Praying Politics

By Loredana Vuoto & Mark RodgersFor the first time since Jimmy Carter ran for the White House in 1976, large numbers of evangelical and Catholic voters pulled the Democratic lever in a presidential election. Last week, Pres. Barack Obama decided to reverse a policy that prohibits U.S. tax dollars from funding abortion providers overseas.How to square the two? Some younger Christians probably saw it coming: Obama’s campaign emphasized social-justice issues like overcoming racism, combating poverty, and tackling global issues like AIDS, and for them, this agenda trumped abortion. For others, however, the new policy is a betrayal: While courting the evangelical and Catholic vote on the campaign trail, Obama also promised to reduce the number of abortions.At this juncture, it’s worth looking back at the way the Democratic party has handled Catholics and evangelicals—and asking whether Obama’s policies on abortion might make him vulnerable among these groups in 2012.Obama courted the religious with unprecedented deliberation; This was not the Democratic party of old, uncomfortable with faith. Democrats lost the 2000 and 2004 elections largely because of their lack of support from the religious. In 2000, George W. Bush won the evangelical vote over Al Gore by 68 percent to 30 percent. Gore received a slight edge among Catholics, with 50 percent of the vote compared to Bush’s 47 percent. In 2004, Bush received 78 percent of the evangelical vote and made headway among Catholics in his race against John Kerry, winning 52 percent of the vote.In 2008, Obama won 42 percent of the evangelical vote—not a majority, but a far bigger portion than his predecessors were able to bring in. He won 56 percent of the Catholic vote as well. Obama’s ascension, then, shows that Democrats have learned to talk faith without alienating their secular base. (The Democratic nominee’s support among self-identified atheists and agnostics reached 76 percent—a 12 percentage point increase from 2004.)Obama’s campaign speeches overflowed with references to God, and in an unprecedented move, the Democratic party organized caucus meetings for people of various faiths—including for American Jews and Muslims. Democrats made clear early on that they were not hostile to religion, but rather a hungry, rehabilitated party eager to court the faith community. Democratic presidential candidates were quick to accept national faith-based policy forums, and the Democratic party was far more eager to incorporate faith during its national convention than was the Republican party.But while the Democratic party has narrowed the God gap—especially among younger believers—it has not changed its new friends’ views on abortion. According to the Faith and American Politics Survey, sponsored by Faith in Public Life, young evangelical voters are adamantly opposed to abortion, with 75 percent believing it should be illegal in all or most cases. A majority of Catholics are also opposed to abortion, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, with 63 percent believing it is only acceptable in cases of rape, incest, or a threat to the mother’s life.Over the next few weeks, Obama will most likely undo several more pro-life regulations, such as the ban on the use of federal funds for embryonic-stem-cell research and the “right of conscience” ruling (which allows medical personnel to refuse to participate in practices they object to, such as abortion). In addition, when he committed to expand Bush’s faith-based initiatives, Obama indicated he would curtail religious groups’ ability to hire based on religious considerations—a decision that would tear the soul and the effectiveness out of these groups.These policies will present a challenge to some of the pro-life evangelicals and Catholics who supported Obama. Will they continue to follow his lead?If Republicans hope to recreate the God gap in 2012, they will need to focus more on issues that have captivated a younger generation of Catholics and evangelicals. It is no longer enough to oppose Roe v. Wade. The GOP must stand firm on abortion and marriage, but it also must become an active participant in the debates over other issues. The GOP must provide specific free-market solutions to the environmental and health-care challenges facing America. It must offer serious anti-poverty initiatives based on conservative principles. It must demand that Africa become a focus for relief efforts, and prioritize the end of human-rights abuses such as human trafficking. In short, Republicans can no longer take the faith community for granted by focusing only on two or three “moral issues.”Obama has shown not only that he has the capability to court values voters, but that he plans to do so throughout his presidency. His inclusion of Rick Warren at his inauguration is a case in point. But as long as young Christians oppose abortion, Republicans will have an advantage on a major issue. Whether the GOP can complement this issue with other matters of concern will determine both parties’ fates.— Mark Rodgers is principal of the Clapham Group, an organization committed to promoting the good, true, and beautiful in the public arenas of politics, policy, and pop culture. Loredana Vuoto is an associate of the Clapham Group and president of Eloquence, LLC, a speechwriting and writing-services firm based in Washington, D.C.Link: