Winning Working-Class Evangelical Voters

by Randy Shaw on November 15, 2004

As Democrats ponder strategies for avoiding future replays of the 2002 and 2004 national elections, there has been little discussion of why the Party so strongly opposes the entry of religion into secular life. While support for abortion and gay rights is non-negotiable and directly impact people’s lives, progressives’ opposition to moments of silence, the display of the Ten Commandments, and other faith-based issues may not be worth the political cost.

After George Bush lost the popular vote in 2000, his backers aggressively moved to expand the electorate. Karl Rove found millions of working-class evangelical Christians (particularly women) who did not vote in 2000, and enough went to the polls to sway the 2004 elections.

Democrats will repeat their losses in 2002 and 2004 unless they can find millions of sympathetic non-voters or get working-class evangelicals to view them in a more positive light. Since core Democratic constituencies voted in record numbers in 2004, the former option does not appear available; this makes securing more evangelical support—or at least reducing their opposition—the top electoral priority.

Since compromises on abortion and gay rights are off the table, Democrats are limited in their appeal to evangelical voters. But I think that the anger that evangelicals feel toward the national Democratic Party goes beyond abortion and gay rights. The bigger problem is the Party’s support for the strict separation of church and state.

Faith-Based Services: Consider President Bush’s proposal to direct public funds to “faith-based” service providers. While Bush did not get as much money distributed to Christian service providers as he wanted, these funds played a critical role in securing minister and lay support for the President’s campaign.

It’s called patronage. And with federal money flowing to many churches for the first time, ministers and congregations had a huge economic incentive to push for Bush’s election.

That’s why a surprising number of African-American ministers supported Bush. He got their churches money, and this funding would be at risk in a Kerry Administration.

The 2006 and 2008 elections are a long way off but I will make this prediction: if Democrats are seen as continuing to oppose the funding of faith-based services, the evangelicals will vote in even greater numbers to elect Republicans. This will prove true regardless of the impact of Republican economics on working-class evangelicals.

The Ten Commandments: In 2003, the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court was removed from office for defying a federal court order that he remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from his courtroom. Judge Roy Moore’s battle to post the Commandments made him a folk hero in Alabama, and the League of Christian Voters rallied to his side.

While Moore’s campaign got none of the post-election attention of gay marriage, the Ten Commandments issue clearly struck a chord with millions of evangelicals. Being a strong proponent of separating church from state, I cheered the federal court’s removal of Moore from office without giving much thought to why posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings was so unacceptable.

Given that America would be a much better place if people followed at least some of the Commandments, should Democratic candidates lose votes over their stance on this issue?
If more Republicans believed in “Thou Shalt not Kill” we might not have invaded Iraq, and there seems all kinds of ways that progressives could turn the words of the Commandments against right-wing Republicans.

You know the way progressives were motivated to work for Kerry out of concern for the future Supreme Court? Well, the evangelicals want a Court that will uphold the posting of the Commandments. Had John Kerry stated that he would appoint judges who were open to considering this issue, or said something to express understanding or sympathy for Moore and his followers, some infrequent voting evangelicals may have stayed away from the polls.

Moments of Silence: George Bush is on record as strongly supporting allowing public schools to have a one-minute moment of silence to start the day. This position is consistent with his stressing of the importance of prayer, and of the need for government to assist, rather than restrict, the exercise of religion.

Democrats oppose efforts to return prayer to schools. This is another issue that has got nowhere near the attention of gay marriage but is likely significantly more important in moving working-class evangelicals to the Republican side.

It is hard to see how Democrats’ compromising on the moment of silence issue would jeopardize the Party’s core values or weaken its commitment to expanding health care or raising the federal minimum wage. Had John Kerry expressed support for, or openness to considering, the moment of silence, these two critical issues would not be off the political map.

In raising these ideas I am well aware that there are many valid reasons for Democrats not to weaken their opposition to greater religious involvement in the secular world. But one ignores political realities if they believe Democrats can do better in 2006 or 2008 without addressing some of the concerns of evangelical voters.

Some believe that Kerry’s problem was that he was not populist enough, and that working-class evangelicals will vote for a true secular progressive but not a mushy secular liberal. It must be comforting to believe such a premise, but Truman slaughtered Wallace in 1948 and there is little historical support for this claim.

Others argue that demographic shifts in key states and new and improved candidates can bring victory without changing the Democrats message. That is one risky strategy, and it seems to miss the message of America’s last two national elections.

The bottom line is this: we did not know until the night of November 2 that the progressive side could lose a large turnout election. Having learned the truth the hard way, we now need a new message, not simply turnout, to secure future victories.

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