Democratic Candidates Go After the Faith Vote

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As Presidential primaries move closer, faith is on the minds of many Americans. David Bonior, presidential campaign manager for John Edwards, and Joshua DuBois, director of religious affairs for White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, explain how faith informs the campaigns of their candidates.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Every week, we exploit issues of spirituality in our segment Faith Matter. This week is the intersection of faith and politics. This is no small matter in a country where millions of members of the voting public say they consider the commands of their faith when deciding how to cast a ballot.

In a few minutes, we'll hear from the head of a leading evangelical group. But first, we're going to turn to the presidential campaigns and the people they've got focused specifically on pulling in the faith vote. Two of those people are with us, former Congressman David Bonior is leading the effort for Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards as his campaign manager, and Joshua DuBois is the director of religious affairs for the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Welcome to both of you.

Mr. David Bonior (Presidential Campaign Manager, John Edwards): Nice to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: And Mr. Bonior, let me start with you. When we talk about the faith vote, who do you have in mind? And I think it's important to establish terms because, I think, when this term is used generally in politics these days, reporters anyway, are generally talking about white evangelicals. So when you think about the faith vote, who do you have in mind?

Mr. BONIOR: I think in much broader terms than that. I think most Americans have faith and most Americans' values are centered around the Christian-Judeo or Islamic traditions. And those traditions can often to be very similar in their sensitivities and sensibilities about working with the least of our brethren. And so the net that we would cast should be large in terms of how we approach this group of people from a political perspective, and we do it through our actions. And its kind of what John Edwards is basically been about. He doesn't believe in just talking the talk. He believes in, as I say, walking the walk, and he has spend an enormous amount of his time, particularly over the last three years, almost all of it, working with people who are trying, for instance, to get a decent wage…


Mr. BONIOR: …and…

MARTIN: And I (unintelligible) hear Joshua DuBois' answer to that question. Joshua DuBois, when you talk about the faith vote, who are you talking about?

Mr. JOSHUA DUBOIS (Director, Religious Affairs for Barack Obama): Sure. We all start casting a wide net but we are looking specifically at the faith community and also those outside of the faith community who may not adhere to a particular religion but want to engage on this difficult subject. We're proud to be the only campaign from either party actually with the robust grassroots program intended to bring people together across religious lines. And to address this mutual suspicion that often exist between religious America and secular America…

MARTIN: Okay, hold on, you're giving us a lot to work with here. Let's start to take that piece-by-piece. I do want us to spend one more question on that white evangelical question. David Bonior, in recent years it's been assumed that white evangelicals are far more likely to be in a Republican camp. They are considered a key-voting block for the Republican Party. It's remarkable considering that Jimmy Carter was a born again Christian, a very strong member of the Southern Baptist tradition, and are very outspoken about that. So I'd like to ask, did the Republicans win that vote or did the Democrats lose it in the last 20 or 30 years?

Mr. BONIOR: Well, the Democrats haven't been doing well with that particular vote, but I think we're going to do much better now because some of the values, for instance, that we speak to - on poverty, on taking care of the earth - are issues that are resonating with the white evangelicals. They have traditionally been Republican, Michel, but they're now tending to be more broad about their political choices, and they're looking to Democrats on some of these issues that revolve around the environment, on economic justice, as well as the human person.

MARTIN: Joshua, you talked about the fact that the Obama campaign has a specific outreach to people for whom faith is critical…

Mr. DUBOIS: Yes.

MARTIN: …and as we all know, America is a very diverse country religiously. And sometimes there is tension among these different religious groups on matters of dogma, on matters of public policy. You know, how do you reach out to people across religious lines when there are some fundamental disagreements…

Mr. DUBOIS: There are…

MARTIN: …on issues like abortion, on evolution, on teaching things of that, the place of women in society.

Mr. DUBOIS: We use primeval approach that Senator Obama has really rooted in on who he is and was as a community organizer. We do these things called community faith forums. We've done almost 30 of these across the country, and we bring in folks from all different religions and those who don't adhere to a particular religion. We did one in Nashua, New Hampshire not that long ago with Christians, Muslims, Jews, secular humanists and everyone in between. And at the beginning of the forum, you're right, you know, those disagreements seem to take center stage. But by the time we really dig deep into what our common values are and what we're hoping to see our country become as Americans, there's far more agreements than disagreements. So…

MARTIN: Well, give me an example, because if you feel that, say, abortion is the great moral tragedy of our time in the way that slavery was the great moral tragedy of 18th or 19th century, then that's pretty fundamental to your point of view.

Mr. DUBOIS: That's right.

MARTIN: So what other points of agreement can you find?

