Steven Waldman
Beyond the God Gap

The theory of the “God gap” — often broadly suggesting that religious Americans are conservative and will vote Republican while non-religious Americans are liberal and will vote Democratic — has been prominent in press reporting and political maneuvering in the 2004 presidential race. At their recent conventions, both parties seemed to grapple with faith dynamics and respond to the perceived God gap in interesting, unexpected ways.

Krista speaks with Steven Waldman, who covered the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions for religious messages, images, and language. He says that, strictly speaking, the God gap is a myth. We’ll look beyond the headlines about the political gulf that reportedly separates religious and secular Americans.

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is the author of Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty. He is the founder and former editor of Beliefnet and now heads Daily Bridge Media.

Transcript

September 16, 2004

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: This is Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Beyond the God Gap.” The theory of the God gap has been prominent in press reporting and political maneuvering in the 2004 presidential race. The theory is often broadly stated like this: Religious Americans are conservative and will vote Republican; nonreligious Americans are liberal and will vote Democratic. And at their recent conventions, both parties seemed to grapple with faith dynamics and respond to the perceived God gap in interesting, unexpected ways.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I believe all these things because freedom’s not America’s gift to the world, it is the Almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.

SENATOR JOHN KERRY: I don’t want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, “I want to pray humbly that we are on God’s side.”

GOVERNOR GEORGE PATAKI: I thank God that on September 11th we had a president who understood that America was attacked not for what we have done wrong but for what we do right.

SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states, but I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states.

MS. TIPPETT: My guest today, Steven Waldman, says that strictly speaking the God gap is a myth. As an editor for US News & World Report in the 1990s, he founded Beliefnet.com, which has become a preeminent Internet site for religious ideas, reflection and resourcing across the world’s faith traditions and used by millions. `The fact is,’ Steven Waldman says, `a majority of Americans who will vote for either George Bush or John Kerry have lives of faith.’ He studies the same polls that are widely reported and sees only a church attendance gap, a contrast between voting patterns at the extremes of American religious life, those who attend church more than once a week and those who never attend. But he points out that when you ask people whether they believe in God or pray every day, whether religion is important in their lives, Democrats and Republicans are spiritual or religious in virtually equal measure. Steven Waldman covered both political conventions, analyzing religious language and themes in a running blog on Beliefnet.com.

The difference between religious expression at the two party conventions was striking, he says, and surprising. At the Republican gathering, religious language was remarkably spare in prime time, though themes of faith permeated the convention as a whole. At the Democratic convention, faith was expressed in the limelight and less in evidence on the sidelines. But there is a nascent religious left finding its voice and seeking its place in Democratic politics, he says. By contrast — and maybe this is the real God gap — religious conservatives have become part of the fabric of the Republican Party. I spoke with Steven Waldman to delve into this further. In the second half of the hour, we’ll focus on the Republican convention. First, we’ll focus on the Democrat’s earlier gathering in Boston. As the Democratic convention approached, Waldman says, party organizers were especially concerned that faith be given a voice.

STEVEN WALDMAN: Most Democrats do go to church some and also believe in God and have other spiritual practice. It is true that the people who go to church more often do tend to vote Republican. And there was another related problem which really worried the Democrats even more than the God gap statistics, which was that, according to a Time magazine poll, only 7 percent of Americans thought of Kerry as a person of faith — as a person of strong faith. And that was something that really did worry them. I didn’t think they were really going to do much about it because, up until the convention, they hadn’t really addressed it and hadn’t seemed to view it as a problem. All of a sudden, at the convention, we saw this wave of religious rhetoric coming from all directions, from Clinton, from the keynote speaker, Barack Obama, from the introductory films and speeches for Kerry and then from Kerry himself.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, you know, and I think that your reports from the convention were especially interesting because you were attentive to religious language in a way that most people weren’t. I mean, that really was your focus. And also because of your background, you heard things other people didn’t hear. I mean, you heard Bill Clinton quoting the prophet Isaiah.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: During the Vietnam War, many young men, including the current president, the vice president and me, could have gone to Vietnam and didn’t. John Kerry came from a privileged background, he could have avoided going, too. But instead he said, `Send me.’

