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Issue Date:  January 28, 2005

Religion and values loom large as Democrats debate the future


From the ivory towers of high-minded think tanks to the nitty-gritty of the retail politics needed to secure a majority of the 447 national committee members who will select the party’s next chairman, Democrats are sorting out what they are all about. And like sausage grinding and law making, it’s not a pretty process.

It’s complicated, with traditional allies splitting along unconventional lines. Among the divisions: liberal secularists versus the progressive religious community and powerful pro-choice activists versus those who think the party should be more “inclusive” toward those who favor limits on abortion.

The fault line is “values,” which, depending on who defines the term, can be anything from opposition to tax and budget policies that favor the wealthy over the less so, to the war in Iraq, to the definition of marriage, to the party’s longtime support for abortion rights. The debate occurs at a moment of perhaps unparalleled weakness for the oldest political party on the planet: Republicans control the White House, a majority of governorships and state houses, and secured increased margins in both the House and Senate in November.

Liberal stalwart Ted Kennedy entered the fray Jan. 12. “There’s no doubt we must do a better job of looking within ourselves and speaking out for the principles we believe in, and for the values that are the foundation of our actions,” he told a National Press Club luncheon. “Americans need to hear more, not less, about those values. We were remiss in not talking more directly about them -- about the fundamental ideals that guide our progressive policies.”

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton added her voice to the debate Jan. 19. “There is no contradiction between support for faith-based initiatives and upholding our constitutional principles,” Clinton told a Boston audience gathered for a fundraising event for a faith-based charity, according to The Boston Globe. She urged those with religious convictions to “live out their faith in the public square.”

In the short term, the Feb. 12 election to decide who will replace Terry McAuliffe as party chair will be a decisive moment. The frontrunners in the six-candidate pack are former Indiana Rep. Timothy Roemer -- a 9/11 Commission member who opposes abortion rights but has the support of some high-profile pro-choice Democrats -- and Howard Dean, the solidly pro-choice former Vermont governor whose energy and organizational skill excites party activists but whose aversion to religious themes worry those who say such rhetoric is necessary to revive the moribund party in middle America.

“One of the most important things for me as a Democrat is how do we reach out more effectively to help the least of our brethren?” Roemer said on ABC’s This Week Jan. 9, the day he announced his candidacy for the party post. “That’s what Jesus said to us.” Even as pro-choice activists have mounted an aggressive campaign to derail Roemer’s bid, his candidacy is encouraged by such pro-choice lawmakers as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Democrats, meanwhile, are getting advice from some unusual quarters. Speaking at the capitol’s epicenter of institutional liberalism on the same platform as four of the nation’s leading religious progressives, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Bush’s re-election vanquished those who seek “to disqualify religiously informed” citizens “from being involved in the [public policy] debate.” He specifically mentioned the ACLU, People for the American Way, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Voters, Land told the Brookings Institution-sponsored panel on “Moral Values, Politics, and the Faith Factor,” definitively “rejected the idea that some perverted misunderstanding of the separation of church and state” requires religious people to check their values at the church foyer.

Though Land’s co-panelists cautioned that believers were still not welcome in some mainstream political circles, and warned of the risks of overusing religious rhetoric, no one challenged his central thesis. “The so-called religious right has won its fight with secular fundamentalism,” asserted Land. “The debate is now over -- they have lost. I welcome their defeat.”

Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical minister and Sojourners magazine editor whose recent book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, is an bestseller, said he fears that Land’s analysis is incorrect, or at least premature.

“Secular fundamentalists [are] still fighting to keep moral and religious language out of the public discussion,” lamented Wallis, who has been advising Democratic members of Congress on how to connect their traditional support for liberal economic policies with the concerns of religious believers. While Republicans narrow the discussion of values to two issues, marriage and abortion, Democrats fail to link their traditional social justice concerns to religious-minded voters, many of whom would vote Democratic if the party’s candidates articulated their message from a faith perspective, said Wallis.

