Democratic Hopefuls Find Religion on Campaign Trail

By Jennifer Siegel

Published September 22, 2006, issue of September 22, 2006.
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In an attempt to woo religious voters, Tennessee’s Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate has filmed a campaign commercial in his childhood church, with a large white cross looming over his right shoulder.

“I started in the church the old-fashioned way… I was forced to,” said Rep. Harold Ford Jr., sitting in a glossy wooden pew. “Here, I learned the difference between right and wrong.”

Released last week, the commercial comes as Ford, the scion of a powerful African American political family, enters the homestretch of a tight race for the seat of retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Another top Democratic contender for Senate, Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey, also played up his religious bona fides last week, with a speech at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Like his opponent, the incumbent Republican Senator Rick Santorum, Casey is a Catholic and opposes legalized abortion. But he used the September 14 address, the school’s 38th annual Pope John XXIII lecture, to argue that his faith requires a broader commitment to social justice.

“We cannot say we are against abortion of an unborn child and then let our children suffer in degraded inner-city schools and broken homes,” Casey said. “We can’t claim to be pro-life at the same time as we are cutting Medicaid or Head Start.” Many political observers say that any hope the Democrats have for taking back the Senate would require wins by Ford and Casey. They are among a growing cohort of moderate Democrats to hit the campaign trail wearing religion on their sleeves: Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia spoke often about his Catholic faith and missionary work during his race last year, while Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland regularly publicizes his background as a Baptist minister.

Although the Democrats turned out a record number of voters in the 2004 presidential election, President Bush skated to victory with the help of evangelical Christians. A number of recent polls have confirmed that religious voters remain, on average, more likely to vote for Republicans.

The latest in a series of surveys on religion and politics by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that while 47% of Americans view the GOP as friendly to religion, only 26% have the same view of the Democratic Party.

Last year, 55% of Americans viewed the GOP as friendly to religion, while 29% said the same about the Democrats.

“There’s a general concern that Democrats have that they’ve somehow gotten out of step with the broad mainstream of American life, which is still quite religious,” said Richard Johnston, research director of the National Annenberg Election Study at the University of Pennsylvania. Both Ford and Casey, Johnston said, are attempting to neutralize faith as an issue, in part by highlighting their own religious credentials.

The Ford commercial was filmed in the Mount Moriah-East Baptist Church in southeast Memphis, where Ford was reportedly baptized. The candidate uses the 30-second spot to take aim at Republican opponent Bob Corker, who had claimed in an earlier ad that Ford voted against reauthorizing the Patriot Act and in favor of cuts in defense spending.

“Mr. Corker’s doing wrong,” Ford said. “First spending millions telling untruths about his Republican opponents, both good men, and now me.”

Experts on church-state issues have both criticized the Tennessee Democrat’s use of religious iconography and questioned the tax implications of using a house of worship to film a campaign commercial. “To politicize… conservative Christianity… and just say ‘Here’s the Democratic version, I don’t think either one serves the interest of religion and certainly not the interest of the body politic,” said Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress. “It’s not a healthy development.”

Because tax-exempt, not-for-profit organizations are forbidden from participating in partisan activity, Stern said that the church likely ran afoul of the Internal Revenue Service code, unless it made its facilities available to all the candidates on equal terms.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the liberal Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, did not challenge the legality of the advertisement, assuming that the church was willing to provide equal time to other candidates. But he did describe it as cause for concern.

“This is, unfortunately, indicative of the infusion of religious rhetoric and imagery in the elections there these days,” said Saperstein, who recently attended Constitution Day celebrations in Tennessee. He added: “The manipulation of a church and religious symbols to add religious legitimacy to an attack on an opponent undercuts respect for religion in America and suggests a religious test for office that is divisive. The last thing we need is candidates using their churches to implicitly support their political accusations. In contrast, the first half of his remarks talking about his going to church as a child, where he learns about right and wrong, was about him, not his opponent, and helps explain who he is. That part of the commercial did feel appropriate.”

Robert Boston, a spokesperson for the not-for-profit group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also expressed concern about the commercial.

“We would never say that a candidate can’t talk about his or her faith,” Boston said. “But candidates do have to understand that we live under an officially nonsectarian state and it’s not their job if elected to promote some kind of sectarian dogma.”

It is a “valid question” if Ford’s use of the sanctuary constituted a prohibited “in-kind” donation from the church, Boston said, adding that Americans United has a history of reporting violators to the IRS. On Monday, the watchdog group announced a campaign to remind churches in 11 swing states about the laws prohibiting electioneering by tax-exempt groups.

A press release said that the push comes in response to a get-out-the-vote campaign being mounted by James Dobson’s group, Focus on the Family.

The Ford campaign did not return calls for comment.

Legalities aside, UPenn’s Johnston argued that it is an open question whether or not Democrats’ hearty embrace of religion ultimately will prove to be a winning campaign strategy. While the Pew poll found that Republicans are deemed more “friendly” to religion, it also found that more Americans credit the Democrats with being “neutral” to religion — an attribute that in the end could prove to be equally important to many voters in the party’s more liberal wing.

“The Democratic Party has always been this much more pluralistic, eclectic, synthetic movement than the Republican,” Johnston said. “There’s the question of will religious voters buy” the Democrats’ outreach — “that’s one thing — and then the other side is, will it spook the rest? To the extent that you have a cross on the imagery of the Democratic Party, well, what about the Democratic Party, as the party of all the rest?”

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