Obama: Democrats Need to Court Christians

Juan Williams is joined by Ron Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, and Robert Traynham, a political strategist in Washington, D.C. This week's topic: Barak Obama and the religious right.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES. It's Thursday, and that means NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams is back with us to recap the news from inside the Beltway in our Political Corner. Juan?

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Thanks, Ed. We're joined now by Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland. The professor's latest book is called, Freedom is not Enough. And we're fortunate to be joined also by Robert Traynham. He's a political strategist with the GOP here in Washington. Both are in our NPR D.C. studios. Gentlemen, thanks for joining us on Political Corner.

Professor RON WALTERS (Professor of Political Science, University of Maryland,): Good to be with you.

Mr. ROBERT TRAYNHAM (Republican Political Strategist): Thank you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: Barack Obama, the Senator, the freshman Senator from Illinois, gosh, his reputation just keeps soaring. He recently announced that Democrats need to get religion. That's a quote to gain constituents. Obama called for a sincere respect for values. He said it would also serve as a strategy to counter the religious right in the United States.

Ron Walters, is this the best way for Democrats to demonstrate their respect for cultural and faith-based values that have been, it seems, adopted as their own banner by the Republicans?

Prof. WALTERS: Juan, I think that the Democrats are on the wrong page about trying to sort of out-religious speak the Republicans. I don't really think that's the issue. The issue here is that the Democrats don't have the equivalent of a Ralph Reed. So I have really rejected this notion that Democrats need to sort of speak in religious tones. To the extent that they do, they need to go back to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the way in which he talked about public morality.

WILLIAMS: Let's stop for a second and tell the listeners who Ralph Reed is. Ralph Reed's now running for lieutenant governor in Georgia, has problems with the Jack Abramoff scandal, but that's not the context in which you're referring to Ralph Reed.

Prof. WALTERS: No.

WILLIAMS: You're referring to Ralph Reed as a man who was behind the Christian coalition for many years as a strategist, and using the church network to spread the Republican gospel, if you will.

Prof. WALTERS: Absolutely. Consummate political organizer, and Democrats don't have the equivalent.

WILLIAMS: Robert Traynham, when you hear Barack Obama say that the Democrats need how to talk the language of the pulpit, what do you think as a Republican?

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Déjà vu all over again. You know, it's interesting, Juan, because this is not about the degree to which someone professes their faith. The country, to a certain degree, is center-right. The country is naturally conservative when it comes from a faith perspective. And so with what Senator Obama is trying to do, I think, is I think he's trying to send out a test signal, if you will, for 2008 to, in fact, see if, in fact, this resonates with the American people.

But, again, Democrats, I would make the argument that Democrats have always been at home talking about their faith. The question becomes whether or not they actually act on those faiths, if they actually act on those policies, in the public square. And I think that's where the difference is between Republicans and Democrats. And, frankly, Republicans have always outshined Democrats in terms of using their faith from a tactical perspective and actually going out into the neighborhoods, actually motivating voters, and saying, look, we're better on these issues than, say, the Democrats are; that's the main reason why you need to vote for us.

WILLIAMS: Hang on a second, let me just ask of what you thought about what you heard from Prof. Walters a moment ago. Prof. Walters said the Democrats maybe need to use the language of religion as it was employed by Martin Luther King, Jr. And you're saying, wait a second, that whole talk about conscience and what is right at, you know, the right time to do right is now, that kind of thing, the talk about family values, used to be in the black church.

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Absolutely. There's no question about it. And I would make the argument that Democrats have always embraced that. Again, go back to Bill Clinton in 1992, when he used the black church, if you will, as a - I hate to say this - but as almost like a bully pulpit, if you will, to springboard into the rest of the country. Al Gore did the same exact thing in 2000. John Kerry did it to a lesser degree in 2004. He wasn't very successful.

My point is simply this, Juan, is that the Democrats have always used religion in the public square to try to articulate their point of view. The problem is, or the problem has always been, is that they have not been very successful at connecting that rhetoric with the American voter. Republicans have.

Prof. WALTERS: Yes, Juan, I was just going to say that I think that we can't leave out the fact - I pretty much agree with Bob that this has some political currency sort of aimed at 2008, because if you look at the recent speeches that Hillary Clinton has given about religion, you see a very interesting match up here between the two of them, and both of them have been talked about being on the same ticket.

But, at the same time, we shouldn't overlook a recent conference that was held in, I think it was Dallas. 100 black ministers, getting together to talk about this very subject, reaffirming the fact that the black church is always been for social justice and it's all sort of been taken over by some preachers and mega churches preaching a kind of prosperity gospel, and that prosperity gospel has led a lot of blacks in these churches to sort of line up with Republican party. So that's been a problem that finds the black church somewhat divided right now.

And I think that the Democrats, if they want a language, they really need to go back to their roots because here was a man in a movement and a whole community that, in the context of not only democratic theory but Judeo-Christian philosophy, said that the many things that we want as American citizens line up perfectly with that legacy.

That is not the discussion that we're having right now. If you look at the fact that the Republicans have recently rolled out a legislative practice they call a values agenda, the issues in that values agenda have to do with gay rights, Constitutional amendment, and things like that that really are not in the center of the debate about bread and butter issues in this country.

WILLIAMS: Robert Traynham, do you think that bumper sticker's right, Jesus was a liberal?

Mr. TRAYNHAM: I'm not exactly sure, but you know what's very interesting? I'm just reminded by what - something Ronald Reagan said back in 1980 when he was running for President. He said to the Southern Leadership Conference, I believe it was, he said you can't endorse me, but I endorse you.

And I believe that really set the tone, if you will, between 1980 and to the present day in terms of politicians speaking very comfortably in front of churches and saying, look, I understand exactly what you're for, I understand exactly what you do, and if you elect me, I will be an advocate on your behalf.

And I think that's one of the main reasons why Republicans have been very successful is simply because we connect much better with those value voters than the Democrats do.

WILLIAMS: Robert Traynham, a Republican strategist working here in Washington on Capitol Hill. And Ron Walters, is a professor of political science at the University of Maryland. His latest book is Freedom is not Enough.

Gentlemen, thank you for joining us on Political Corner

Prof. WALTERS: Thank you, Juan.

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Good to be with you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: Back to you, Ed.

GORDON: Thanks, Juan. Don't forget to join us every Thursday when NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams and his Washington Insiders join us right here for Political Corner.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.