MR. WALDMAN: Well, it was interesting when Clinton had his motif in his speech that was “Send me,” it had a double message. It was referring to John Kerry’s wartime service, but it was also a passage from Isaiah. In previous speeches that I’d seen Clinton give, he actually explicitly was quoting Isaiah. That’s really the reason I caught that.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, he said, “I’m quoting the Prophet Isaiah”?

MR. WALDMAN: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Uh-huh.

MR. WALDMAN: Yeah. In the convention speech that fell out, and it just became “Send me.” And I don’t know whether that was just accidental or it was one of those things that Bush does all the time, which is you use religious rhetoric and religious metaphors in a general way so that people who aren’t religious don’t notice and people who are really get it in a more emotional and moving way. That way, you can appeal to religious people without alienating those who are uncomfortable with it. Many of the speeches at the Democratic convention used religious rhetoric or Bible passages. The keynote speech from Barack Obama, in addition to using religious metaphors, “I am my brother’s keeper,” or things like that, he also directly took on this sense of the God gap.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. WALDMAN: His quote was, “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states. Red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states.” So that was a pretty direct, rhetorical assault on the Republican ownership of God and religion. It’s — the convention was partially about reclaiming the flag from Republicans, but the other part that was less discussed was the idea of reclaiming God or the Bible or religion from the Republican Party, or at least trying to.

MS. TIPPETT: And how do you think was John Kerry the climax of that — of that attempt — I mean, did he cap that off? And did he become the voice for that — the ultimate voice for that?

MR. WALDMAN: The climax was Kerry’s speech himself, and it was really a much broader discussion of faith than I’d seen him in almost any other setting. He connected his faith and his faith journey to his Vietnam experience, saying that it was his faith that helped get him through that. And I always felt like — I’m a big advocate of politicians talking about their faiths or their spiritual lives when appropriate, but the worst thing you can do is to be inauthentic about it. It’s better that you don’t talk about it at all than that you fake it. And the cautionary tale there that the Kerry people were fully aware of was Howard Dean…

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

MR. WALDMAN: …during the primaries when, you know, everyone was telling him he had to talk about his faith. And so he started to do it, and he talked about how important the Book of Job and the New Testament…

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

MR. WALDMAN: …was. And, you know, it just came off looking like he was faking it which really undercut his signal strength which is — was candor. So I think the Kerry people were smart to have the faith discussion draw out of some real experience that seemed genuine on Kerry’s part. He also took on a notion which had been circulating on the Republican side and had been a bit of rhetoric that was showing up in a lot of President Bush’s speeches, which is that God is on America’s side in the war on terror, and implicitly that God is on the president’s side in the war on terror. And Kerry went right after that and said, by quoting Lincoln, that it is not our job to get God on our side, it is our role to be on God’s side. And that was a sort of eloquent way of flipping that particular point that the Republicans had been making.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m curious about how people around you, other delegates, journalists, responded to Kerry’s speech with regard to the faith language. I mean, I listened to the entire speech, and I still think it’s pretty striking that you say that this was so much more than usual because, you’re right — I mean, there were some very clear, strong messages, but it was still in the context of the whole, fairly understated, subtle. And I wondered did other people hear Kerry finding his faith voice, to use your phrase?

MR. WALDMAN: I think that delegates and journalists are a little bit different on this. Journalists actually, not to stereotype our…

MS. TIPPETT: Our colleagues.

MR. WALDMAN: …colleagues, but they tend to have a little bit of a tenier about faith and not to really understand its central importance in people’s lives. The delegates are a little bit more representative of rank and file Americans, and for them faith is important and they appreciated those kinds of comments. It is all relative. It’s not like it was, you know, more than a paragraph in the speech.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. WALDMAN: But it was a — it was a big increase from what Kerry had normally done, which he almost never talked about his faith except if he was in front of African-American churches, and then he did. But in terms of it being a part of his national message, this was unusual. And, you know, to be fair, I think the bar that he had to clear there was really not that high. I don’t think he needs to convince people that he’s a deeply religious person and that’s the central fact of his life.

MS. TIPPETT: No. And I think one of his messages was `I don’t wear my own faith on my sleeve.’ It sounded like he was telling us something about himself.

SENATOR JOHN KERRY: And let me say it plainly. In that cause and in this campaign, we welcome people of faith. America is not us and them. I think of what Ron Reagan said of his father a few weeks ago, and I want to say this to you tonight: I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve, but faith has given me values and hope to live by from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday.

