You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Things Fall Apart

How Democrats gave up on religious voters.

When Barack Obama burst onto the national scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he represented—among many things—the shining hope for the religious left. Here was a liberal politician who was not afraid of the language of faith, who just might reclaim territory that the Democratic Party had, willingly or not, ceded to Republicans. Red America did not own religion, Obama declared: “We worship an awesome God in the blue states."

Between 2004 and 2007, when Obama announced his candidacy for president, he became possibly the most prominent Democratic politician who was comfortable speaking about religion—a liberal who gave the impression that his religiosity was heartfelt, genuine, and important to his politics. He spoke with ease about his conversion; of the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and, in a key speech before the Call to Renewal conference in 2006, of the importance of “religion in the public square.” In the 2008 presidential election, Obama’s message seemed to resonate with religious people who had not, in recent years, gravitated toward the Democratic Party. He won more churchgoers than any Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton.

But, in just two short years, the left has become sluggish in its courtship of religious voters, significantly scaling back its faith-outreach programs. While many factors—primarily the economy—doomed the Democrats this fall, the consequences of this abdication nevertheless seem to be severe. In the recent midterm elections, House Democrats lost white evangelical voters in greater numbers than they did in 2004, when “values voters” flocked to George W. Bush. Reversing their Democratic allegiance from the past two elections, Catholics—nearly a quarter of all voters—favored the GOP 54 to 44 percent. Compared to 2008, the drop-offs were steep: a 20-point decline with Catholics, a 14-point decline with white evangelicals, and a 10-point decline with white Protestants. How and why did this happen?

The post-2004 revival of Democratic faith outreach, which reached its apex in the 2008 elections, can be traced to 2005, when House Democrats began holding a series of closed-door meetings. The gatherings, known as the Faith Working Group, were the brainchild of Nancy Pelosi, who wanted Democrats to start paying attention to religious voters. John Kerry had just lost the election and had seemed markedly uncomfortable talking about faith. (Though a Catholic, Kerry lost the Catholic vote to Bush, an evangelical Methodist.)

More than two dozen congressmen regularly attended the sessions, or sent aides on their behalf. (Barack Obama, then a junior senator, even sent a representative.) Attendees saw presentations on getting out the “God vote”—reaching voters motivated by their religious affiliation—and met with mega-church pastors as well as leaders from the religious left. The aim was simple: to formulate a sincere expression of progressive faith.

This idea caught on with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) as well. Though not known for his religious literacy, DNC Chair Howard Dean (whom TNR called “one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history”) made faith outreach a priority in 2005. He instructed DNC staffer and Pentecostal minister Leah Daughtry to target religious voters, opened a faith-advisory council for the DNC, and kicked off the Faith in Action initiative, which, according to its mission statement, was intended to increase “the national visibility of Democrats on issues of faith and public life.” The new strategy showed promise. According to political consultant Eric Sapp, Democrats who did extended, targeted faith outreach in 2006—like Ohio’s Ted Strickland and Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm—fared 10 points better with frequent churchgoers than the party’s national average.

By 2008, faith-related political efforts had become prominent within the Democratic Party, with Obama’s campaign exemplifying the trend. Obama chose a young pastor, Joshua Dubois, to head the campaign’s religious outreach, and a hefty portion of the campaign’s field game was led by divinity school graduate Jeremy Bird, who adeptly merged religious outreach with political organizing. The campaign ran dozens of faith forums in pivotal states, and the Democratic National Convention even kicked off with an interfaith worship service—a first in its history.

On Election Day, Obama made modest but definite inroads among white evangelicals, Protestants, and Catholics. He did eight points better than Kerry with Catholic voters; and with voters who went to church more than once a week, he lowered the GOP advantage from 29 to 12 percent. Voters who attended church monthly actually favored Obama over McCain, 53 to 46 percent (Kerry had lost these voters by two points). Once elected, Obama expanded a Bush-era creation, the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP), and put Dubois at its helm, hiring a number of the party’s faith consultants to work under him. Obama and the Democratic Party seemed poised to command respect among the religious population they had so diligently pursued.

But, when Obama took office, the Democrats’ faith outreach began to fall by the wayside. Several of those who had led the religious aspects of the Obama campaign landed in the OFBNP, which is legally barred from electoral politics, and thus faith-based political outreach. “I accepted this position knowing it would be distinct from the electoral role,” Dubois told me. Another key faith operative, Mara Vanderslice, joined Dubois in the OFBNP, abandoning her nascent political action committee, the Matthew 25 Network, which had been formed to promote progressive Christian candidates. With Dubois and others quarantined in OFBNP, many of the strongest religious-outreach coordinators were removed from the efforts in which they had been so effective.

At the same time, the national party began to strip down its religious outreach programs. The DNC’s faith program had at least seven staffers on hand in the 2008 race; during the recent midterms, it downsized to one, who was also charged with African-American outreach—a throwback to the days when Democratic faith outreach meant showing up at black churches. To be sure, there are significant differences between midterm and presidential elections, but even taking this into consideration, several insiders say that the Democrats’ faith effort noticeably dropped within the last two years. According to Mark Silk, a professor at Trinity College who writes frequently on religion and politics, the Democrats “did take [faith outreach] seriously enough in 2008.” But, he says, “it didn’t happen in 2010.”

Current DNC Chairman (and former missionary) Tim Kaine has made vague statements denying that he would allow faith outreach to falter, but evidence of the DNC’s clear commitment to faith-based coordination is hard to come by. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) will not confirm the amount spent on faith-based efforts during the midterms, but it seems likely that it was less than the reported $82,000 spent on faith outreach in 2008. “I haven’t met or talked to anyone who knows of specific activities that are happening out of the Democratic Party right now,” says Rebecca Sager, a sociologist who studied faith outreach during the last two elections. In the lead-up to the midterms, Sager embedded with the campaign of Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello, who ran a strong religious outreach program in 2008, and attempted to do the same in 2010. In 2010, however, the candidate received little encouragement from the national party to pursue religiously motivated voters, according to Sager. (He ultimately lost his re-election bid.)

The experience of Democratic political consultants, Eric Sapp and Burns Strider, whose consulting company, Eleison, specializes in Democratic faith outreach, further testifies to the newly diminished role of faith-based campaigning. In 2008, Eleison was contracted to work on over 40 campaigns. This year, it was not hired by a single campaign. In August, the DNC made a last-minute play and brought the company on board, but, as Sapp puts it, “you couldn’t get a program fully underway in a couple months.”

Of course, the Democrats’ chances at keeping the House this election cycle were slim for many reasons, and they would not necessarily have fared better if they had amped up their faith-based efforts. “If anyone thinks that we lost because we didn’t give enough contracts out to faith-based consultants, I’d like to know what they’re smoking,” says one Democratic strategist. “This campaign was all about economy and jobs.”

Yet while it’s certainly true that the 2010 campaign was mainly about the economy, it’s not true that economics and faith-based outreach are mutually exclusive. As one Democratic organizer told me, “I think religious voters want to hear there is a moral reason we need to save this economy and not just an economic one.” To defend his record and contend with the right-wing grassroots, Obama would do well to articulate the moral-religious values that permeate his policies and initially energized his supporters. And, if the Democrats want to avoid the impression that such values messaging is merely a presidential-election-year tactic, they should probably begin reinvigorating their faith outreach efforts sooner rather than later. “Ninety percent of people believe in some sort of God,” Sager points out. “It’s mind-boggling why you would cede those voters to the Republican Party.”

Tiffany Stanley is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.