Whither Democratic faith outreach?

May 27, 2010

In the 2004 election, the Democrats dropped the ball on outreach to
faith-based voters. In 2006 and 2008 they did better, one of many things
that can plausibly (though hardly persuasively) be credited with their
wins. If you’re anything like me, you both appreciated this turns of
events and got very sick of hearing about it in the news. The Democrats
Have Found Their Faith! Terrific—now let’s move on, lesson learned.

Unless, of course, the lesson wasn’t learned. Michelle Boorstein had an interesting story
earlier this week: apparently the Democratic National Committee’s faith
office now consists of exactly one staffer, who’s part time. The Web
site’s out of date. Meanwhile, the consulting group that played such a
big role for Democrats in 2008, the Eleison Group, doesn’t have any 2010
national campaign contracts. Have the Democrats Lost Their Faith in
Faith?

Maybe. Daniel Schultz isn’t too concerned, noting that the results of all the Dem faith outreach were “ambiguous at best.” Sarah Posner adds
that the party might well be ambivalent about success as Eleison has
produced it, what with the group’s affiliation with conservative
Democrats prone to things like extracting a pound of flesh over abortion
language in a health-insurance reform bill and then voting against the
bill itself anyway.

Mark Silk goes in another direction,
inferring that Joshua DuBois, director of the White House’s faith
office, is shifting control over faith-based outreach from the DNC to
his own office. This raises two issues for Silk. One is the danger
(articulated so well by David Kuo)
of connecting an office such as DuBois’s to electoral politics. The
other is the prospect that the Obama administration will continue to
focus on maintaining cozy relationships with religious big shots rather
than on targeting faith-based voters themselves via sophisticated
organizing campaigns—the sort of campaign that candidate Obama ran better than anyone in history.

All fair points, but I have to wonder whether there’s something simpler going on here. I was at Obama’s 2006 speech
on the role of faith in public life, and I was struck by the freshness
of his vision of a public square that welcomes faith-based perspectives
without catering to them or lowering standards for them. Compared to
John Kerry’s approach to discussing his faith in 2004, which consisted
essentially of repeating the phrase “separation of church and state” ad nauseam till someone else changed the subject, this was downright inspiring.

Before
long, this became the way many prominent Democrats talked about faith,
most notably Obama’s opponents for the presidential nomination. Obama
spoke of faith with ease and passion all the way through the general
election and continues to do so in office, as do a variety of other
leading Democrats. And thanks largely to Obama, no one seems to find
this especially strange anymore.

Is it possible that the
Democrats-have-faith-too meme has so infused the public consciousness
that specifically faith-based outreach just isn’t as urgent as it was a
few years back?