Democrats

2012 flashback: Pollster John C. Green's prophecy -- sort of -- about Democratic debates in 2019

2012 flashback: Pollster John C. Green's prophecy -- sort of -- about Democratic debates in 2019


When news consumers think about politics and religion, they probably think about the clout that evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics have in the post-Ronald Reagan Republican Party.

Can you say “81 percent”? I knew that you could.

There is a very good reason for this state of mind in the news-consuming public. Many (perhaps most) journalists in elite American zip codes have always viewed the Religion Right as the modern version of the vandals sacking Rome. Thus, that is THE religion-and-politics story of the age.

What about the Democrats? What about the evidence of a “pew gap” (active religious believers tend to back the GOP, whether they want to or not) that hurts the Democrats in the American heartland?

It is very rare to see coverage of this kind of story, other than the evergreen (1) rise of the Religious Left news reports or maybe stories about (2) Democrats making new attempts to court people in pews.

In this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — we focused on a recent New York Times piece about the three major divisions inside the Democratic Party, right now, and the role that religion is playing in that drama. This was a follow-up to my recent post: “Thinking about modern Democrats: There are three kinds and religion may be a crucial factor.”

Before we get to that, check out the top of this interesting news report about the Democrats and their recent debates. Doesn’t the point of view here sound strange?

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Associated Press hits the high points — just the high points — in story on religion of 2020 Democrats

Associated Press hits the high points — just the high points — in story on religion of 2020 Democrats

Here’s your journalistic challenge: Cover the religion of the leading Democratic presidential candidates. (Some good advice here.)

Sound easy enough?

OK, let’s up the ante a bit: Meet the above challenge — and keep your story to roughly 1,000 words.

Wait, what!?

Now, you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to be a reporter for The Associated Press, a global news organization that reaches billions and keeps most stories between 300 and 500 words.

To merit 1,000 words in the AP universe, a subject matter must be deemed extremely important. Such is the case with the wire service’s overview this week on Democrats embracing faith in the 2020 campaign. Still, given the number of candidates, that length doesn’t leave much room to do anything but hit the basics on any of the candidates.

For those who paying close attention to the race, the anecdote at the top of AP’s report will sound familiar:

WASHINGTON (AP) — When 10 Democratic presidential candidates were pressed on immigration policy during their recent debate, Pete Buttigieg took his answer in an unexpected direction: He turned the question into a matter of faith.

Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, accused Republicans who claim to support Christian values of hypocrisy for backing policies separating children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. The GOP, he declared, “has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

It was a striking moment that highlighted an evolution in the way Democrats are talking about faith in the 2020 campaign. While Republicans have been more inclined to weave faith into their rhetoric, particularly since the rise of the evangelical right in the 1980s, several current Democratic White House hopefuls are explicitly linking their views on policy to religious values. The shift signals a belief that their party’s eventual nominee has a chance to win over some religious voters who may be turned off by President Donald Trump’s abrasive rhetoric and questions about his character.

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Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Early in the 1990s, I made the leap from full-time reporting in a mainstream newsroom — the Rocky Mountain News (RIP) — to teaching at Denver Seminary.

My goal was to pull “signals” from mainstream media into the world of people preparing for various ministries (key summary document here), helping them to face the ideas, symbols and stories that were shaping ordinary Americans, in pews and outside traditional religious groups. I wanted to pay attention to valid questions, even if traditional believers couldn’t embrace the media world’s answers.

In my main class, I needed a book that could open a door into what I called “Oprah America.” Thus, in 1992, I required my students to read “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson. Some of these evangelical students were not amused.

This, of course, leads us to that massive New York Times feature that ran the other day:

The Curious Mystical Text Behind Marianne Williamson’s Presidential Bid

The New Age author was drawn to an esoteric bible in the 1970s. It made her a self-help megastar. And now it has gone mainstream.

To my shock, the world’s newspaper of record dedicated large chunks of newsprint to the religious content — the doctrine, even — at the heart of Williamson’s life, ministry and her politics. I would say this story gets the equation about 75 percent right, but the Times team needed to back up a bit further in order to understand why so many Americans will — if told the roots of her thought — find her beliefs disturbing.

Hold that thought. Here’s the key question: How would the Times, and other elite media, have handled a feature about the beliefs of a Oneness Pentecostal or a faith-healing preacher who sought the presidency as a Republican? With this light a touch?

Now, here is a crucial chunk of that Times feature, which comes after a brief discussion of her remarks in the recent debates featuring a flock of Democratic candidates:

She was … drawing directly from a homegrown American holy book called “A Course in Miracles,” a curious New York scripture that arose during the heady metaphysical counterculture of the 1960s.

This is not some homey book of feel-good bromides. Rather, it is taken by its readers as a genuine gospel, produced by a Manhattan doctor who believed she was channeling new revelations from Jesus Christ himself.

