The Jesus factor


Away from the glitter and goofy hats of a political convention, you can usually catch a whiff of the things that keep Democrat insiders up at night.

In Denver on Thursday, the “faith caucus” held its first meeting ever, an attempt to bridge a divide within the party over abortion, and prepare for a Republican strategy that markets faith as a GOP virtue.

howard_dean.jpg“It’s hard for people to talk about religion,” Party Chair Howard Dean told a three-quarters-empty Denver Convention Center ballroom. “We’ve been people of faith for a long time. We just don’t like to talk about it. It matters how you live your values, not what you say on Sunday.”

That shot at Republicans was the easy part. When Dean left, the rift within the party over abortion was more apparent.

“I’m a pro-life Democrat and I like to think I’m in a party that has room for me,” said Rev. Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, former director of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Nobody should be left outside a party that’s called a Democratic Party. I’m proud to stand beside a pro-choice Democrat, but I want you to hear what I have to say. It’s saying ‘my values matter and you have room for my values that my Bible tells me about.'”

kmiec.jpg The issue has driven millions of Catholics into the arms of the Republican Party. “The Catholic vote is an important vote,” said Dr. Douglas Kmiec of Pepperdine University, a Catholic legal scholar who wrote a Slate Magazine article claiming Obama is a natural choice for Catholics. “It’s 25% of the electorate. Catholics have voted for the winning candidate in the last nine presidential elections. They know how to pick a winner.”

Kmiec told a Catholic newspaper earlier this week that Barack Obama’s position on abortion is “morally unacceptable.” But he’s still voting for him. “I, too, am pro-life, but that label … has to be a commitment to all of life, from the moment of conception to the moment of death,” he said. His church responded by denying him communion.

Wooing conservative Catholics to the Democratic Party may be a tough sell. It’s no coincidence that Obama picked a Catholic — Joe Biden — as a running mate. Biden, however, supports legalized abortion in defiance of his church.

An even tougher sell for a party trying to learn how to talk religion is evangelical Christians, a solid Republican voting bloc.

relevant.jpg“Younger evangelicals are morally conservative but more socially compassionate than previous generations of evangelicals,” according to Cameron Strang, of Relevant Magazine. “They’re very pro-life, but this generation has a more holistic view of what it means — the defense of innocent lives. Not just the unborn, but it includes genocide, unnecessary war, slavery, and abortion.”

Strang identified some common ground on the issue of abortion — adoption reform. “If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, what happens to all of these unwanted children?” he asked. “It costs $25,000 for an adoption. It costs $500 for an abortion. That’s messed up.”

But Strang this week showed why it will be difficult for Democrats to stand side-by-side with evangelicals. He was to give the benediction at the convention on Monday, but pulled out, citing fears his bridge-building gesture would be misinterpreted.

Little known to outsiders, the Strang name carries weight with evangelicals, especially in the fast-growing charismatic and Pentecostal branches, according to the Chicago Tribune.

  • Al

    Funny you don’t hear about Catholics being denied communion for those who support war monger presidents or those who support capital punishment. I think the Church generally blames their empty churches on laziness or frustration with the sex abuse crisis. Do you suppose they consider that many people are simply frustrated with the hypocrisy?

    I would rather have politicians who steer clear of religion, but that won’t get you elected in today’s world.

  • Joel

    I just think it’s sad those in politics have to resort to religion to gain votes. The idea that one religion is inherently better than any other is simply ridiculous.

  • bsimon

    Religion will be less relevant to this election than in 2000 & 2004. That won’t stop the Dems from misdirecting their attention on the ‘Jesus factor’, of course.

  • Bob Collins

    Nobody at the meeting I was at yesterday was saying one religion is better than the other. Quite the opposite actually.

    The point they were making is the morals that fuel their political philosophy — end to hunger, end to poverty, end to slavery etc. — all come from a moral compass calibrated by their religion. So they don’t see how religion can be SEPARATED from politics.

    However, they are not saying that a particular religious principle should be imposed.

    In other words, for people who talk about those issues above, it’s illogical to say tha religion shouldn’t be part of politics.

  • brian

    I take issue with the idea that you can’t care about ending hunger, poverty, and slavery without religion. Can’t we care about those things for their own sake? I think adding religion to the mix only makes it harder for Atheists and other non-religious people to work together with religious people on those issues.

    That being said, the majority of american’s disagree with me, so I’m sad more people didn’t attend that meeting.

    I also think it is strange that candidates are refused comunion for being pro-choice but not for being pro death penalty. Is it because there aren’t many catholic republican candidates?

  • Joel


    the people at the meeting may not think one religion is better than another, but I think it’s difficult to dispute that there does seem to be a large contingent of people who will or will not vote for a candidate based on the candidate’s religious affiliation. There has been plenty of commentary suggesting that one of the big draws about Biden (who is Catholic) is the draw he will have on other Catholics.

