Sen. Barack Obama's call for Democrats to close the religion gap with Republicans shows a keen grasp of the obvious. The tougher question is how this gap is to be closed.
As Obama noted in his much-talked-about speech at the Call to Renewal's "Building a Covenant for a New America" conference of religious liberals on June 28 in Washington, D.C., the biggest gap in party affiliation among white Americans today is "between those who attend church regularly and those who don't."
The speech, which Obama has posted on his Website, was well received but also widely misinterpreted. Some members of the Democratic Party's progressive wing worry that Obama is going to lead moderates to sell off pieces of the party's soul. Quite the contrary, it sounds more like an appeal to help the party rediscover its soul and improve its delivery of its message.
The right-wing voices like Pat Robertson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell or Obama's former Republican opponent Alan Keyes will continue to hold sway, Obama said, "If we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for."
Conservatives openly ridicule the prospect of evangelicals returning to the Democratic Party they used to support. But, in private, it probably worries them as much as Democrats are haunted by the prospect of black voters returning to the party of Abe Lincoln.
Evangelicals have become important to the base of the Republican Party, as blacks have been for the Democrats, yet both groups are available to be wooed. Black voters, particularly black evangelicals, helped give Bush a winning edge in Ohio and some other states in 2004, spurred in part by concerns over gay marriage, which opponents have portrayed falsely, in my view, as a threat to conventional marriage.
In a similar over-the-top distortion, Obama's opponent, Alan Keyes, declared during their 2004 Senate campaign that, "Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama." Obama's refusal to respond made sense under the old unwritten political rule: Never interrupt your adversary when he is 40 points behind you in the polls.
But Obama now says he wishes he had spoken up anyway, "Because, … when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another…, others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends."
At the Columbus, Ohio, convention of ACORN, the nation's largest grassroots community group coalition, the Rev. Al Sharpton called on progressives Monday to put bread-and-butter issues like a minimum wage increase on ballots to counter the "bedroom issues" like abortion and gay marriage. That's fine as a strategic move. It's always better to fight on you home turf issues than on someone else's and Democrats have high credibility on wage issues.
But, Obama says Democrats need to address the bedroom concerns, too, and he's not alone. The conference at which he spoke is part of a national conversation many liberals and progressives have been holding to bridge the religion gap. It's about time, but Democrats should avoid appearing to be too desperate. They do not need to start waving Bibles with the desperate choreography of their 1988 convention delegates waving American flags to close their Old Glory gap.
Instead, they need to do what the conservative movement did as it rebounded from Sen. Barry Goldwater's colossal loss in 1964 to California Gov. Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980; They need to frame their issues in ways that speak not only to the bread-and-butter concerns of ordinary voters, but also to their moral and spiritual concerns about the direction in which the country is going.
There always has been a moral component to politics. No one would have said that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., did not have a moral component. It has only been in the past three decades or so that liberal secularism and concern for religious tolerance has been widely misperceived as anti-religious.
Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter's successful presidential run in 1976 came partly because he spoke with the heartfelt faith conviction of a Sunday school teacher from Plains, Ga. That's the sort of conviction with which Obama spoke in the 2004 Democratic Convention speech that still has America buzzing about his presidential prospects.
After years of polarized politics, the public is hungering for voices that can bring the nation together even in matters as divisive as faith and politics. Democrats can do it, if they can bring themselves together first.