Attention, all Democratic candidates, campaign managers, media consultants and constituency organizers: If there is not a dog-eared, frequently underlined copy of Amy Sullivan’s The Party Faithful  on your bookshelf soon, please quit. Sullivan, who is the nation editor at Time magazine, writes an incisive analysis of the Democratic Party’s inability to cultivate religious voters and how, in a nation of churchgoers, this has led to their frequent exile from the halls of political power. She critiques the strategies that failed and sketches the outreach that has worked. This is a must read.
Sullivan shows how Democrats actively lost religious voters. She describes in detail the shifting cultural forces, going back to the Scopes trial through the counterculture of the 1960s, that created a wall between a devout America and the increasingly secular, liberal elites that shape the culture, including the culture of politics. She recalls the squeamishness of Jimmy Carter’s advisors whenever he spoke of his evangelical religion. And she chronicles the refusal to let Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey address the Democratic National Convention in 1992 because of his pro-life views. This history is well known to most students of politics, but it is very well told in Sullivan’s account.
Less well known is the history of efforts by left-leaning evangelicals and Catholics to fight secularizing trends within the Democratic Party. Sullivan pens an especially vivid account of the 1973 meeting of evangelicals in Chicago that published the Chicago Declaration on Evangelical Social Concern. These religiously motivated activists were “brimming with optimism” when they left Chicago; but by the end of the decade, the emergence of evangelicals as a political power came not from the left but from the right. “We wanted to get evangelicals politically engaged,” Sullivan quotes one of the Chicago meeting’s organizers. “We never expected that the Moral Majority would be the result.”
In discussing the loss of ethnic Catholics from Democratic ranks, Sullivan acknowledges the centrality of the abortion issue in alienating many Catholic voters. She is correct in writing that “abortion rights supporters assumed that ordinary Catholics would reject the Church’s teaching on abortion the same way they had with contraception” and that this assumption proved incorrect. The anti-Catholic bigotry of some abortion rights supporters is also covered; and while Sullivan does not probe more deeply into the philosophic differences between the emerging libertarian ethic of secular liberals and the traditional ethics of the Catholic Church, her treatment of those fraught debates in the 1970s is evenhanded. And her conclusion is spot-on: You can’t insult people’s religion and then wonder why they aren’t voting for you.
One mistake Sullivan makes is to place undue emphasis on the differences between the pre- and post-Vatican II Church. This is, sadly, a mistake made by many Catholic historians as well but, increasingly, the continuities between the two are receiving the attention they deserve. This is especially relevant when looking at the cultural expressions of faith and how Catholics view the world, including the world of politics, differently from their Protestant brethren. The central act of Catholic worship, the Mass, suggests a more communal view of the world than that of a congregation listening to a sermon. The increased frequency of reception of Communion that developed in the 20th century dates back not to Vatican II, but to the liturgical renewal of the otherwise reactionary Pope Pius X in the first decade of the 20th century. Similarly, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults has brought new life to countless parishes and increased the degree of participation by lay Catholics in a variety of apostolates. It was Pius XII’s decision to rehabilitate the Easter Vigil liturgy that led to this renewed emphasis on baptism, which in turn has allowed many Catholics to live out the words of President Kennedy: “Here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” The pre-Vatican II church had all the seeds of a religiously motivated cultural life that is very different from the consumerist, hyper-individualistic culture that we call the American mainstream.
The most depressing reading for liberal Catholics is the author’s recapitulation of the clumsy way the John Kerry campaign dealt with the religion issue. Sullivan’s reporting skills shine in this section as she gets deep inside the Kerry campaign to discover the decisions that led to the defensive, inarticulate public posture the rest of us saw. Compared with the aggressive and sophisticated outreach efforts of the Republicans, the lingering anti-religious bias of Democratic Party operatives frustrated even grass-roots efforts to enlist Catholics and others for Kerry. Eric McFadden started one such grass-roots effort in the swing state of Ohio, but his effort to get help from the official campaign was met with the dismissive, and racist, rebuttal from Kerry officialdom, “We don’t do white churches.”
Looking ahead, Sullivan believes the alienation between religiously motivated voters and the Democratic Party need not be permanent or total. She points to the gubernatorial campaigns of Tim Kaine in Virginia and Bill Ritter in Colorado, two pro-life Democrats who won election in 2005 and 2006, respectively. She discusses the successful effort of Representatives Tim Ryan and Rosa DeLauro to hammer out and pass the Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Families Act, which sought to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place, and offer financial assistance to pregnant women who decided to carry their children to term. The bill passed in 2007 despite a below-the-radar opposition effort by pro-choice groups.
There is hope the Democrats have learned their lesson. And, lucky for them, the emergence of the religiously fluent Barack Obama as a leader of the party can only facilitate the dialogue Democrats need to have with those who consider religion a principal source of their ideas about culture, economics and politics. The Party Faithful points the direction toward a more humane and tolerant Democratic Party that can also be more successful on Election Day.