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Born again?

Looking to regain its base, the Democratic Party is restating its liberal program in religion-friendly terms

Born again?

In Georgia, state Sen. Kasim Reed in January introduced a bill authorizing school districts to teach courses derived from The Bible and Its Influence, a textbook released last year by the Bible Literacy Project.

In Tennessee, Reps. Rick Nelson and Bob Damron are sponsoring legislation that would allow postings of religious documents such as the Ten Commandments.

In Virginia, Timothy Kaine rode religious campaign themes and Christian radio ads to victory in the governor's race last fall.

All that would be business as usual for the GOP. But these Bible-thumping, faith-stumping pols are all Democrats-and part of their party's emerging effort to reconnect with religious voters.

It's not just a Southern phenomenon. Democrats in the North and West also are becoming more vocal on traditionally Republican issues-from public prayer to traditional marriage. U.S. Senate Democrats in January invited conservative evangelical Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, to speak. Former Vermont governor and current Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who once said his favorite New Testament book is Job and last June slammed the GOP as "pretty much a white, Christian party," now says the Bible should be taught as literature in public schools.

For Republicans who view Democrats as godless, the party's sudden, public embrace of faith is crassly political. Republican state Sen. Eric Johnson of Georgia excoriated Kasim Reed's Bible course proposal as "election-year pandering using voters' deepest beliefs as a tool." But Darrell Thompson, senior advisor to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, told WORLD that Democrats have always embraced religious faith, just not so publicly, and "we're right to talk about it now."

The Democratic Party certainly includes many believing Christians who want their party to represent their beliefs, and others whose God talk might be a steely-eyed response to the cold calculus of poll numbers. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, George Bush in 2000 walloped Democrat Al Gore among religiously observant voters-those who attended church at least weekly-63 percent to 36 percent. Four years later in the same demographic, he crushed John Kerry by gaining voter-share among white evangelicals (+10 percentage points over 2000), white mainline Protestants (+2), black Protestants (+6), and Jewish voters (+6).

Even though Mr. Kerry is Roman Catholic, Mr. Bush also improved his standing among non-Hispanic white Catholics (+4) and Hispanic Catholics (+6). The president's across-the-board gains among even traditionally Democratic religious voters-mainline Protestants, black Protestants, Jews, and Catholics-apparently was a reaction to Democratic extremism on issues of morality.

"Democrats have now recognized that the language of religious 'values' resonates with people," said Hillsdale College professor David Bobb, who studies the intersection of politics and religion. "John Kerry made halting efforts to discuss values, but never came up with a way of connecting religion with public policy."

Most Americans, on some level, expect their presidents to do that. "American presidents from George Washington forward have evoked religion fairly routinely, quoting from the Bible, calling for prayer, mentioning God," said Amy Black, an associate professor of politics and international relations at Wheaton College. "It's a common expectation in American politics, particularly at the presidential level. We expect our presidents to be Christians."

Mr. Bush, aided by speechwriter Michael Gerson, an evangelical, has been effective in this regard, proclaiming basic human rights as flowing from natural law and freedom as God's gift to all mankind. "Many of the speeches Bush has given position America as an almost prophetic voice in the world," Mr. Bobb said.

Democrats may be taking notes-and reviewing recent history. The only two Democrats to win the White House since 1964 spoke openly of Christian faith. In 1976, Jimmy Carter invoked his down-home, born-again Christianity-and ousted Republican Gerald Ford. In 1992, a Bible-toting Bill Clinton somehow managed to juggle allegations of adultery with impassioned pulpiteering in black churches: He learned to deliver campaign speeches in sermon cadence.

During the final hour of the House budget debate last November, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tried a little old-time religion, saying any vote for the GOP-brokered budget amounted to "a sin." This January, following President Bush's State of the Union address, Sen. Reid, a Mormon, stayed on-message. In a Beliefnet.com response to the president's speech he alluded to the Good Samaritan and the book of Matthew, chapter 25: "I and many of my colleagues came to public service . . . to serve our neighbors, and to help the least among us."

He went on to state that he's spoken with many religious leaders who say that today's Republican leadership "seems unfocused and unfazed by the needs of our brothers and sisters," and had in 2005 passed an "immoral budget that would deprive so many . . . in order to pay for tax cuts that benefit so few." That rhetoric typified the new Democratic approach to faith: A "social justice" agenda reframed as a question of morality.

"I think our members are reaching out to faith groups, but I don't think they've changed their script," Reid advisor Thompson said: "We're simply talking about the issues we've always talked about, like health care, education, seniors. What you will see that is different is that we are describing these issues in a moral context," with "tax cuts for the wealthy" becoming not just economically unfair but "an immoral act."

Since religious conservatives reemerged as a political force in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the major parties' expressions of morality have evolved along tracks as distinctly different as their approach to economics. Republicans emphasize free markets and individual, Bible-based morality as the underpinnings of a civil society that creates opportunity and the best hope for prosperity for the broadest segment of citizens. Democrats, at the national level at least, have tended to embrace what Progressive Policy Institute senior fellow Fred Siegel calls "an antipathy to economic markets and a faith in a free market in morals."