Former Catholic Charities USA president J. Bryan Hehir, a priest of the Boston archdiocese, urged caution to those who would use religious imagery and language in the public sphere. Morality, which has an appeal beyond specific religious doctrines or denomination, said Hehir, should be the mediator between religion and politics in civil society. A pluralistic society such as the United States requires those who assert religious claims “to justify them to others who don’t share their faith” with pragmatic secular arguments, said Hehir.

Predictably, perhaps, one of the vanquished refused to give up the fight. Land’s declaration of victory “is an absurd statement because the majority of the people in this country don’t share most of the values of the so-called religious conservatives,” Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told NCR. Lynn noted that large majorities of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade and support either marriage rights or civil unions for gay couples.

“The Democratic Party shouldn’t try to be Republican light on religion because it’s not going to work,” said Lynn. “There are plenty of good, solid morally responsible ethical positions that can be articulated by people who also happen to be Democrats. You don’t need to tie the idea that we have to take care of the poorest people before we give more to the wealthiest to direct religious experience. You don’t have to quote Jesus about it -- it’s just not an appropriate way to run a secular democracy.”

Kennedy, meanwhile, did not back away from his longtime support for abortion rights. “A woman has the constitutional right to make her own reproductive decisions, and I support that right wholeheartedly,” said the eight-term senator. But, he continued, “if we are serious about reducing the number of abortions, we must be serious about reducing unwanted pregnancy. We must adopt policies with a proven track record of reducing abortion.” The number of abortions is reduced, said Kennedy, “when women and parents have education and economic opportunity.”

Few Democrats would argue with Kennedy’s critique. The unanswered question, however, is whether party leaders will opt to challenge core constituencies within their ranks, such as the pro-choice lobby and strict church-state separatists, or, instead, seek to energize that base in its quest to win elections.

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

Roemer seeks new focus for abortion debate

Former six-term representative Tim Roemer is, on some levels, central casting’s answer to what ails the Democratic Party. The articulate 48-year-old former Notre Dame graduate student (he got his master’s and Ph.D. in South Bend) had a moderate to liberal voting record (Americans for Democratic Action 61 percent lifetime rating) while representing a conservative “Red State” district during 12 years in the House. He supported increases in the minimum wage, backed the 1996 welfare bill signed by President Clinton, and, most recently, served on the 9/11 Commission.

But he also supported measures that put him at odds with the party’s influential abortion-rights constituency -- such as a ban on late term abortions, “parental consent” for minors, a ban on cloning, and the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act.” Thus his desire to head the Democratic National Committee -- he’s the only pro-life candidate among the six seeking the post -- has become a flash point as the party debates its future in the wake of the 2004 election results.

“I don’t think a single issue or interest should dictate where this party goes in the future,” Roemer told NCR. “I hope that we can talk about this divisive abortion issue in different ways in this country in the 21st century. President Bush campaigned all over the country with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who doesn’t agree with him on the issue. Why can’t the Democratic Party include both views at high levels?”

Roemer, who acknowledges that the party is essentially pro-choice on abortion-rights, would nonetheless like to see a new emphasis. “I’ve never met a woman who wanted to have an abortion or who didn’t respect life,” said Roemer. Democrats should focus on reducing the demand for abortion, as they did with some success during the Clinton presidency, and reaching out to voters who don’t share a hard-line stance on the issue, he said. “The debate has moved nowhere over the past 30 years.”

Roemer got into politics (he’s a former aide to Rep. John Brademas and Sen. Dennis DeConcini), he says, as a form of service. “The quality of life for our children is a values issue; caring for the poor is a social justice issue. These are the least of our brethren.” Of additional concern, says Roemer, are “the values of national security, job security and Social Security.”

“The Democratic Party tries in effective ways to help the homeless, to help the poor and to give people economic opportunities. That’s why I’m in public service.”

The Democratic National Committee will select its new chairman during it annual meeting in Washington, Feb. 10-12.

-- Joe Feuerherd

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2005

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