By Josh Lederman - 12/04/11 10:30 AM EST
Democrats claim to have an unprecedented, promising opportunity to expand their voter base into previously uncharted territory — religious voters.
Republicans have long walked in lock step with the loudest and most influential voices in the American religious sphere, professing a monopoly on the faith-based values that drive the decisions of millions of religious voters.
But eager to leave no stone unturned as they peruse the electorate for 2012 supporters, Democrats are setting out to court faith-based voters by connecting their policies on economic issues to the values of equality, tolerance and humanitarianism.
“Democrats and independents are strongly supportive of government actions to reduce the gap between the rich and poor, and Republicans are fairly divided on the question. But there isn’t an accompanying divide in the religious community,” said Robert P. Jones, the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan group.
Jones’s group recently polled 1,500 adults across the country and found that even white evangelical Protestants — typically the most conservative of religious groups — say they support more government action to help those in financial need. And while Republicans say religious teachings support their small-government approach to putting all Americans on better economic ground, Jones said Democrats increasingly have the upper hand.
“There is going to be significant efforts on our part to reconnect the values and the fundamentals of our policies to the teachings we all learned” through religious texts, said Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the No. 3 Democrat in the House.
At a joint news conference on Wednesday organized by the Democratic National Committee and Young Democrats of America, Democrats from three major religions made their case for how their faith informs their liberal approach to helping the least off in society.
DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) — a Jew — spoke of Tikkun Olam, the Jewish value of repairing the world. Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.) — the only Muslim in Congress — recalled fasting during Ramadan at a Minneapolis mosque alongside Jews who were fasting for Yom Kippur and Christians who came to join them.
And Clyburn — a Christian — told of his trepidation decades ago upon breaking the news to his father that he wouldn’t follow in his footsteps and become a minister.
“’Well, son,’ he said, ‘I suspect the world would much rather see a sermon than hear one,’” Clyburn recalled.
Democrats are particularly hopeful that young voters, whose energetic support helped propel President Obama into the White House in 2008, will be especially receptive to prioritizing what their religion says about helping others over what it says about abortion or same-sex marriage.
The Rev. Derrick Harkins, who was recently appointed to head the DNC’s faith outreach efforts and also leads a church in Washington, said Democrats will carry out voter registration efforts in partnerships with churches and religious groups, engage with faith groups on college campuses and mount voter protection efforts — “to make sure we cede nothing.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have no intention of ceding the religious vote to Democrats, even though they acknowledge that social issues are playing second fiddle to economic issues in the 2012 election cycle.
Tony Perkins, the influential Christian leader and president of the Family Research Council, said fiscal and social issues are inseparable, because the country will never solve its economic problems unless it strengthens the family foundation.
He pointed to Obama’s healthcare reform legislation, which he claimed has helped fund abortions, and his refusal to back up the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
But nowhere will the delicate relationship between religion and politics be as tricky in 2012 as in discussions of the candidates’ own faith.
Obama, who faced critics in 2008 who falsely claimed he was a Muslim, is taking heat for not using the word God during his Thanksgiving speech. (Harkins noted that Obama quoted from Genesis and referred to blessings, in a clear nod to his Christian faith.)
Former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.), the longstanding GOP front-runner, faces the toughest challenge to relate his faith and values to voters without alienating the almost half of voters who say they would be uncomfortable with a Mormon as president, according to the PRRI survey.
The biggest unknown remains how faith-oriented voters would respond to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the GOP race’s newest luminary. A lifelong Baptist, Gingrich converted in 2009 to Catholicism, the religion of his wife, Callista.
Animosity between Protestants and Catholics in the political sphere has died down dramatically and would likely not be an insurmountable obstacle for Gingrich, according to PRRI’s research. But his multiple divorces and acknowledged infidelity could be.
Whether his personal history and the values they call into question end up spelling trouble for Gingrich could depend on whether Democrats such as Wasserman Schultz have accurately measured the pulse of the electorate.
“While there is a group of faith-oriented voters who prioritize those more socially oriented issues, we believe that faith-based voters support an agenda that ensures that government stands up for those who cannot stand up for themselves,” she said.