Believe it (or not): Clinton camp likely to downplay religious outreach

At a presidential forum held at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama raised eyebrows when he said the question of whether life begins at conception was “above my pay grade” and pinned his opposition to same-sex marriage to his Christian belief that marriage is “a sacred union.”

Less than a decade later, his attendance at Warren’s forum and his selection of the celebrity evangelical pastor to deliver the invocation at his first Inauguration, now look like relics of a short-lived Democratic effort to woo the so-called faith vote by softening positions on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.

But as the 2016 campaign heats up, proponents of Democratic faith outreach are hoping for a reboot in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, even in the face of a changed political and religious environment. On marriage, the political, cultural and, potentially, legal tides have turned. And in the wake of battles over contraception coverage and abortion restrictions in the states, the political conversation on the Democratic side has shifted from the common-ground strategies of 2008 to protecting women’s access to reproductive health care.

Despite these changes, veterans of campaign religious outreach maintain that Clinton should revitalize her version of it by emphasizing her faith to connect with religious voters. But so far, it seems an effort that is mostly falling on deaf ears in terms of shifting her campaign’s direction.

Burns Strider, a political strategist who directed Clinton’s faith outreach for her 2008 presidential campaign and in 2014 founded the super PAC Faith Voters for Hillary, predicted that Democratic outreach, whether through the Democratic National Committee or individual campaigns, will be more about mobilizing progressive religious voters than trying to court moderate or conservative voters away from the Republican Party.

Strider, who now is the executive vice president of American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC and a senior adviser to its pro-Clinton project Correct the Record, recently wrote for the Religion News Service about his admiration for Clinton’s faith and how he has “loved every second of getting to know this woman with such strong Midwest, Methodist sensibilities.”

Faith Voters for Hillary tweets quotes from Clinton that promote this view of her faith. Quoting her remarks at a 2007 forum on faith for Democratic presidential candidates, the group highlighted that she prays daily "for discernment, for wisdom, for strength, for courage.” Another tweeted quote was from a 2007 Clinton campaign speech at an Iowa church, where she said, “Work without faith is very hard. Faith keeps you going, keeps you moored to your values.”

But overt religious appeals, said Robert Jones, the president of the Public Religion Research Institute, which recently completed a comprehensive survey of millennials, “tend to matter more to the evangelical groups, and there are many fewer of those people to reach in this generation.” Overall, he said, even for younger Republicans, issues matter more than “religious rhetoric that strikes the right notes but doesn’t address the issues.”

Michael Wear, an evangelical who directed the faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and is now a strategist and consultant in Washington, D.C., for religious organizations, said that the Democratic Party is now “banking on a strategy that is ‘Make sure American people realize how crazy Republicans are,’” which “doesn’t leave a lot of room for reaching out to the center” or to young evangelicals whose parents have been part of the religious right.

He said that any Democratic outreach to white evangelicals in 2016 “makes more sense based on who those voters are,” meaning they are less committed to culture war issues than their parents’ generation. But he said that these voters are nonetheless turned off by what they perceive as Democrats’ disrespect of their parents’ generation of religious-right activists.

Thus far, Clinton’s campaign has not engaged in any overt religious outreach, although Strider’s efforts, through Faith Voters for Hillary and his writing, are aimed at reaching religious voters on her behalf. While super PACs are legally barred from coordinating with the campaigns they support, his role in 2016 — vouching for her religious bona fides and persuading religious voters of them — is similar to the role he played for her campaign in 2008. The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment about its plans for religious outreach in 2016.

Although Obama lost white evangelical support, some believe that Clinton can rebuild that frayed relationship. Jonathan Merritt, an evangelical writer who closely follows controversies and changes in the evangelical community, said some evangelicals felt “burned” by Obama’s shift, from 2008 to 2012, away from appealing to moderate evangelicals with rhetoric like what he used at Warren’s church.

Obama won 26 percent of the evangelical vote in 2008 but only 20 percent in 2012 — a drop some observers and activists attribute to his decreased interest in trying to find common ground with abortion opponents, his later support for same-sex marriage and the contraception coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act, which was the centerpiece of conservatives’ claim that Obama was anti-religion.

The question in 2016, said Merritt, is whether evangelicals who supported Obama in 2008 “now feel too burned to trust another [Democratic] candidate.”

Still, Merritt believes “there is a reset happening now,” adding that he has seen strong religious support and even pockets of evangelical backing for Clinton’s candidacy. He recently posted competing essays on his blog: one by moderate evangelical writer and activist Tony Campolo, “Why Christians should vote for Hillary,” and one by conservative evangelical lawyer and writer David French, “Why Christians should not vote for Hillary.” Campolo’s piece, said Merritt, generated much more interest among his readers.

Campolo, who identifies as a pro-life Democrat, argued that Clinton “is one of the few candidates on the political stage who has a plan for cutting the abortion rate in America by at least 50 percent.”

Clinton has long maintained that abortion should be safe, legal and rare. As a senator in 2006, she co-sponsored the Prevention First bill, which would have increased funding for and access to family planning, arguing, “unintended pregnancies — and the resulting abortions — can be prevented if we eliminate the barriers that prevent women from having access to affordable and effective contraception.”

In 2008 abortion reduction was a central theme of efforts to build bridges between the Democratic Party and abortion opponents, but it has been largely abandoned on the national political stage, as reproductive rights battles shifted focus to state restrictions on abortion access and on insurance coverage for contraception.

Despite Campolo’s praise, many evangelicals criticize Clinton on abortion. Most recently, they were angry over remarks she made in April at the Women of the World Summit, claiming that she suggested they should change their religious views on abortion. That was in the context, however, of a wide-ranging speech about women’s rights around the world, in which she discussed global and domestic impediments to women’s equality. She said that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed” for women to have full access to “critical reproductive health care” and “safe childbirth.” Kristen Powers, a pundit and former Bill Clinton administration staffer and pro-life Democrat, lashed out at Hillary Clinton for “the barely veiled advocacy for authoritarianism when religious beliefs clash with secular sacred cows.”

While same-sex marriage was a much-discussed issue in the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, its legalization across much of the U.S. has caused it to fade. Clinton has expressed her hope that the Supreme Court rules state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, and she featured a gay couple in her opening campaign video. Jones said millennials use support for LGBT equality “to place people on a map.” Clinton, he said, has placed that issue at the center.

The evangelical demographic is diminishing. Jones pointed out that millennials and seniors are like “mirror opposites,” noting that just 11 percent of millennials are white evangelicals and a full one-third of them are unaffiliated. Those numbers are virtually reversed among voters over 65: 27 percent of them are white evangelicals, and just 11 percent are unaffiliated. What’s more, nearly half (47 percent) of millennials are political independents, with 29 percent identifying as Democrats and 17 percent as Republicans, making them more Democratic than the older generation and than the general population, said Jones.

“Evangelicals are basically a white, aging, shrinking demographic,” said Merritt.