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Issue Date:  August 13, 2004

Kerry advised to court faith groups


The Bush campaign’s efforts to reach out to religiously motivated voters is well documented; the Kerry campaign’s less so.

Maybe that’s because there’s not much to say about the latter.

“The Kerry folks really do not understand the scope and the complexity of religious communities in America,” one activist Protestant minister, a Kerry supporter, told NCR. “They do not take the religious community seriously.” The frustrated Democrat said the campaign “trivializes” the concerns of religious progressives and underfunds efforts to organize what he considers a natural Kerry constituency.

By contrast, the Bush campaign is pouring money into energizing its religious base. The campaign and the Republican National Committee have hired denomination-specific “outreach” organizers. They have targeted Catholics in key battleground states. And they are working to reach the 4 million white evangelicals, natural Bush supporters, who Republican strategist Karl Rove says did not vote in the 2000 election.

The Republicans have gone so far as to ask their Catholic “team leaders” to procure parish directories and membership lists -- they are particularly interested in those who use envelopes to make their Sunday contributions (NCR, July 30).

Many say the Bush approach is over the top -- that it is injecting undue partisanship into tax-exempt houses of worship. But there’s no denying that it is serious, organized and well funded.

Kerry spokesperson Allison Dobson notes that the campaign’s religious outreach effort organized a series of “service projects” in communities around the country the weekend before the Boston convention. She directs a reporter to for details. In the sparse links devoted to “People of Faith for Kerry-Edwards,” there is no mention of those efforts.

The Kerry campaign, said Dobson, aims to secure the votes of 1 million voters who “self-identify” as being motivated by their religious faith. Details here too are scant, with Dobson saying the campaign is using exit polls from the last election to identify and motivate this constituency.

The campaign does have three staffers devoted to outreach to the faith community, though its lead operative, Mara Vanderslice, was muzzled by the campaign in June after William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, labeled her a “a far left-wing activist who has spoken at rallies held by the notoriously anti-Catholic group ACT UP.”

In a country where 90 percent of the people express a belief in God, where 70 percent say religion is “very important” to them, and where overwhelming numbers say that a president should be religious, what should the Kerry forces be doing?

First, there’s the candidate.

Kerry needs to articulate secular policy positions within a moral framework, former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta told a July 27 Wesley Theological Seminary symposium on “The God Gap in Presidential Politics.” Kerry is at a disadvantage, said Podesta, because “he comes from a tradition that does not wear [religion] on its sleeve.” And, Podesta continued, media coverage of religion focuses on “a relatively narrow range of issues” -- abortion and gay marriage foremost among them. Podesta said Kerry needs to employ religious and moral language as he discusses issues of war, health care and the economy.

In his July 29 convention speech, Kerry did just that. “I don’t wear my own faith on my sleeve,” he declared. “But faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday.” He referenced the Fourth Commandment -- “Honor thy father and thy mother” -- in stating his opposition to privatization of Social Security.

Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics and director of Wesley Seminary’s Washington capital semester program, said that Kerry must do more. Kerry must use a Catholic backdrop (“if he can find an institution that will have him”) and articulate how his beliefs translate into action. In their statement released late last year, “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility,” the U.S. bishops described some American Catholics as “politically homeless” -- concerned about a range of issues, such as health care, housing, war and peace, usually associated with Democrats, while committed to eliminating legal abortion, a Republican issue. “This is a [Kerry] campaign speech waiting to be written,” said Casey.

And what of Kerry’s problems with some American bishops, those who have threatened to deny him Communion because of his pro-choice views? The overwhelming vote of the U.S. bishops to leave the decision on Communion and pro-choice politicians to individual bishops in their respective dioceses should provide Kerry enough room to maneuver, said Casey.

Given the constraints of time, the pressure of other constituencies, and an apparent reluctance to highlight religious themes, does the Kerry camp get it? Podesta, a liberal pragmatist, thinks so.

“There’s going to be a plan [to reach out to the religious community],” he told NCR, “because there has to be a plan.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

Pro-choice stance draws scant notice at convention

Democrats for Life gathered for a reception July 26 and they needed a room larger than a phone booth to conduct their business. In fact, they met in the majestic Great Hall of the Massachusetts State House. Nearly two-dozen antiabortion and anti-death penalty office holders and office seekers joined approximately 50 members of the organization and its supporters.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver was there, as was former Boston mayor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Ray Flynn.

So what’s a pro-life Democrat to do in this election?

“Vote for Kerry,” said Irv Anderson, a Kerry delegate from Minnesota. A longtime party activist (he was a Jimmy Carter alternate delegate in 1976), Anderson said he backed Kerry in the primaries because he, like Kerry, is a military veteran.

Mary Ellen Otremba, a pro-life Democratic Minnesota state representative, said that Republican opposition to abortion is largely phony, that it’s “just something they use” to get votes.

“I don’t think the [Republican] leadership wants it to change -- they’ve raised millions on this issue,” said Otremba.

Flynn struck a pragmatic note. “It’s up to us to convince [Democratic politicians] that they can win elections by being pro-life,” said Flynn. Those who argue that the Democratic Party is hostile to abortion opponents, as evidenced by the lack of pro-life speakers at the convention, have a point, said Flynn. Still, he said, “the one pro-life speaker at the Republican convention will be a Democrat.” Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, an antiabortion Democrat scheduled to speak at the Republican gathering in New York, has endorsed President Bush.

Meanwhile, the pro-life Democrats might find solace in the fact that the party’s pro-choice stance was barely acknowledged by convention speakers, and even then it was largely in code words.

Alexandra Kerry, daughter of the presidential candidate, said people should support her father if they want their children to grow up “to control their own bodies.” Kerry didn’t mention abortion -- or “choice” or “reproductive freedom” -- in his acceptance speech.

And though its platform reiterates the party’s commitment to reproductive rights, abortion was not mentioned by platform committee co-chairs Rosa DeLauro or Tom Vilsack in their brief presentations. They stressed national security and economic issues.

Likewise, a five-and-half-page news release issued by the campaign on the convention’s first day highlighted jobs, health care, energy independence and “the war against terror.” No mention is made of hot button social issues, such as abortion or gay rights.

Even the outside progressive groups appear to have gotten the message. The left-leaning Campaign for America’s Future highlights 13 issues in its materials -- everything from “Protect and Extend Medicare” and “Good Jobs in the U.S.” to “Quality Public Education” and “Accountable Corporations.” No mention of social issues.

And there was one pro-life Democrat speaker, though perhaps the message he delivered was not what abortion opponents would have liked. Rhode Island Rep. James Langevin, a member of the Democrats for Life Federal Advisory Board, introduced Ron Reagan to the convention Tuesday evening. The late president’s son made an impassioned plea for embryonic stem cell research funding, which many in the pro-life community oppose, equating it with abortion.

Langevin is the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress.

-- Joe Feuerherd

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 2004

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