Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith -- the politician who shows up at a black church around election time and claps, off rhythm, to the gospel choir. Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. To say that men and women should not inject their personal morality into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.
Those aren't my words. I'm quoting. And who am I quoting? You might guess an evangelical Christian leader. Perhaps even a Republican strategist or conservative lawmaker. But would guess a Democratic senator? Those are the words of Senator Barack Obama, addressing a bipartisan religious conference sponsored by Sojourners founder Rev. Jim Wallis.
Obama had strong words for the Democratic party, both in his speech and in an interview I conducted with him afterwards, about the party's historic aversion to talk about faith. Faith is a very big part of the life of many Americans, contends Obama, and for Democrats to not talk about religion or even try to understand a person's faith is to eliminate almost all possibility of communicating meaningfully with them.
Republicans are great at talking about faith. And they are rewarded for it. In 2004, white evangelicals counted for 23 percent of voters. And they broke overwhelmingly for President Bush. "The biggest mistake the Democrats have made is to cede the entire territory of religion and values to a religious and political right, who then narrow the issues to only two -- abortion and gay marriage -- and then manipulate them politically," says Jim Wallis.
Democrats are trying to correct the mistake. There is a movement afoot led by Obama, the new superstar of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean and others to encourage party members to acknowledge faith as a means to broader communication. Whether it's for a Democratic politician to make public his or her own faith, or simply learn how to talk about it, party leaders believe it could be a foot in the door to get those exurban evangelicals to listen.
Democrats are also trying to expand the field of "moral" and "value" issues to include some of their strengths. For them to play, it needs to be about more than abortion and same-sex marriage. So they're attempting to making moral issues out of poverty, hunger, human rights and "creation care" (a new phrase for "environmentalism"), believing that if there is common ground on belief in the idea of moral values, there might be fertile ground to approach evangelicals on the Iraq war, the deficit and other issues.
Take Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, for example. He talked a lot about his personal religion during his election campaign. Not in terms of politics, but he let people know that he was a person for whom faith was important. He spoke of his mission in Honduras, and he talked about religion as part of his background. On faith issues, he sounded more like a Republican than a Democrat. No one questioned his sincerity. And wouldn't you know it, he won.
Many Democrats acknowledge that they have been the party of secularism for so long that they have alienated a significant part of the electorate. And they want to try to win those voters over. As Senator Obama pointed out, the majority of great reformers in American history -- Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King among them -- were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause.
Now, certainly this is going to make secularists uncomfortable. They will argue about blurring the line between church and state. But some Democrats have their eyes on another line. The 50 percent line. And they know that unless they can peel off a portion of that growing segment of society that is firmly rooted in the South and now sweeping across the Midwest, they will likely remain the party of the minority and continue to see "red"in the White House.