MR. WALDMAN: It sounded authentic. It also is kind of a preemptive point, which is that `In case you don’t hear me talking about religion, or maybe as much as President Bush, this is why I don’t talk about it as much.’

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. WALDMAN: `So don’t expect me to do that.’ I think the main thing that he had to convince people of was that he wasn’t a space alien, you know, that he was not out of sync with most Americans.

MS. TIPPETT: Journalist and Beliefnet creator Steven Waldman. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith. Steven Waldman reported on religious dynamics from the Democratic and Republican conventions. He heard a great deal of religious language on the podium at the Democratic convention, but there’s also been criticism that Democrats use words like “morality” and “values” too vaguely as code for explicit faith statements they would rather avoid. I asked Steven Waldman about this.

MR. WALDMAN: Yeah, I thought the values talk was a little bit too vague. I shared a cab, coincidentally, on the way over to the convention with Willy Brown, the former mayor of San Francisco and a very shrewd politician, and I asked him how he thought things were going on this point. And he sort of said — he said, `Values, values, values,’ and rolled his eyes. And this is a strong Kerry supporter. And I think he was reflecting that — not that he’s against values, but it just seemed unmoored. It seemed not connected. Ms.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. WALDMAN: And so I think it would have been more effective if it had been more directly connected to either what we’re doing wrong in the war or what President Bush is doing wrong in their view domestically. Like, I actually think that part of what people are meant to think of when they were saying that this war did not fit our values was Abu Ghraib, the prison torture scandals.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, it would have been different if they had made the connection clearly.

MR. WALDMAN: They never mentioned it.

MS. TIPPETT: No.

MR. WALDMAN: And maybe that wasn’t what they were referring to. Maybe they were inferring in general to the lack of multilateral coalition going into the war. I don’t know. But it was not clear exactly what the kind of bad values we were pursuing were in the war. I think they did it a little bit more clearly, though sort of quickly, when they talked about economic policy being skewed toward wealthy Americans.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. And the morality and values talk there was prominent?

MR. WALDMAN: It was just a little bit clearer what the connection between that and the values argument was.

MS. TIPPETT: Here’s a section from the convention speech of Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards. Senator John Edwards: We can also do something about 35 million Americans who live in poverty every day. And here’s why we shouldn’t just talk about but do something about the millions of Americans who live in poverty, because it is wrong.

MS. TIPPETT: Now you described a conversation you had with Mike McCurry. You know, he said Democrats are trying to be sensitive to Jewish voters, to other minorities and also to be tolerant. I don’t know, does it backfire? I mean, do the groups towards whom they’re being sensitive and tolerant, are they appreciative of that, or has it just become a knot for the Democrats?

MR. WALDMAN: I mean, just to take Jewish voters who probably we won’t know until Election Day, but President Bush, who is the most outspoken Evangelical Christian we’ve had certainly in the Republican Party is doing better among Jews than any Republican at least since Reagan, if not beyond that.

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm.

MR. WALDMAN: So I don’t think that someone expressing their — their Christian faith is necessarily going to be off-putting to Jews. It really — it depends on how it’s done. And so McCurry, who was Clinton’s press secretary, believed that there was an oversensitivity. And what ends up happening is that when Democrats have a strong sensitivity to not using kind of offensive or awkward language that they might make some of their voters uncomfortable, what ends up happening is that they end up seeming secular instead of pluralistic. And that’s a big difference in the public mind. It’s like if all you talk about is the separation of church and state and don’t couple that with a discussion of how faith is important in your own life, people actually end up coming away thinking you don’t have faith rather than the other view, which is that, `You know, I support separation of church and state because it’s important to my faith.’

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Now at the Democratic convention, there were also separate events, as you wrote, I think geared towards breaking the Republican monopoly in faith. The Democratic National Committee organized the People of Faith Caucus. How important and interesting was that activity and that energy going on in the background?

MR. WALDMAN: There was a lot of strong irritation and anger on the part of religious liberals that the Republican Party, in their view, had defined being religious as being Republican. And there was a real view that progressive religious people had to become much more assertive in showing the connection — religious connection between their political views and their faith. I have to say, having been to both conventions now, that the Democratic efforts in this regard are real baby steps…

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm.