    And look at Obama. No matter how many times he affirms his religious beliefs, many people STILL think he’s a Muslim.

    My point is simply that for many, religious affiliation does play a big role in selecting a candidate.

  • JohnnyZoom

    brian, you miss the point. Everyone is entitled to have their own moral compass (Bob’s words), and for them, religion informs their compass in a fundamental way. Not everyone informs themselves so, but for some people, they do.

    You are confusing allowing people the liberty to inform themselves as they see fit (cf. First Amendment), on any particular issue, and then working with others with arbitrarily different means of informedness to handle that issue, with imposing “you must inform yourself in this particular way” (or, as is actually more relevant nowadays, “you must not inform yourself in this particular way“). For reasons far too complex to cover in a short post like this, it has become problematic to acknowledge that one informs themself with somesuch a religious tradition, but that is a totally different issue than simply being allowed to do so in the first place.

    As to your pro-choice/death penalty contrast, it has nothing to do with Catholic political demographics (at least it shouldn’t… 🙂 ), but rather to do with the fact that arguments for the latter could conceivably be informed by issues of public safety and the common good, while the former cannot. So, in principle, in some circumstances the death penalty could be the least of all evils. The current objection to it is based on the empirical reality that alternatives to it exist which do not unduly compromise public safety and the common good. But this is a much less severe objection than to that to being pro-choice, where such extenuations can’t apply (indeed, some have argued they would actually make the objections stronger). Now this all is contingent on the faith tradition itself, which one may or may not ascribe to, but the point is there is no inconsistency in that faith tradition’s application of itself to those topics.

  • Joel

    “…in principle, in some circumstances the death penalty could be the least of all evils.” – JohnnyZoom

    Since we’re talking about religion, I can only assume your mentioning of evil is reference to the religious (Christian) concept of the term. I was unaware that Christianity, or any religion, differentiated evil by lesser or greater degrees. I’m pretty sure Jesus never did, anyway. Near as I can tell, according to religion, evil is evil, is evil. So if this is true, then it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the death penalty or abortion; both are equally evil.

  • JohnnyZoom

    >>So if this is true,

    Which it need not be, depending on one’s metaphysical perspective. Simply the existence of the use of “grave” to describe (some but not all) evil demonstrates that. Your logic is correct, but your representation of the premise underlying it, while perhaps something you subscribe to, is inconsistent with some traditions. That is merely a reflection of the nature of your own convictions, but not of the consistencies of some others.

    I wrote the last sentence of my previous response for a good reason, to avoid exactly these types of misunderstandings.

  • brian

    “…but rather to do with the fact that arguments for the latter could conceivably be informed by issues of public safety and the common good…”

    I agree that these issues may allow catholics to be for the death penalty and against abortion. However, the Catholic Church as an institution is just as against the death penalty as it is abortion. It would make sense to me that advocating the death penalty should keep someone from getting communion just as much as being pro-choice. This either isn’t the case, or some catholic bishops have other (political) motives. I’ve heard it is the latter.

  • JohnnyZoom

    >>>This [either] isn’t the case

    That is correct.

  • Bob Collins

    Worth noting that in the discussion, tolerance of the non-religious was also mentioned. And it was mentioned that people without religion also have a moral compass.

    The interesting part of the meeting — to me — was the realization that in many ways, the Democrats are not only trying to remake the definition of pro-life, they’re trying to remake the definition of Catholic.

  • Joel

    That’s a tall order for the Dems to fill. But I hope they succeed.

  • Elizabeth T.

    American Catholics regularly try to define themselves in terms which give the fellows over in Rome twitches. While being Catholic is intended to mean catholic, we aren’t. People pick & choose from the menu presented at their place of worship.

    The Catholic Church’s position on denying someone communion is very heavy. Participating in communion at Mass is *the* central point to our Sunday worship. Denying someone that is denying them to physical presence of Christ. Without direct personal knowledge of the person’s beliefs (reading the paper doesn’t qualify, nor does listening to MPR :-), a priest should never do this. If for no other reason than it puts the priest in a serious position of judging another’s soul, something we generally claim to leave in the hands of the Almighty.

    There is a vast difference between “you ought to have an abortion” vs. “it ought to be legal”.

    What too many fail to consider is that a person’s compass can point to the same location from a different place as mine.

    If I was to seek a candidate who completely and totally adhered to every single doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, I would never be able to vote. I pick the best of the available candidates. In Nov. ’06, I voted for candidates from 4 different parties. I’ll probably repeat that performance in 2 months.

    The President cannot “make something happen”. His job is to set policy, not procedure. So, his morals will inform him as much as mine do me. I want to know where his moral compass points. It might not be the same as mine. I don’t expect miracles.