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Democrats Have The Religious Left. Can They Win The Religious Middle?

Democrats are hopeful they can mobilize a religious left to counter the religious right. But it's unclear whether that outreach will resonate with voters who make up the religious middle.
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Democrats are hopeful they can mobilize a religious left to counter the religious right. But it's unclear whether that outreach will resonate with voters who make up the religious middle.

Exit polls from the 2016 presidential election suggest that only 1 of 6 white evangelical voterssupported Hillary Clinton. It was the worst such performance of any recent Democratic nominee.

"She never asked for their votes," says Michael Wear, who directed religious outreach efforts for Barack Obama's successful reelection campaign in 2012.

Democrats this year are making a more determined effort to reach voters whose political preferences are driven in part by their religious faith. Two presidential candidates — Sen. Cory Booker and Mayor Pete Buttigieg — are recruiting faith advisers to help in their campaigns, and the Democratic National Committee has hired a new "faith engagement" director, the Rev. Derrick Harkins.

"We're having these conversations in the summer of 2019 as opposed to the fall of 2020, because it helps faith leaders understand that we're serious about this," says Harkins, formerly senior pastor at the historically black Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. "We're not scrambling at the last minute to try to cultivate relationships that will get us over the finish line."

The new efforts have Democrats hopeful they can mobilize a religious left to counter the religious right, long a bedrock Republican constituency. Less clear is whether the outreach will resonate with those voters who make up the religious middle.

Among them is child advocate Kelly Rosati, a Colorado-based evangelical activist who promotes adoption, foster parenting and orphan care. Rosati abandoned the Republican Party after concluding it was insufficiently compassionate, but neither does she identify as a Democrat, largely because of the party's stance on abortion issues.

"I feel incredibly discouraged," she says. "I am extremely disappointed at how far the Democratic candidates have come from 'safe, legal, and rare' and [their] position on government funding of abortion and late-term abortion. At the same time, I have the exact same feeling when I look at those in the Republican Party who seem to have a similar callousness as it relates to immigrant children or people without access to health care."

Rosati is not alone. Among Christians, many Catholics and mainline Protestants see themselves as neither liberal nor conservative. Wear, who identifies as an evangelical and works now as a political consultant, sees the religious middle as fertile ground for his fellow Democrats, if they approach it carefully.

"There are large numbers of faith voters who are looking for bolder approaches on voting rights, on immigration, on pro-family policies," he says. "I do think there's a cohort of swing voters who are religious who Democrats risk losing with their move to the left on abortion."

One candidate moving hard in that direction is New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who during a recent campaign stop in Iowa compared the restriction of abortion rights to racism. "I think there are some issues that have such moral clarity that we have as a society decided that the other side is not acceptable," she said. "There is no moral equivalency when it comes to racism. And I do not believe there's moral equivalency when it comes to changing laws that deny women's reproductive freedom."

Wear, who has not yet aligned with a Democratic candidate in this election cycle, was not impressed with Gillibrand's comment.

"That's a fast track to losing an election that should be almost unlosable," he says. Wear advises Democratic candidates to follow the example of Barack Obama in their outreach to religious voters, a story he relates in his book Reclaiming Hope. He says such an effort can be successful even without abandoning core progressive principles.

"We met them where they were," he says. "There were voters who knew that Barack Obama was pro-choice, who knew that he supported same-sex marriage, but thought that he was a good guy who wasn't out to get them [and] that he understood the concerns that those who disagreed with him might have."

Such an approach is endorsed as well by Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, one of those in the Democratic Party who argues it should work harder to connect with faith voters.

Coons says: "I don't think the average voter looks at a score card of where a candidate stands on issue A and issue B and issue C as much as they listen and watch and say, 'Do I like him? Do I believe her? Do I connect with them? Would they be a good leader? Would I feel safe with that person running our country?'"

The answers to such questions come with the "gut feeling" a voter gets from a candidate, Coons says.

"To like someone, to engage with someone, and to ultimately support them and be comfortable with their leadership means knowing their heart," Coons says, "which I think means knowing their faith."

As a regular participant in Capitol Hill prayer breakfasts, Coons advises his Democrats to speak more openly about their own faith, an appeal he explained in a recent article in The Atlantic magazine.

To Coons' surprise, the article was met with a decidedly mixed response.

"Some folks were quite offended by it," he says. "[They] said politicians have no business talking about their faith at all, that this is dangerously against the separation of church and state." Such feelings, he says, may explain why Democrats have been less comfortable than Republicans in talking about the values that led them into public service.

"As a result," he says, "there is a misperception in middle America that the folks who are religious and elected are Republican, and the folks who are Democrats and elected are not [religious]."

At the Democratic National Committee, the work of changing that reputation now falls, in part, to Harkins, who served most recently as a senior vice president at Union Seminary in New York.

"Square One is making sure people know they are being heard and not being dismissed," Harkins says. He will meet soon with faith leaders around the country from across the political spectrum to find out about their concerns and priorities.

"And then the responsibility falls on me and our work here, to act on those issues in the way that we can."

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Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.