MR. WALDMAN: …compared to what the Republicans have done. I mean, in retrospect, it was almost quaint.

MS. TIPPETT: Then give me some details of that.

MR. WALDMAN: Well, you know, the Democrats made a big deal out of the fact that they hired this one person to be a religious outreach director for them, which is the first time they’ve done that.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. WALDMAN: But the Republican Party — I mean, half the campaign is religious outreach. It’s, you know, so far beyond one person that it’s not even close. I mean, in terms of the ability and likelihood that churches are going to mobilize and organize their folks for a candidate, the Republicans right now are leagues ahead of the Democrats.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, and as you say, there are many religious Democrats who have expressed their frustration, and somehow this has really all bubbled to the surface in this election that that’s an identity, to be a religious Democrat. And this phrase “the religious left” has emerged. I mean, do you believe that there is a religious left defining itself now?

MR. WALDMAN: Yes. There was a conscience attempt to craft a religious left or a progressive religious movement. And I think, you know, there probably — in about 10 years, we’ll see some real signs of religious left on the scale that conservatives have on the religious right.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, at the Republican convention, there were also events on the sideline, sort of, not on the main stage in prime time. But there was a Family, Faith and Freedom Rally, let’s say — and I’m thinking this would be the corollary to the People of Faith Caucus at the Democratic National Convention. Now what strikes me about that is those words: family, faith and freedom. Really, those are the keywords of what we associate with how religious values express themselves in — and translate in Republican identity, I think. Or those are some important keywords. And, you know, what would the keywords be that you see in this newly-emerging Democratic religious sensibility? Would it be poverty?

MR. WALDMAN: It’s a good question. And you definitely had this sense that when you go into a room of religious people talking about the connection between faith and politics at the Republican convention, that it was a very natural extension. This is something that they’ve been thinking about and working towards for decades. And on the Democratic side, you had the sense that this was something that they’re just starting to try articulate. Doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t always there deep down…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. WALDMAN: …but it’s new to them to try to explicitly articulate the connection between religion and policy. Now — and there are a couple other problems. To the extent they’ve tried to connect it to specific policies, they were anti-war. And, well, one problem there is that John Kerry’s position is much more in the center than the religious left is. His position was that he would have voted to authorize use of force — which was opposed by most religious liberals at the time — and that he would wage the war more effectively. And, you know, the Catholic Church, to take one example — which on the war was actually the leading force of the religious left — they would have said that Kerry and Edwards were too conservative in their approach to the war by voting to authorize use of force. The other thing that they would talk about is the need to help the poor, to work towards social justice. That’s one where, you know, I think they certainly feel comfortable in the Democratic Party. That’s been a traditional goal of the Democratic Party. But it really hasn’t been in this campaign. Senator Kerry has focused, when he talks about domestic issues, on middle-class issues. Health care, which is obviously not only a middle-class issue now, but tax relief, things like that.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. WALDMAN: And it’s really been a while since Democratic candidates talked a whole lot about the obligation to the poor. Democrats — and I think really this was from Clinton’s leadership for the last 15 years — learned that their focus on helping the poor that you heard a lot of in the ’60s and ’70s was an electoral loser.

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm.

MR. WALDMAN: And so they have tried to pair their concern with the poor with a much stronger emphasis on concern for the middle-class.

MS. TIPPETT: Journalist and Beliefnet founder Steven Waldman. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, his observations on religion behind the scenes at the Republican convention. Also, how the religious left and right have evolved since the 1960s and the challenges both may face. On our Web site at speakingoffaith.org, you’ll find background on all the ideas and voices in today’s program, and you’ll be able to link to Steven Waldman’s convention blog and other analyses. While you’re there, please sign up for our weekly e-mail newsletter which includes transcript excerpts, book recommendations and my preview and reflection on each week’s program. That’s speakingoffaith.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us.

Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Each week we take on a different theme asking how religion shapes events in the news and everyday life.