Christian adherents have found homes in both parties. "Those Christians who are most concerned with issues of personal morality, such as abortion, homosexuality, and in a larger sense, the right to life find a home in the Republican Party," Ms. Black said. "Those who are more concerned with 'social justice' issues, such as justice for the poor and the limits of capitalism, find more of a home in the Democratic Party."

But that changed somewhat in 2000 and 2004 as Republicans became the first to retool their image for the 21st century. In the run-up to the 2000 presidential campaign, Mr. Bush, then governor of Texas, rolled out the concept of "compassionate conservatism." The philosophy, which married biblical compassion for the poor with other, equally biblical principles like personal responsibility, countered Republicans' image as bean-counting capitalists content to cut entitlement programs and then race home to the suburbs.

Some Republicans and legions of liberals saw "compassionate conservatism" as PR, but the concept reflected the long involvement of biblical conservatives in poverty-fighting and other efforts on behalf of the needy. So, too, Democrats' attempt at religious reinvention should not be dismissed merely as political calculation, for the Democrats' "social justice" agenda matches the mission of many mainline Protestant churches. As Mr. Bobb put it, the Democrats' new faith-based approach "repackages the social gospel for the 21st century. Their problem is how does this translate into something other than throwing more money and more bureaucracy at social problems?"

That's a significant hurdle. When Lyndon Johnson pushed the liberal War on Poverty, the number of dependent Americans exploded and inner cities further deteriorated. When Republicans pushed the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, critics predicted the law would spawn an epidemic of begging mothers and starving children, but the new approach to public aid has brought into the work force many who were on welfare, while raising the material standard of living for black children to its highest level in history.

In reconnecting with religious voters, Democrats face other hurdles. First, the party will alienate part of its core-secularists, libertines, feminists, and homosexuals-if it substantively moderates its positions on the very issues of personal morality that drove many religious voters across the aisle in the first place.

Second, the Democratic Party is in solid alliance with ardent church-state separators such as People for the American Way (PFAW) and the ACLU. While Mr. Thompson said that Democrats do not "agree on every issue" with such groups, he declined to disavow Democratic alliance on the church-state issue, and said there's "very little daylight between us and some of the groups we're talking about."

Finally, the traditionally Democratic, but now disaffected, religious voters the party needs to woo back into the fold may now be more skeptical of biblical cherry-picking as a basis for public policy. As conservative blogger and author Patrick Hynes put it, Democrats "cannot call Republicans 'theocrats' for trying to save Terri Schiavo while they also claim John the Baptist endorsed their welfare state when he said, 'He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none.'"

The Democrats' best hope may be the GOP: As Mr. Bobb noted, "Republicans are squandering their capital with evangelicals" over ethics debacles and apparent greed.

Fighting Democrats

Dogs hate cats. Spring follows winter. Democrats are weak on national defense.

In life and politics, some things are axiomatic.

The Democrats want to change that image. The national party is not only getting religion but also recruiting military veterans to run for Congress. By January, the group of about 55 candidates-about a dozen of them terror-war vets-had become large enough to draw a flurry of major newspaper stories featuring military candidates uniformly opposed to the war and proclaiming themselves ready to rein in the Pentagon.

The "fighting Democrats" are trying to give their party what U.S. House candidate Tim Dunn, Democrat of North Carolina, calls "instant credibility" on defense issues. The Democratic veterans seem unified in their message on the war in Iraq: President Bush sent American forces into harm's way ill-equipped and without a plan, Mr. Dunn told WORLD. Others argue that America needs a "phased withdrawal" with "milestones," an idea that former assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle calls "just another version of basic opposition to the war."

Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth goes her fellow veteran candidates one better: She says it was a mistake to invade Iraq in the first place. Ms. Duckworth, an Army National Guard helicopter pilot who lost both legs and the use of one arm when insurgents blew her Black Hawk out of the sky near Baghdad in November 2004, is one of a handful of veteran candidates the GOP considers a threat. Another is Patrick Murphy, who is running in Pennsylvania's 8th District, one considered vulnerable to Democratic challenge.

Most of the other fighting Democrats are running in districts that President Bush carried by large margins in 2004. That raises a question, said Republican National Congressional Committee spokesman Jonathan Collegio: Is the national party truly committed to moderating its national defense position by recruiting more military experience into its ranks, or are the "fighting Democrats" just election-year cannon fodder and PR?

Paul Hackett, an attorney and Marine Corps reservist, was a bright Democratic hope last year when he nearly beat Republican Jean Schmidt in a special U.S. House election in a conservative Ohio district. This year, Mr. Hackett decided to challenge Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, but he dropped out on Feb. 15, pointedly telling reporters that national party leaders pressured him to withdraw and asked major donors to send funds elsewhere. Pennsylvania Democrat Bryan Lentz, a challenger to Republican Curt Weldon, also quit his race amid tepid support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

-with reporting by Kristin Chapman

Lynn Vincent

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen non-fiction books, including Same Kind of Different as Me. Lynn resides in San Diego, Calif.