government share and find ways for effective cooperation that do not compromise either group. Most of all, they must become, in a way that they have yet to articulate, the party that presents religious voters with a vision for the world that most freely incorporates and embraces the transforming power of faith.