Today, “Beyond the God Gap.” We’re exploring intriguing religious dynamics at this year’s Democratic and Republican conventions with Steven Waldman. A former editor of US News & World Report, he’s the creator and CEO of Beliefnet. Beliefnet.com is one of the largest multifaith religion sites on the Internet. There’s been a great deal of talk in this election year about the supposed God gap, the idea that religious Americans are more likely to vote Republican and nonreligious to vote Democratic. Waldman argues that this is really a church attendance gap at the edges of American religious life, but most Americans who vote for both parties have spiritual lives that are important to them. Nevertheless, at this year’s conventions, the two parties seems to be responding to the perceived God gap.

In the midst of the Republican convention, Steven Waldman wrote this in his blog, quote, “The Democrats were supposed to be uncomfortable with religion, and yet speaker after speaker in Boston got up and quoted the Bible and praised the Lord. Since Republicans actually love God talk, it stood to reason that their convention would be a veritable revival meeting. Instead,” Waldman wrote, “that the Republican convention sounded more like an ACLU retreat because there was so little use of religious rhetoric at least in prime time from the top speakers.” But Waldman chronicled one notable exception to this trend. Republican moderates drove home a concerted message that God favors George Bush as American leader at this moment in time. Here’s a passage from the convention speech of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani about a conversation he had on September 11th, 2001.

RUDOLPH GIULIANI: Without really thinking, based on just emotion, spontaneous, I grabbed the arm of then-Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, and I said to him, “Bernie, thank God, George Bush is our president.” I say it again tonight, thank God that George Bush is our president.

MS. TIPPETT: Despite such declarations on his behalf, Steven Waldman says, President Bush devoted fewer words to faith in his acceptance speech than Senator John Kerry had. And the religious content of those statements was relatively nonsectarian.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America, and tonight in this place, that dream is renewed. Now we go forward, grateful for our freedom, faithful to our cause and confident in the future of the greatest nation on earth. May God bless you, and may God continue to bless our great country. Thank you all.

MR. WALDMAN: Even in his speech, the — on the few occasions that he did talk about it, it was really very elegantly done. You know, instead of saying that God is on America’s side, he said, “We have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom.” I don’t think there are going to be very many Americans who are offended by that, but it does, in a poetic way, imply the same message that we have a kind of spiritual or religious obligation to fight for freedom.

MS. TIPPETT: You’ve made an observation that you made again in your writing from the conventions. You said, “I’ve long believed that politically speaking, Bush’s faith has strong appeal even among many people who aren’t religious because it seems to drive him toward moral clarity.” Now say something about that, because I think that there is a stereotype among — perhaps among Democrats that Bush’s religious language is very off-putting to nonreligious people.

MR. WALDMAN: There was a study by the Pew Foundation that asked specifically about Bush’s use of religious rhetoric. And they found that most people thought it was fine. In fact, they found that most Democrats thought it was fine, and that some Democrats, mostly African Americans, would be happy if he used more religious rhetoric. So it is really not viewed as a negative by most Americans, particularly in this time of insecurity, in terms of terrorism and war. People want their leader to have a clear sense of right and wrong.

MS. TIPPETT: So are you suggesting that people want their leader to have moral clarity even if they don’t agree with the positions that clarity brings him to?

MR. WALDMAN: Yes, I think that’s true. I think people do want their leaders to have moral clarity even if they don’t agree with the positions themselves. I’m here in New York, and one of the classic examples of that for years was that Governor Cuomo — Mario Cuomo — was opposed to the death penalty, which was a position that most voters disagreed with, and yet they came away respecting him because he was very forthright in arguing his position.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. WALDMAN: And I think that’s — in general is true. Not always. But when you’re talking about war and peace, I think having a leader that is perceived as strong and clear and being willing to say that, you know, as someone at the convention said, `Being willing to call evil by its name,’ is a very appealing prospect.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. WALDMAN: I also think that people who are viewed as having religious conviction are viewed as having conviction in general, as being strong, and having not only internal resources but the ability to really persevere. Now that may or may not be true, but I think there is that strong perception.

MS. TIPPETT: Journalist and Beliefnet creator Steven Waldman. Here’s a passage from the speech of Vice President Dick Cheney at this year’s Republican convention. Vice President Dick Cheney: We remember the president who came to New York City and pledged that the terrorists would soon hear from all of us. George W. Bush saw this country through grief and tragedy, he has acted with patience and calm and a moral seriousness that calls evil by its name.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith. We’re talking this hour about the dynamic role of religion at the Republican and Democratic conventions.

