Democratic Party Embraces 'Values' Debate Religious and moral issues mobilized record numbers of voters in 2004, to a Republican advantage. This year, Democratic candidates have taken up the debate, speaking openly about their faith -- and asserting that issues such as AIDS and poverty are about morality, too.
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Democratic Party Embraces 'Values' Debate

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Democratic Party Embraces 'Values' Debate

Democratic Party Embraces 'Values' Debate

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Faith, virtues, family values: these are words that resonate powerfully with many Americans, and they're qualities voters often associate more with Republican candidates than Democrats. This week, we're examining the role of faith in the coming elections. Yesterday, we heard about tensions between the Republican Party and Evangelical Christians. Today, NPR's Rachel Martin reports on struggles by the Democrats to reconnect with voters on issues of values and faith.

RACHEL MARTIN: Before Moses parted the Red Sea and led his people to the Promised Land, the Bible says he lived in exile in the desert for years, then God appeared in the form of a burning bush, confronted him and set him on the true path of faith.

For Democrats, their burning bush was the 2004 elections, when religious voters overwhelmingly supported President Bush, strengthening Republicans' control of Congress and leaving Democrats with two more years in the desert.

Since then, the Democratic Party has embarked on its own spiritual journey, and candidates are spreading the word. Here's Ohio Congressman Ted Strickland.

Representative TED STRICKLAND (Democrat, Ohio): I know we have a lot of clergy here today, and I'm happy for that. I would just like to use a scripture verse from the Hebrew scriptures. And what then is required of us, we are asked. But to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

MARTIN: Strickland is trying to become Ohio's first Democratic governor in 15 years. Addressing a standing-room-only crowd in Columbus, he recites from the Book of Micah. Strickland is an ordained minister, and he's running against Kenneth Blackwell, an evangelical with deep ties to Christian groups. So to counter that, Strickland has been reaching out to the state's large evangelical population.

Rep. STRICKLAND: I have made a decision that I am not going to concede any part of the electorate to my opponent, and that includes the faith community.

MARTIN: So he's running ads on Christian radio and talking openly about his faith. These kind of tactics represent an about-face for a Democratic Party that's trying to find its way. Already, a few stars have emerged as guides: first Tim Kaine, the newly elected Democratic governor of Virginia who took a year off from law school to work as a Christian missionary. His election a year ago is widely considered to be a model for Democrats trying to talk openly about their faith.

And the junior senator from Illinois, Barak Obama, has been taking his party to task as he does here during a speech this summer at a Christian conference in Washington.

Senator BARAK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): There are some who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paint them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word Christian describes one's political opponents, not a people of faith.

MARTIN: After 2004, leaders in the party realized that had to change. David Wilhelm, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, started a Web site called FaithfulDemocrats.com. It's designed explicitly for Democratic Christians.

Mr. DAVID WILHELM (FaithfulDemocrats.com): Hey, you can be a good Christian and be a good Democrat too, all at once. And I think it continues to be a very confusing thing for many Americans to hear.

MARTIN: He says Democrats have simply failed to engage in the values debate as aggressively as they should have, so in 2004 they paid the price. Wilhelm says much of the party's values are defined by the civil rights movement and its religious roots, but as the party tried to appeal to the broadest possible base, religion fell to the margins.

Mr. WILHELM: In an attempt not to offend, we're not willing to be quite as explicit as we might otherwise be in appealing to evangelical voters, let's say. And I think as a result, we've come out on the short end of the stick.

MARTIN: However, in Tennessee, Harold Ford Jr. has taken that same stick and fashioned it into a cross.

(Soundbite of television advertisement)

Representative HAROLD FORD, JR. (Democrat, Tennessee): I started church the old-fashioned way. I was forced to. And I'm better for it.

MARTIN: In this TV ad, Ford walks through a sunlit church sanctuary with a white cross on a red banner visible just over his shoulder. He lays out his Christian credentials in one breath, then boasts about his voting record and derides his opponent, Republican Bob Corker, in the next.

Rep. FORD, JR.: I'm Harold Ford, Jr., and here I learned the difference between right and wrong, and now Mr. Corker's doing wrong.

MARTIN: But now that Democrats have opened the church door, they're being challenged to practice what they preach. In Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, a pro-life Catholic Democrat, is running against incumbent U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, a Republican with strong ties to religious conservatives. While speaking recently at his alma mater, Catholic University in Washington, Casey tried to deflect some tough questions from audience members.

Unidentified Man: The question would be this. I've read that you're in favor of civil unions. If this is true, how do you accommodate this with your Catholic principles?

Mr. BOB CASEY (Senatorial Candidate, Pennsylvania): Well, and thank you for your question. I was one of your students...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASEY: ...a long time ago. I won't talk about the grade I got...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASEY: But Father, you haven't aged.

MARTIN: Eventually, the candidate crafts an answer.

Mr. CASEY: I think the obligation of a public official is certainly to draw upon a lot of information and inspirations for the position you take on a matter of public policy. I don't think, though, that your position on a public policy can be based upon or mandated by a particular faith or particular religious point of view.

MARTIN: For many Americans, that's not good enough. And while conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians may be disillusioned with the Republican Party, abortion and gay marriage are still the issues that could determine their vote. Some progressive religious leaders say Democrats will continue to lose out until they stop responding to the moral agenda set by conservatives and start setting it themselves.

Mr. JIM WALLIS (Founder, Sojourners): We want a return to Jesus' words, to correct the politics that have become so skewed by a partisan application of them.

MARTIN: Jim Wallis is the founder of the Christian group Sojourners and a nationally recognized author and speaker on religion and politics. Wallis says Republicans and Democrats who claim to be Christians have strayed from the teachings of the Bible. And he says that poverty, AIDS, global warming and genocide are moral issues too.

Mr. WALLIS: And Christians are supposed to be, first of all, known by obedience to Jesus Christ. And we haven't seen that or heard that in proclamations by those who claim to be Christian and are so active in public life.

(Soundbite of crowd)

MARTIN: Here in Ohio, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland agrees. While making sure to separate himself from the criticism, he admits his party has failed to recognize America's religious culture and its bearing on the political landscape.

Rep. STRICKLAND: I think they have come to understand that if they don't speak out, if they don't express values, that the voting public may perceive that as a lack of concern or caring or commitment.

MARTIN: November 7th is judgment day. It will be up to voters to decide whether the Democrats' spiritual journey is enough to bring the party to the land of milk and honey, or whether it's back to the desert for two more years. Rachel Martin, NPR News.

NORRIS: To hear yesterday's story on Republicans and religion and see poll numbers on the role of faith in the coming election, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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