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Gotta have faith

Gotta have faith


Democrats are trying to bridge the God gap by reaching out to a new breed of "values voters." What they've found just might shock gays and lesbians in more ways than one.

Lesbian New York City council speaker Christine Quinn introduced Howard Dean to the Democratic National Committee's Gay and Lesbian Leadership Council fund-raiser in the Big Apple with a bit of humor in June. Conjuring the mood of the room from the previous year, Quinn explained that at the same dinner then, Dean in no uncertain terms had laid out a strategy for how Democrats were going to win back control of the U.S. House and Senate. "I think a lot of us were excited," Quinn said. "But we were also like, 'He's a little crazy,' " she added in an aside that started the room of donors rolling with laughter.

"Now, crazy isn't necessarily bad," she continued. "When crazy works, crazy is good--and crazy worked in this case."

Taking a page from his own book, DNC chairman Dean was back at the event this year, presenting another scheme that may seem a little crazy given his audience: how Democrats can win over "values voters" in 2008.

"Republicans have known for 15 years that people do not vote on issues," Dean told the audience. "The reason you are choosing the candidates you choose is because of your values. People vote based on their emotions and their values, and we need to speak about our values."

Republicans, he explained, go right to the issues that Democratic pollsters tell their candidates to ignore. "A woman's right to choose, same-sex marriage, immigration--our guys say stay away from those issues," said Dean. "The truth is, that's how people measure their values. The reason these issues are controversial is because most people have values on both sides of them. That's why they upset people--because it disturbs people when they are tugged two separate ways."

Dean was making some sense, even to a room full of gay people who are as painfully aware as any group of the damage that so-called values voters have levied. The religious right war machine's years-long march to preserve the "sanctity of marriage" has left the community with the scraps of only two states besides Massachusetts that don't explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage through a statute, constitutional amendment, or court decision: New Mexico and Rhode Island.

But even as blending religion and politics may seem anathema to many LGBT people, Dean, all the major Democratic candidates, and many state Democratic parties are looking for common ground between faith voters and Democrats. And they're finding it--among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and even evangelicals.

"Religious concerns were thought for a long time to simply be focused on two issues--namely, abortion and, of course, gay rights," says Tony Campolo, an evangelical and former faith adviser to President Bill Clinton. "And there is a growing awareness that a significant proportion of the evangelical community, specifically, have broadened their attention. While they are still talking about those issues, they're looking more and more to the total scope of the party's agenda."

Campolo is part of a progressive wing of the evangelical movement who refer to themselves as "red-letter Christians," because the words of Jesus are printed in red letters in many 20th-century Bibles. Though he has no hard numbers, he estimates this group, more generally referred to as progressive evangelicals, to represent about 20% to 30% of evangelicals.

White evangelicals comprised nearly a quarter of all voters nationwide in both 2004 and 2006, making them one of the most coveted voting blocs in the nation. And until recently, they have been the uncontested property of the GOP, voting 78% to 21% for Bush over Kerry in '04, and 70% to 28% for the GOP candidates in '06.

While evangelicals still overwhelmingly voted for Republicans in 2006, the 7-8 point slip from 2004 is in part where Dean and other Democrats see an opening.

John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says Pew research polls indicate a similar "loosening" of support for Republicans. The average number of evangelicals who identified as Republicans in 2004 versus this year has dropped from 50% to 42%, according to Green.

"There has been an [eight-percentage-point] drop over a several-year period," says Green, adding that almost none of those voters have become Democrats. "A larger number of evangelicals now identify themselves as independents; and if you're looking at this from the point of view of a Democratic candidate, independents are much easier to persuade [to vote for you] than Republicans."

While nobody expects a wholesale defection of evangelical voters from the Republican Party, peeling off a few percentage points here and there can still make a huge difference.

"There is no way of predicting how all of this is going to shake out in the 2008 election," says Campolo, who wrote Letters to a Young Evangelical and is working on a book called A Voting Guide for Red-Letter Christians. "But here is what I can say: There will be enough leakage from the solid bloc of the evangelicals that voted without question for Republicans that the Republican Party has to be concerned. If even 5% or 6% of that huge bloc of 55 million voters shift over to the Democratic side, it could be enough to swing the election in various states."