[Excerpt from “Amazing Grace”]

MS. TIPPETT: Here’s a report from the Globe and Mail. OK, here’s another journalist writing about the convention. “Beyond the limelight, religious conservatives continue to make their presence felt. At times the New York convention has taken on the air of a huge prayer meeting, notably during a haunting rendition of “Amazing Grace” during the opening night’s September 11th memorial.”

[[Excerpt from “Amazing Grace”]

MS. TIPPETT: “Hymns by church choirs and Christian rock performances continue to punctuate breaks between speakers and the party platform, which delegates enthusiastically improved this week, contains hard-line positions on abortion and gay relationships.” That’s not the impression that I read you having of the convention. Talk to me about that.

MR. WALDMAN: Well, I think there really was a difference between the convention as seen from 10 PM to 11 PM and the convention as seen during the rest of the time. The Republicans were very conscience of what kind of image they were conveying during the period when the TV cameras were most on or were beaming to the most people. There was plenty of religion all over the place at the Republican convention, it just wasn’t all that prominent among the key highlighted speakers.

MS. TIPPETT: And was there on balance more of that at the Republican convention, as you say sort of around the edges, than there was at the Democratic convention?

MR. WALDMAN: I guess it’s almost — it was almost the inverse. At the Democratic convention, a lot of the prime-time speeches had faith references, but in general, faith was less pervasive in terms of other events…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. WALDMAN: …and the music and things like that.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. And at the Republican convention, it was part of the fabric of the convention but not so much on the prime-time stage?

MR. WALDMAN: Yeah, at the Republican convention, a lot of times you would see in the morning schedule the Republican assemblies meeting, and instead of calling it a meeting, it was a prayer breakfast.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. WALDMAN: It was a pervasive part of the Republican Party, and I think authentically so. I think that is just the nature of the way they approach a lot of these issues. You also have to remember that in a lot of states, the religious conservative movement — you know, in some cases the people who were the state chapter heads of the Christian Coalition — became the leaders of the Republican Party in those states. Religious conservatives are very prevalent all up and down the lines in many Republican state parties.

MS. TIPPETT: We talked about a religious left that might be emerging, and you describe them as really seeming to sort of take baby steps at this Democratic convention, just beginning to proclaim that people of faith are welcome and are very much a part of the Democratic sensibility. On the other hand, the religious right has been with us for a long time, and I do think in the popular imagination, a lot of people are still stuck back in the Jerry Falwell/Pat Robertson days, right? I mean, there are just a few names that people think of. And, in fact, those are not leaders now in the way they were a couple of decades ago and were not at all prominent at this convention. Talk to me about how you experienced this more highly evolved, older religious right to be a presence.

MR. WALDMAN: It is true that we tend to think of the religious right as being Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. And they were there, but they are really not the most prominent figures in — among religious conservatives anymore. Actually, the most prominent figure among religious conservatives right now is George Bush.

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm.

MR. WALDMAN: He has become the leading evangelical in America and is really a more important religious conservative leader than Falwell and Robertson. But the other thing I would say is that religious conservatives are pervasive in the Republican Party. They’re at the grass-roots level, they’re officers in state Republican parties. It’s just become a really key part of the — you know, the meat of the Republican Party — the organized Republican Party. And they’re trying to even, you know, extend it from there to using their organization to mobilize Christian voters, religious voters, in a — really I think the most ambitious effort to organize religious voters that we’ve seen possible ever.

MS. TIPPETT: Journalist Steven Waldman. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith. We’re talking this hour about the dynamic role of religion at the Republican and Democratic conventions. As the founder and CEO of Beliefnet.com, Steven Waldman has a broad view of spiritual and religious impulses in American culture and across many faiths. He wrote a blog from both recent party conventions. He also publishes widely in journals and newspapers. He’s been telling me how people and perspectives of faith have become integrated into the Republican Party in recent decades. By contrast, he says, religious Democrats are now taking relative baby steps in finding their place in Democratic politics. I asked him how he understands the different challenges religious political activists face.

