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Democrats trying harder to appeal to the faithful
by Steven Thomma ("Knight Ridder Newspapers," December 14, 2005)

Washington, USA - Looking for religious voters, some Democrats are finding God.

They're finding him in terms more familiar in recent times to religious conservatives than to liberals, invoking Jesus Christ or the spiritual meaning of Christmas as they push their agenda or criticize Republicans.

In one example Wednesday, several congressional Democrats stood before the Capitol Christmas tree as they urged raising the minimum wage. They called it key to the "true meaning of Christmas - hope, generosity and goodwill toward others." In another, they protested Republican budget cuts for the poor as an affront to Christian values.

The religious tone comes as some conservatives, backed by talk radio and cable television, have declared that liberals and secularists have declared war on Christmas.

It also comes as Democrats struggle to convince an increasingly skeptical country that they aren't hostile to religion and that, if anything, their views on such issues as poverty are grounded in the Bible. At the same time, they want to win over some of the values-minded and religious voters who helped give President Bush a second term.

"It's because of what happened in the 2004 election," said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and an authority on the intersection of religion and politics.

"There was a perception among Democrats that they didn't do as well as they should have with people of faith. They failed to reach out to more moderate religious people, people who take their faith seriously and are open to the Democratic message on poverty, on peace, on the environment."

Last summer, the Pew Research Center found that just 29 percent of Americans thought Democrats were friendly toward religion, down from 40 percent the summer before. By comparison, 55 percent saw Republicans as friendly toward religion.

That sentiment shows up in politics. Voter exit polls last year showed that those who regularly attend religious services or rank moral values as their top political concern voted for Bush, helping him win.

Their vote reflected religious conservatives' messages about abortion and homosexuality, particularly gay marriage.

The religious left now wants to use the language of faith to talk about poverty.

One inspiration is Tim Kaine, a Roman Catholic Democrat elected this fall as governor of Virginia. When campaigning he spoke openly about his faith, his work for the poor and his personal opposition to the death penalty (even as he vowed to obey the state's law permitting it).

"If the Democrats want to regain power, they need to honor their own faith. They ought not invent their faith. But they ought not be afraid of their faith," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA and a former Democratic U.S. representative from suburban Philadelphia.

"We're celebrating the birth of Jesus," Edgar said after joining several Democrats at the Capitol Christmas tree. "Jesus said that whatsoever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to God. Jesus would be outraged that a nation of such great wealth would have so many poor."

Several Democrats from Congress took the cue.

"Democrats believe that Congress should act on the true meaning of Christmas - hope, generosity and goodwill toward others," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., urging an increase in the minimum wage. "Unfortunately, our Republican friends seem to have forgotten the meaning of Christmas."

Also Wednesday, several Democrats supported hundreds of religious activists who prayed outside a House office building as they protested Republican budget cuts to programs for the poor, such as food stamps and Medicaid.

"When you look at all denominations, you see a real commitment to address the needs of the poor," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. "And here we have a budget that does just the opposite."

There are risks in these tactics.

For one, religious language could alienate the secular who still make up a big part of the Democratic Party. Those who never set foot in a religious service voted Democratic last year by a margin of 62-36 percent, the most dependably Democratic group when measured by religious habits.

That helps explain why the Democratic National Committee conducted a recent strategy session for party activists on how to reach religious leaders - but closed the session to reporters.

Also, invoking religion could help Democrats, but only if it's seen as heartfelt and not as a cynical political ploy.

"Americans do respond positively to politicians when they talk about either their personal faith or how their values influence their positions," Green said. "There is a prospect of benefit at the polls if it is done sincerely. But if there's one thing worse than an absence of faith and values, it would be the perception of hypocrisy."


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