What drives this new brand of Christian voters? Poverty, the environment, prevention of HIV and AIDS, universal health care, and promoting peace are key issues that compel them--issues that have coalesced Democrats for years.

"More and more, the things that are dividing the two parties are economic issues," says Campolo, pointing out that over 2,000 verses of Scripture call people to respond to the needs of the poor.

"Jesus made this a major emphasis of discipleship. But Jesus never mentioned the gay issue," says Campolo. "So there is a sense in which the progressive evangelicals are saying, Shouldn't we be focused on the thing that really concerned Jesus?"

Though Campolo doesn't support same-sex marriage, he and other red-letter Christians have been contemplating a proposal that many gay Americans might well endorse: separating the civil institution of marriage from the religious blessing. Whether you're straight or gay, you're granted the same legal rights; then you find a church to bless your relationship.

"Whenever I say this, people say immediately, 'But won't this end up with people who are against gay marriage going to churches that only marry heterosexuals, and gay couples will find churches that are open to homosexual marriages?' " says Campolo. "The answer is yes. That's exactly it. Nobody has to compromise their convictions, and gay couples will have the same opportunity of getting married as heterosexual couples."

Campolo sees a generational divide developing among evangelicals that parallels the difference in emphasis between old-guard leaders like James Dobson and Gary Bauer and a new brand of leaders like Jim Wallis of the Sojourners/Call to Renewal and Rick Warren, who wrote The Purpose-Driven Life.

Whereas the older disciples of Dobson have been consumed with sexual morality and preserving marriage as a heterosexuals-only institution, these issues do not uniquely motivate many younger evangelicals.

Campolo notices the shift all across the country at college campuses where he speaks. "It's not that the younger people are necessarily pro-gay marriage," he says. "It's that they shrug their shoulders and say,

'Y'know, to make this the defining issue for Christianity is giving it an importance that it doesn't deserve.' " In other words, while marriage may have been the sole driver of their parents' votes, it won't necessarily be the determining factor for them.

Ben Cressy, who will be a junior this fall at Eastern University in St. David's, Pa., where Campolo teaches, grew up in a traditionally evangelical household but now describes himself as "evangelical with a small e." Cressy doesn't agree with the divisive nature of the movement's political agenda.

"The way the evangelical movement has been aligned with the right wing and Republican politics, it takes our Christian convictions and kind of tries to manipulate people in our country who don't necessarily have the same convictions," he says.

Cressy is "deeply concerned" about inequality and urban poverty. He belongs to a student group called the YACHT Club (Youth Against Complacency and Homelessness Today) that volunteers in inner-city Philadelphia and advocates for better housing and job opportunities for the homeless.

Though he doesn't affiliate with either political party, the two candidates who have his eye right now are John Edwards, because of his work on poverty, and Sen. Barack Obama. "He is intriguing because his message is one that speaks to everyone--that Americans need to find places of convergence and work from there, which I completely agree with," Cressy says of Obama. "I can't point to a time in my life when I've heard a politician talking about anything like that."

As for gay issues, they're a top priority in the voting booth for both him and his parents--but for completely different reasons. "They think that if the right to marriage or civil unions is granted across all 50 states that the doors are going to open wide to all sorts of things," Cressy says, adding that his parents would never vote for a Democrat. "But in a democratic society we have to give everybody equal rights. You can't take them away from people just because they are in love with someone of the same gender."

The generational rift has been growing steadily over time, and as always, actions speak louder than words. In March, Dobson and Bauer were part of a group that sent a letter to the National Association of Evangelicals asking the group to muzzle its policy director, the Reverend Richard Cizik, from speaking about global warming. Dobson and Bauer held that environmental concerns only distract from "the great moral issues of our time." Meanwhile, more than 100 prominent evangelical leaders signed an "Evangelical Climate Initiative" last year as a call to action on the issue.