MR. WALDMAN: Yeah, religious left was an extremely important force in the ’60s and ’70s, both in the civil rights movement, in the anti-war movement…

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

MR. WALDMAN: …and in general in promoting liberalism. But then, of course, what happened in the ’80s and ’90s was a general wave of sentiments that the political world had become too liberal. To some extent, the issues that the religious left were associated with in the ’60s and ’70s were the issues that caused the Democratic Party to lose. So the religious left and the Democratic Party has to think through a strategy that is both compatible and flows from their reading of scripture or their spiritual lives but also is effective. You know, that’s a really dangerous, icky, uncomfortable balancing act, and maybe it’s not the role of the religious leaders to think about, you know, how to get to 51 percent. It’s the role of the politicians. But that’s what the Republicans have done. That’s what Reagan did and that’s what Bush did. They, in fact, do not adopt the entire agenda of religious conservatives. They adopt the portions of it that they think they can succeed on electorally. So, for instance, the Republican Party platform has a very clear statement that they support a constitutional amendment banning abortion. That’s pretty strong stuff.

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm.

MR. WALDMAN: I don’t recall President Bush talking about that during his speech. He talked in general terms about concern for the unborn, but no major Republican speakers mentioned the fact that the official position of the Republican Party is banning abortion. And there’s a number of other instances like that that you could point to and say actually religious conservatives would have plenty of cause to be annoyed with President Bush. But what he has done, and Reagan did the same thing, is to cherry-pick certain issues, pick their battles to give religious conservatives some of what they want but not to go so far in adopting that agenda that they become a minority party. And the Democrats are going to have to learn how to do the same thing as the religious left starts to flex its muscles.

MS. TIPPETT: So what you’re describing is a very sophisticated balancing act that, in fact, has taken a couple of decades evolving between real faith convictions and political pragmatism.

MR. WALDMAN: Yes, and it often takes a candidate who has so much credibility among the religious community or among particular constituencies that he is able to shift the ground. And, you know, the classic example that everyone always uses is Nixon going to China. He had fought against communism for 30 years so he could go to China. Similarly, Clinton, as a liberal-centered Democratic governor was able to do welfare reform in a way that actually annoyed a lot of liberals, annoyed a lot of religious liberals. You know, I was at Riverside Church a couple weeks ago when Clinton preached, and it was, you know…

MS. TIPPETT: During the convention.

MR. WALDMAN: …a heroic — during the Republican convention — it was a heroic homecoming. There was no concern on the part of religious liberals there of being annoyed with him because he signed welfare reform. They were thrilled that this guy had managed to articulate liberal faith values and win. You know, I think both religious people have this kind of dilemma that they’re always weighing, which is, on the one hand, the obligation — the prophetic justice obligation to speak truth of power regardless of what the consequences are or whether it’s popular. But, on the other hand, they want to be effective.

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm.

MR. WALDMAN: They want to actually cause change. And those two goals are sometimes out of sync.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, I mean, it’s interesting that you mention Clinton and his sermon at the Riverside Church during the Republican convention. It almost seems like you experienced Clinton out of office as this leader who can speak very openly about faith and God and, in fact, did that when he was president as well, but it didn’t get the attention that George Bush’s language has gotten.

MR. WALDMAN: I think it’s no accident that the only two Democrats who have won the presidency since 1964 — we’re talking about Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. WALDMAN: …were both Southern Baptists who were very comfortable talking about their faith.

MS. TIPPETT: I think I’d like to end with a very strong message that came through in your reporting in both places. And this was something that disturbed you. You wrote about how people on both sides caricature the others in what you said “grotesque ways.” And this was one of the columns you wrote where I think you sort of put your journalistic neutrality to one side and you wrote, “This is horribly depressing. Neither side even seems to realize it when they’re demonizing their opponent.” I wonder if you’d talk about that and about why you think that should matter in terms of religious expression by people on both sides of the political divide.

MR. WALDMAN: On some level, it just rips the humanity from someone else when you caricature their views and don’t at least take their opinions and views seriously. And both sides are doing that. You know, I was at a party at — a conservative party at the Republican convention, and they were talking about how intolerant the Democrats were because they had been mistreated by protesters, and that was probably true. On the other hand, the woman I was talking to who was saying that was wearing a button that said, “Terrorists for Kerry” with a picture of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. I found it very hard to even have conversations with people without them questioning — or attacking not only the policies of the other side but the motives in a really profound way. Both sides seem to shift from criticizing the other side on the substance to completely depriving the other side of any humanity very quickly. And, you know, I see it on both sides. I don’t want to kind of in my kind of relentless desire to be evenhanded, to say that I saw it in even doses. I — I actually saw it more at the Republican convention than I did at the Democratic convention. But I think it’s definitely a pervasive part of politics now.

