Religious Democrats on the march

harold ford newsweek coverDid you hear what I heard? There are Democrats out there who are religious. In an attempt to grab a slice of that voter bloc that supposedly put George W. Bush a second term in 2004, Democrats are not shy talking about their faith. And journalists are picking up on it. In a relatively unrevealing cover story, Newsweek's Jonathan Darman explores the Senate candidacy of Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn., and starts out talking about -- yes, you guessed it -- the candidate's religious beliefs. First of all, I want to take issue with the cover's title, "Not Your Daddy's Democrats." I am hardly The Expert on things before 1981, but last time I checked, my daddy's Democrats, or maybe that was my granddaddy's Democrats, were represented by people like Ford. As best I can tell, the secularization of the Democratic Party is something that has happened in my father's lifetime.

OK, the history is a bit more complicated, but more on that in another post, and now to the actual article, which was actually fairly decent:

The sun is just rising over Chattanooga when Harold Ford Jr. begins to pray. A young African-American congressman from Memphis, Ford is running as the Democratic candidate for Senate in Tennessee. Here, in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, an audience of 300 has come out of the early-morning darkness into the historic Read House hotel to hear Ford praise the Lord and lecture man. Dressed in dark suits and hats fit for a Sunday service, they bow their heads and thank a God who "even now has dipped us in fresh, anointing oil." They shout Hallelujah as a soprano sings "Amazing Grace." And they cheer and clap when Ford welcomes them, and the spirit of Jesus, into the room. "I love Jesus, I can't help it," the congressman tells the crowd. "We serve such a big God," he shouts, and a chorus of Amens agrees.

It is a storied place to pray. "Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain in Tennessee," Martin Luther King Jr. cried in his "I Have a Dream" speech, and four decades later, the diverse crowd that has gathered here suggests that in many ways, freedom has. Looking out at his audience, Ford offers political pronouncements in the cadence of Scripture. "The politics of destruction," he shouts, "the politics of those who define and malign people, that's all coming to an end." He asks the audience to "heal and make whole this great country of ours" with "a renewed sense of faith." Pointing to the sky, he tells them that "as long as your faith derives from up there, and not down there, we're going to be OK."

Ford's intertwining of the secular and the sacred would make many urban liberals squirm. So would much else that comes out of his mouth today. From the podium, he says he gets "in trouble with my party because I believe a government is only as good as its ability to defend itself and protect itself." (That stance wouldn't actually trouble most Democrats, but the implication that Democrats are weak on defense might.) Later, as he makes his way out of the room, he spots a Fox News Channel correspondent who's flown in from out of town. "Mr. Cameron!" he yells, throwing his arms around Carl Cameron, the network's political correspondent. "So good to see you again." Before the day is done, Ford will reiterate his opposition to same-sex marriage and late-term abortions.

One of the photos in the multiple page spread stands out. It's of Ford and his staffers gathering in a group to pray. You don't see that everyday on the Democratic campaign trail. Or are reporters just now beginning to pick up on its significance and the fact that religion and values actually matter to a large number of voters?

Both parties are now unabashedly courting the pew vote, but one has to wonder how this will play out in actual policy. Ford won't be chairing any major committee anytime soon. Nor will any of these values Democrats. Will the more secular senior members of the Congress allow them their say? Talking about opposing same-sex marriage and late-term abortions is nice, but will these values-oriented Democrats be able to produce results? And how do the secular Democrats feel about this influence? Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., anyone?

For another example of how reporters are picking up on the values theme, check out this Washington Post piece on Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., who is running against Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican. In a more distinct tone compared to the Newsweek piece, reporter Katherine Shaver gets right into the faith and values talk at the beginning of the article, as a way of introducing us to the candidate, and continues on that theme throughout the piece. Sometimes, Cardin even sounds like a person that, and you're not going to believe this, people who have traditional values could vote for:

During 40 years in public office -- 20 in the General Assembly followed by two decades in Congress -- Cardin has woven his political life into the faith and family that he says sustain him.

He followed his father and uncle into the state legislature. One of his closest political advisers is Myrna, his wife of 40 years, whom he met in elementary school. At one of the lowest points in his life -- when his son committed suicide eight years ago -- Cardin carried out a Jewish custom of mourning for 30 days by gathering Jewish staffers and fellow Congress members in his Capitol Hill office for daily prayers.

His faith informs his actions in the House of Representatives, particularly a six-year membership on the ethics committee, he said.

A quick note on this New York Times piece on the rise of Democratic conservatism: There is hardly a mention of religion. What's that telling us?

As reporters trip over themselves to cover the Democratic candidates who can legitimately court the values voters, it's important to look back at the earlier stories where reporters were tripping over themselves to cover those other guys who were attempting to corral the supposedly "religious left" into a legitimate political movement. Have they succeeded? If the previous two examples are a barometer, the rise of the religious left remains a tiny dot on the political landscape.

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