As their emphasis changes, progressive Christians are beginning to actively engage Democrats. Warren, the author, invited two presidential candidates to speak at his California-based church's Global Summit on AIDS and the Church last December: conservative stalwart Sen. Sam Brownback and Democratic contender Obama. After the two addressed the audience, they sat down with Warren and all three got an HIV test.

In June the progressive evangelical group Sojourners/Call to Renewal hosted a televised forum on faith, values, and poverty where all three Democratic majors--Clinton, Edwards, and Obama--fielded questions on their personal religious beliefs. Each has also hired faith outreach advisers.

Earlier this year, Tony Campolo arranged for Dean to speak at predominantly evangelical Eastern University. "He decided that he wanted to make a statement about the position of the Democratic Party toward religious groups and how it was going to be sensitive to religious values, not necessarily fundamentalist values, but religious values," says Campolo. "I have not heard one iota of negativism towards his presentation."

Damien LaVera, a DNC spokesman who moderated the Q&A following Dean's speech, says the 250 students who attended were overwhelmingly interested in asking about things like economic justice, Darfur, poverty, and government corruption: "Not a single question had anything to do with the traditional hot-button issues."

Dean's speech was a long time in the making. The DNC started its Faith in Action program shortly after Dean was elected to chair the organization in 2005. He and other Democrats began having face-to-face conversations with influential religious folks across the nation in order to start a dialogue.

But there were missteps as far as LGBT people were concerned: Dean famously appeared on Christian Broadcasting Network's The 700 Club in May 2006 and misstated the party platform as holding that "marriage is between a man and a woman"--a 2004 platform that had since been revised to support marriage equality. Gay activists were outraged, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force returned a $5,000 donation from the DNC.

Dean apologized for what happened, but he still believes you can court faith voters without alienating gay voters. "There are people who are not going to agree with us on every issue," he tells The Advocate. "The two most prominent issues are marriage equality and other rights for the LGBT community and abortion rights. The point here is to build bridges where we can build bridges."

Piggybacking on the infrastructure set up through Dean's controversial 50-state strategy--which funneled DNC money and resources to all 50 states rather than focusing on blue states and hotly contested swing states--the DNC ran faith pilot programs in six states: Arizona, Alabama, Maryland, Missouri, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.

Neel Pender, who was executive director of the Oregon Democratic Party during the '06 elections, calls the approach to religious issues in his state a "night and day" difference from years past. Candidates were trained on how to talk to religious voters and showed up in venues they had never braved before. Three Democratic candidates aired ads talking about their faith and placed them on Christian radio stations (one such ad, for state representative David Edwards, ran on both Air America and a Christian station). "We got a lot of calls and some donations from people," says Pender, adding that the ad campaign drew enough online funders to pay for itself.

The Michigan Democratic Party ran its own faith outreach program with special emphasis on Catholic voters. The state's Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, who was in a tight reelection campaign, distributed faith brochures, gave a speech about her values at a Protestant seminary in western Michigan, and publicized an innovative program she developed to reduce unwanted pregnancies. That reframed the issue for many pro-life Christians, says Mark Brewer, chair of the state party.

"A lot of people I met with had never heard of her abortion-reduction program, and when they did, it cast her in a completely different light," Brewer says of Granholm, who is pro-choice. "All of a sudden she wasn't the 'pro-abortion governor'--they saw her as trying to reduce unwanted pregnancies."

In 2004, Kerry carried Michigan's Catholics by a slim margin of 51% to 49%, but in 2006, Granholm captured the Catholic vote by a decisive 13 points. "This project was not the sole reason for that," says Brewer, "but it certainly contributed to it. We talked to more Catholic voters more effectively than we had ever done before."

Leslie Brown, coordinator of the DNC's Faith in Action program, says initiatives such as those in Oregon and Michigan have set the stage for '08: building relationships, infrastructure, and showing faith voters the party is genuinely interested in working with them.

"The whole dialogue has shifted," says Brown, who has been working with the intersection of faith and policy for more than five years. "The nature of the conversation now is, Who's going to deliver?--not, Does one party have a monopoly on faith or on values? That in and of itself is significant because now we can start talking about substance."

Gretchen Cook contributed to this report.

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