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Heavy lift in 2020? Democrats continue to seek a modernized faith formula that works

Heavy lift in 2020? Democrats continue to seek a modernized faith formula that works

After 20 Democratic candidates’ “food fight” debates (thank you, Kamala Harris), pundits are pondering whether Harris or Elizabeth Warren will win their developing faceoff, whether senior citizens Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are slipping and whether the party is roaming too far left to win the mushy American middle.

Meanwhile, political reporters interested in religion, and religion reporters interested in politics, should examine whether the Democrats can improve their religion outreach after a lackluster 2016 effort, amid perennial predictions that a revivified “religious left” could counterbalance Republicans’ familiar “Religious Right.”

This time around, Democrats have uttered more religious mentions than usual, but hopes center upon one newcomer, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, an outspoken gay Episcopalian.

Asked about immigration during the debate, Episcopalian Buttigieg said “the Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion” while “our party doesn’t talk about that as much,” largely because of commitment to separation of church and state. Then this: “For a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is O.K. to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

There’s upcoming news in Buttigieg’s pick for full-time “Faith Engagement Director.” The job ad says the campaign “rejects transactional interactions” in favor of “creative ways to unlock cultural appreciation.” (Translation, please.) Notably, “women, LGBTQ folks, and disabled people are strongly encouraged to apply.” (What, no blacks and Latinos?)

The Democratic Party has already made a similar hire, with the Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins serving as director of religious outreach, which he also was in 2012. Back then, the left worried he’d lack enthusiasm for open-ended abortion and gay rights, but interviewers will presumably find he’s now fully on board, in the cultural liberalism department.

Harkins was the assistant pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City and pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Dallas and Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Since 2015 he’s been “Senior Vice President for Innovations in Public Programming” at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Under Harkins, the party’s first listening session was with the pro-LGBTQ Union of Affirming Christians.

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Democrat takes political stand against abortion: Wait a minute, isn't this governor a Catholic?

Democrat takes political stand against abortion: Wait a minute, isn't this governor a Catholic?

Let’s start here: Is it news when Democrats who are, to one degree or another, Catholic take actions that support abortion rights, especially with legislation linked to late-term abortions?

Well, ask Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Pretty soon, we may hear discussions of this issue linked to former Vice President Joe Biden.

So now let’s ask a variation on this question: Is it news when a prominent Democrat who is a Catholic takes actions to limit abortion rights, while openly linking his political views on a variety of progressive “life issues” to the teachings of his faith?

I would say a strong “yes.” Then again, I spent decades attempting to vote as a pro-life Democrat. (Confession: I gave up and registered with a third-party in 2016.)

The political desk at The Washington Post (mildly) agrees, on this point, when covering the current drama unfolding around Gov. John Bel Edwards, down in the complex political state that is Louisiana. The headline: “Louisiana’s Democratic governor just defied his party and signed an abortion ban into law.

How about The New York Times? Hold that thought. First, here is a key passage that is buried pretty far down in the Post coverage. It does contain a crucial word — “Catholic.”

In Louisiana, the nation is seeing some of the last remaining antiabortion Democrats, a class of politician that has grown obscure in recent decades.

Edwards has been a high-profile member of that group since he was elected governor in 2015. Like other antiabortion Democrats, he likes to say he’s “pro-life for the whole life,” because he opposes abortion and supports policies such as Medicaid expansion and a higher minimum wage. In his post-vote statement, he said he believes that “being pro-life means more than just being pro-birth.”

The Army veteran and Catholic has said he traces his long-held views on abortion to his faith — and so do many of his constituents, he said.

“That’s the way I was raised,” Edwards said in an October episode of his monthly radio show. “I know that for many in the national party, on the national scene, that’s not a good fit. But I will tell you, here in Louisiana, I speak and meet with Democrats who are pro-life every single day.”

Yes, it would have been interesting to have heard more about how these “consistent life” Democrats apply their beliefs to political realities linked to immigration, gun control, the death penalty and a host of other “seamless garment” issues discussed in Catholic circles.

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Looking for a religion ghost in Jimmy Carter's current clout with Democrats and journalists

Looking for a religion ghost in Jimmy Carter's current clout with Democrats and journalists

This is really a great time — in terms of mainstream media coverage — to be a liberal or “progressive” evangelical.

If you needed proof of this thesis — other than the contents of op-ed pages and wire features — then look no further than the latest political/media comeback by former President Jimmy Carter.

I have followed Carter for decades (I was a Carter volunteer at Baylor University in 1975-76), which is understandable since it’s impossible to report on the role of “born again” Christians in American political life without paying close attention to what Carter believes and when he believed it. He inspired many, many “moderate” Baptists and other evangelicals to take politics seriously.

Here’s a question I have asked for several decades now: Name another American politician — Republican or Democrat — who was willing to cost himself support within his own party by taking a critical stance, of any kind, on abortion. To this day, Carter’s language on abortion makes his party’s leadership nervous (see his remarks last year at Liberty University).

But the former president has certainly evolved on other crucial doctrinal issues. What role has this played in his current popularity with Democrats and, thus, with the press?