MS. TIPPETT: Does it, for you, have something to do with the faith dimension of the campaigns among political people, or should it?

MR. WALDMAN: I think that if people are serious about incorporating faith into their political lives that at minimum they need to be able to see their opponents as one of God’s creations also and start off at least with the assumption that perhaps the other person wants to improve their community, too, and that they disagree about it.

MS. TIPPETT: I thought it was interesting you also suggested — because there is a lot in the news in particular about how the Republican Party is mobilizing houses of worship, churches — and you suggested that maybe houses or worship should also be concerned about the tenor of material that they allow in their sacred spaces.

MR. WALDMAN: As an example of the kind of mean-spiritedness that I saw among the protesters, I did see signs that had Bush and Swastikas, equating President Bush with Nazis. And then I went to the official merchandise area at the Republican convention that they had set up to sell buttons and things like that, and some of the buttons were just amazing. Like, one said, “If they take our guns how can we shoot liberals?” You know you turn on TV and you watch any political talk show, and it’s people mischaracterizing each other, yelling at each other, caricaturing each other’s views, and we’ve kind of come to expect that from cable TV. But we should hold houses of worship to a higher standard. And as they get involved in political debates and as they have, you know, material and pamphlets flooding their pews and their literature racks, they should hold campaigns to a higher standard than TV producers do. They should actually demand that the material that they’re using and the discussions that they have operate on a higher plane that absolutely, you know, deals with serious issues and has real disagreements but does it in a way that accepts the basic humanity of the opponent.

MS. TIPPETT: Steven Waldman is the founder and CEO of Beliefnet.com.

The theory of the God gap that journalists and pundits have loved in this election season is based on too narrow a view of religious and spiritual practice in modern America. On the other hand, taking the conventions in Boston and New York as microcosms of the whole, there would seem to be another very real God gap that has grown up between the two major parties over a number of years. The Republican Party has extensively integrated religious people and ideas into its platform and its strategy. In the Democratic Party, religious thinkers and actors are taking initial steps now to find their place and their voice in party politics.

One of Steven Waldman’s most thought-provoking opinions is that most Americans on both sides of the political divide believe intuitively that personal religious faith is a measure of a candidate’s suitability for office and for more and practical leadership. Here are two long-term questions the conversation of this hour raises for me. First, will a religious left define itself with the same clarity as conservative Christianity has and exercise comparable influence within the Democratic Party? And if its agenda centers around issues of social justice, such as poverty, can it galvanize American voters with the same intensity as issues of personal morality? Second, will new attention to faith in political life enrich our public discourse? Is the integrity of faith necessarily corrupted by the expedience of campaigns and elections, or might religious voters and congregations assert a positive moral influence on the rhetoric and message of political campaigning?

We’d like to know how you think about such questions and hear your reactions to Steven Waldman’s insights. You can write to us through our Web site at speakingoffaith.org. There you’ll also find links to Steven Waldman’s blogs from the convention and other background on the so-called God gap and religion in American political life and this presidential campaign. You’ll find relevant opinion polls that you can analyze for yourself, as well as Web-only audio of further observations Steven Waldman made at the party conventions. And while you’re at speakingoffaith.org, please sign up for our weekly e-mail newsletter where I preview and offer transcripts, book recommendations and reflections on each week’s program.

[Credits]

I’m Krista Tippett. Please join us again next week.

Books + Music

Recommended Reading

Author:
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Binding: Paperback, (212)Pages
Author: Andrew Kohut, John C. Green, Scott Keeter, Robert C. Toth
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Binding: Paperback, (195)Pages

Music Played

Artist: AMERICUS BRASS BAND
Label: Summit(Classical)
Artist: Amadeus Guitar Duo
Label: Swrmusic
Artist:
Label: Sony Classical
Artist: Tommy Emmanuel
Label: Favored Nations
Artist: Bruce Stark
Label: Hearts of Space
Artist:
Label: Orchard Road

About the Image

Source: Religious Congregations and Membership in the United States: 2000 by Glenmary Research Center

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