Can Democrats sway young evangelicals?

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Bernie Sanders will speak at Liberty University on Monday

Democrats haven't carried evangelical vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976

Washington CNN —  

It’s just another odd first in a presidential contest already replete with them.

On Monday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a liberal, Jewish socialist from Vermont, will become the first Democratic presidential contender to speak at Liberty University, the evangelical school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

No Democratic presidential candidate has carried the evangelical vote since Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, won the White House in 1976. Four years later, Falwell and his powerful new Moral Majority helped Ronald Reagan oust Carter and put evangelicals solidly in the Republican camp for decades to come.

Although Democrats don’t expect that to change anytime soon, some hope to at least put a dent in the evangelical vote this time around. They have their eyes on young evangelicals, who are often less conservative on social issues than their parents.

“With younger millennials, we’re seeing more commitment to the environment, climate change, LGBT equality, poverty and a range of social justice issues,” said Sally Steenland, director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank allied with Democrats. “One thing is that when you take the Bible seriously, you take justice issues seriously. Because they reflect your belief in your faith.”

Indeed, more than 40% of evangelical millennials support same-sex marriage, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that studies religion and public life.

The Faith of Democrats

At least two Democratic candidates – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley – come from rich Christian traditions that they say have shaped their politics. Clinton, in particular, has over the decades spoken publicly about the impact of her Methodist roots.

“I have always cherished the Methodist Church because it gave us the great gift of personal salvation but also the great obligation of social gospel,” Clinton said at the annual United Methodist Women Assembly last year. “And I took that very seriously and have tried, tried to be guided in my own life ever since as an advocate for children and families, for women and men around the world who are oppressed and persecuted, denied their human rights and human dignity.”

She discussed her faith as recently as Sunday as she helped celebrate the bicentennial of Washington’s Foundry United Methodist Church, which the Clintons attended when they lived in the White House.

READ: Citing scripture, Clinton says she’ll be nicer to the press

While Sanders is neither Christian nor, in his words, “particularly religious” – his Monday speech falls on Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days of the Jewish year – he often champions the social justice values that are increasingly popular with evangelical millennials, said Richard Parker, who teaches about religion, politics and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Sanders acknowledged that Liberty’s students and faculty likely disagree with him on a number of fronts – he singled out women’s rights, gay rights and education – but suggested they might find some common ground on such issues as inequality and the environment.

“But let me respectfully suggest that there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country and the world and that maybe, just maybe, we don’t disagree on them. And maybe, just maybe, we can work together in trying to resolve them,” Sanders will say, according to excerpts of his speech.

Sanders’ national press secretary, Symone D. Sanders, said that on Monday, the senator “will be talking about morality in ways that people from all different points of view can find common values.”

READ: Bernie Sanders heads south to court black vote

Liberty, which is based in Lynchburg, Virginia, said in a statement that it has invited all the presidential candidates from both parties to speak there.

A number of Democrats have talked openly about their faith in the past, key among them former President Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist who, as a teen, attended the Rev. Billy Graham’s crusade in Little Rock, Arkansas, and President Barack Obama, who was baptized as an adult. But they have been unable to pierce an evangelical bloc that opposes them on key social issues.

Still, Democrats have been less eager to draw attention to issues of faith in the post-Carter years. Doug Tanner, founder of the Faith & Politics Institute, which works to engage Congress members and their staffs in bipartisan, interfaith dialogue, said that Democratic candidates grew quieter on religion following the creation of the Moral Majority.

“That doesn’t mean that plenty of Democrats don’t share a deep faith,” he said. “They just have not spoken about it that readily nearly as often partly because they didn’t want to sound like the Religious Right.”

Turning the Page?

This year, Democratic strategists say that candidates who are vocal about their moral framework could be attractive to evangelicals – particularly millennials – who feel disenfranchised from the Religious Right. In the past three presidential elections, Democrats have garnered no more than 24% of the white evangelical vote, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research for CNN.

“Hillary has a vast history of engaging religious folks, even evangelicals,” said Michael Wear, head of faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. “If the Clinton campaign decides to acknowledge her long record, she has some pieces that are very attractive to religious folks. I think Hillary’s history is an advantage to politics, because she made her way in a part of the country where being religious was still essential to understanding public life.”

So far, the current crop of Democratic candidates has been slow to discuss faith on the campaign trail. That could be because they are in a primary battle and must appeal to the party’s liberal base.

Republicans, meanwhile, are duking it out for the white evangelical vote in GOP primaries. (Black evangelicals, like the overwhelming majority of African-American voters, tend to favor Democrats.) Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas launched his campaign at Liberty University, and several others have talked about their faith or headlined Christian and religious-liberty events.

Once the general election rolls around, a Democratic nominee may try to chip away at the white evangelical vote. But he or she also will have to take care not to offend other Democrats who have little interest in hearing about faith, said Russell Moore, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The Democratic Party of 2015 is significantly different from the party that backed Carter in 1976, Moore said. The prevalence of secular voters, he said, “makes talk about faith beyond the level of generic problematic.”

Wear suggested that Democratic candidates worry that opening up about their faith will appear to validate Republican arguments on such issues as religious freedom. He said it was noteworthy that Sanders invoked religious freedom this summer when he said he would be hesitant to strip religious organizations that oppose same-sex marriage of their tax-exempt status.

Parker, of the Kennedy School, sees an opportunity for Democrats who are willing to discuss their religious moorings.

“I think any one of those (Democratic) candidates is perfectly suited to be able to talk in a way about the importance of faith in their lives,” he said. “I don’t think they should be fearful of doing so.”