Consider this recent feature from the Associated Press: “Jimmy Carter finds a renaissance in 2020 Democratic scramble.” Here is the totally political overture:

ATLANTA (AP) — Jimmy Carter carved an unlikely path to the White House in 1976 and endured humbling defeat after one term. Now, six administrations later, the longest-living chief executive in American history is re-emerging from political obscurity at age 94 to win over his fellow Democrats once again.

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Attention reporters: Joe Biden's history with Catholicism an important element to his politics

Attention reporters: Joe Biden's history with Catholicism an important element to his politics

The 2020 presidential race is in full swing. The political press and its insatiable appetite for all things Donald Trump has subsided in as much as it needs to dedicate column space and airtime to the Democrats looking to replace him.

At last count, 20 people are running in the Democratic primary. Those include long-time frontrunners like Bernie Sanders, according to various polls and based on money raised, as well as those you may never have heard of before now like John Hickenlooper.

Overall, religion and faith, as expected, has gotten little to no coverage thus far. Only Pete Buttigieg has seen crossover coverage and that’s only because he injected his Christian faith (as a shot against Vice President Mike Pence) into the conversation.

The religion of these candidates and history with the dogma of their respective faiths — what they believe, why they believe it and, in some cases, when they changed their minds — is an issue many Americans care about. Journalists in the New York and Washington, D.C. bubbles may not think so (or even be aware of it), but the rest of the country (from the Bible Belt to the Western Plains) cares.

One candidate whose faith does need examination is Joe Biden. The former vice president has been in the news a lot recently — even before he announced a 2020 bid — but the faith angle (and his history with Catholicism over the decades) has sadly been overlooked.

For starters, Biden was born and raised a Roman Catholic. Were he to win the presidency, Biden would only be the second Catholic — after John F. Kennedy — to occupy the Oval Office. That’s no longer a big a story as when JFK did it in 1960. Nonetheless, Biden’s brand of Catholicism (past and present) is worth lots of news stories and TV segments. One can't run a Biden is running in 2020 story without including his faith and how it has influenced his life and politics.

It's true that Biden winning wouldn't make the same headlines JFK did in 1960. Or can they? After all, Catholics have come a long way in this country — both in terms of political clout and in overall population — that a Biden win wouldn't do much in the way of cementing Catholicism in any way. After all, a majority of the Supreme Court now features Catholic judges. Issues like abortion (Biden was once a pro-life Democrat) and religious freedom are at the center of the culture war being waged primarily by conservative Catholics, with help from Evangelical Christians, Mormons and other Protestants.

Overall, the Biden coverage has been devoid of any faith.

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New on the 2020 political agenda: Will a gay mayor (finally) rally the religious left?

New on the 2020 political agenda: Will a gay mayor (finally) rally the religious left?

Our January 31 Guy Memo ho-hummed National Public Radio’s latest example  of perennial wishful thinking in U.S. media about a substantial religious left (still lower-case) emerging to counter America’s familiar Religious Right (upper-case for years now). However, the Memo observed that, “President Trump remains unusually vulnerable to resistance on religious and moral grounds,” so journalists were advised to be “alert for surprises.”

Surprise! South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has since soared from obscurity. And his substantive interview for a March 29 Washington Post  article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey raises the prospect that the  religious left could achieve new impact by rallying behind his persona. Such a 2020 scenario could replicate 1980, when triumphant Ronald Reagan boosted the early Religious Right -- and vice versa.

Pundits quickly reinforced the Buttigieg religion angle, including Father Edward Beck on CNNKirsten Powers  in USA Today,  Andrew Sullivan of New York magazine and The Atlantic’s Emma Green.

Buttigieg has never run statewide and is merely the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city (South Bend of Notre Dame fame). But the Harvard alum,  a boyish 37, has already been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, businessman and Navy intelligence officer serving in Afghanistan. His golden tongue in rallies and TV appearances is inspiring early success.

The mayor could aid Democratic designs in the Big Ten states that are likely to (again) determine whether Donald Trump wins. The amiable Midwesterner ranks third behind East Coasters Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in Emerson’s latest Iowa poll and well outpaces Amy Klobuchar from neighboring Minnesota. Focus on Rural America’s polling of Democrats who plan to attend the Iowa caucus puts him at 6 percent, tied with Klobuchar and another fresh face, “Beto” O’Rourke.

Journalists take note: Buttigieg is a religiously significant figure who underwent a spiritual turn at a Catholic high school and at Oxford. He became a devoted and articulate Episcopalian, came out in 2015, and married his gay partner in church last year.  That, and his social-gospel outlook, mesh with leaders and thinkers in “mainline” Protestantism’s liberal wing, alongside Catholics of similar mind.

Among Buttigieg’s numerous religious comments in the opening phase of his campaign, the most remarkable came April 7 before a packed LGBTQ Victory Fund rally. He admitted that as a youth “I would have done anything to not be gay,” said his same-sex marriage ‘has moved me closer to God,” and challenged “the Mike Pences of the world” with this: “If you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my Creator.” (Notably, some media lower-cased his C.) 

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