Mr. DUBOIS: Well, I tell you what. We break up into groups and we specifically ask folks to join with someone that they don't know and have a conversation about these points of agreements. And the first thing that comes out when we comeback together is health care. Regardless of where you are on the question of abortion, you understand that we have a serious crisis in our health care system, and that we need universal health care in this country to make sure that everyone is covered. And we're hearing that from evangelicals and mainline Protestants and Muslims and Jews and those who don't adhere to a particular religion.

And then, when folks look around the room and they say, you know, that this person may go to different house of worship than I do and maybe on the other side of town that I am but we have the same common values. We think that the lack of health care is offensive to our conscience as Americans. You know, folks are - folks come together in way that they hadn't come together before.

MARTIN: David Bonior?

Mr. BONIOR: I'm going to agree with that assessment. That kind of an issue just takes you across the religious spectrum in our country and the nonreligious spectrum as well. It's not just health care. It's poverty and peace that unites people as well. I mean, the Jewish community, Islamic community and the Christian community, I know they're absolutely torn over what's happening particularly in the Middle East, but I have strong feelings with respect to war whether it's in Africa and Darfur or whether it's in Kashmir between, you know, the Indian and Pakistani border. These are these are very central issues to -who people are and what the religious - religion speak to.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us I'm Michel Martin, and we're talking with David Bonior, campaign manager for John Edwards; and Joshua DuBois, the national director of religious affairs for Barack Obama.

How much do you think candidates need to talk about their own personal religious views? And the reason I asked is that there are many voters for whom faith is fundamental but there are many others in this country who are afraid of strong religious belief. They feel that it is a force not for good, particularly in a time when fundamentalism around the world is a source of great…

Mr. BONIOR: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: …anxiety for many Americans. So I'd like to ask each of you how your candidates address this question of how much to be public about their own private beliefs. Joshua, do you want to start?

Mr. DUBOIS: Sure, well, you know, it has to be part of who you are. You can't make it up. You can't just go to a church and start clapping if that's not who you are. You have to be true to who you are. And Barack is a Christian. And he's never been afraid to talk about that. His perspective is that if we truly hope to speak to people where they're at to communicate our hopes and our values in a way that's relevant to their own, then as progressives, at least, we can't abandon this field of religious discourse, you know.

When we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or good Muslim or a good Jew and we discuss religion only in the negative sense about how it shouldn't be practiced rather than in a positive sense, then others are going to feel that vacuum. And that's what you've seen over the last 20 years. So it's not pandering. It's not being inauthentic. But if your faith is an important part of who you are, then don't be afraid to talk about that.

MARTIN: David Bonior?

Mr. BONIOR: Yes, I will agree with that. John Edwards has practiced his faith in the community since he was young man with urban ministries at his church. And for John Edwards, he's very personal. His faith has gotten him through some very difficult moments in his life. The death of his son, Wade, when he was 16 and in an automobile accident, that very difficult situation that Elizabeth, his wife, found herself in with her breast cancer and its reoccurrence. These are very difficult of pieces of anyone's life, and faith has help ground and pull him through. And when he's asked about it, he speaks about it.

MARTIN: Is this a cultural moment where younger generation, baby boomers feel more comfortable discussing these issues after a set of years of feeling - in many parts of the country, I think some parts of the country people have been very overt about their faith for a long time and never lost the desire to do that, but do you think that we're in some sort of cultural moment here where people of their generation are just more comfortable discussing their faith? Or do you think its more a sign of the times that there's a general, sort of, religious revival in the United States that they're tapping into? Or do you think it's just personal to these candidates and the other who are talking about faith, Joshua?

Mr. DUBOIS: You know, I think its both the revival and also a sense of weariness, you know. When Barack speaks to folks from across, you know, religious lines, there's a sense that there's been enough cynicism, enough division over the last 20 years because of the pundits and the politicians who have either, on the one hand, maybe exploited faith or, on the other hand, ignored it and not engaged all together that folks are tired of faith being used as a wedge to divide, and they're ready for a new moment. Someone that can speak of values but at the same time be welcoming and realize that, you know, whatever we once were, we're not just a nation - a Christian nation anymore, we're also a Muslim nation, an Indian nation, a Jewish nation, the nation that folks don't adhere to a particular religion.

MARTIN: Okay. David Bonior, final question, we hear that some evangelical leaders are threatening to pursue a third-party candidate if Republican Rudy Giuliani wins the Republican nomination. So I wanted to ask are you praying for a Giuliani nomination to help the prospect of luring more evangelicals to the Democrats?

Mr. BONIOR: If they feel that they need to go that way, well, God bless them.

MARTIN: Okay. David Bonior is a former congressman and now campaign manager for Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards. He joined us from member station WDET in Detroit. And Joshua DuBois is the national director of religious affairs for Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. He joined us by phone from South Carolina.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr.DuBOIS: Thank you.

Mr. BONIOR: Thank you.

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