The controversy regarding presidential candidate Barack Obama's pastor and his religious background show the important role that religion plays in American politics, said Amy Sullivan, nation editor at Time magazine yesterday.
Sullivan, author of "The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap," said that Sen. John Kerry's 2004 campaign was an example of the mistakes a presidential candidate shouldn't make with regard to religion. The Democratic Party seemed to have learned the lesson, she said, as both Obama and Clinton demonstrated they can speak about religion. "Until recently, you wouldn't hear democrats appealing to their values," Sullivan said at her talk in North Court, which was sponsored by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and the Booker Chair in Religion and Ethics.
Studies demonstrated that democratic and republican voters were almost equally religious, Sullivan said, and there weren't big differences in the religiousness of the party's candidates. But, there was a greater difference between the political classes of both parties. Conservatives are more familiar with religion than liberals, and stereotypes about which party is religious have shaped American politics.
The Democratic Party had forgotten that many progressive movements in America were led by religious people, Sullivan said. Democrats ended up buying into the conservative idea that the conservative party was the most religious, and stopped talking to religious voters.
Sullivan described the Democratic Party's attitude as a miscalculation and exemplified it with Michael Dukakis' 1988 campaign, which failed partly because of his refusal to listen to Catholics.
"They lost the opportunity to hear from a good 25 percent of the people," she said. She added that similar errors had occurred during Kerry's 2004 campaign.
Only two members of Kerry's staff, a junior adviser and an intern, were responsible for recruiting the religious vote. Kerry's advisers also didn't pay attention to his own character as a Catholic candidate, Sullivan said. "Religion is not the only reason Kerry lost the election, but it was a disadvantage he was at that they couldn't ignore," she said.
Major changes have taken place in the Democratic Party since then, Sullivan said. In the current presidential campaign, both democratic candidates are making religion more important than ever, and trying to attract voters who are on a middle ground theologically and politically.
Sullivan said many people wouldn't have believed a Democratic candidate like Obama would be questioned about his religious beliefs.
But, even if it seems contradictory, Sullivan said, the presence of religion in politics could help the United States become a non-religious state. When the two parties get to a point at which they're not seen as the religious or anti-religious party, they could start discussing other topics, she said.
"Religion may go back to the same private topic that most of us grew up with, well, adjusting for age and generation," Sullivan said to an audience that was composed of students as well as faculty and community members.
Chandler Whitman, a Rhetoric and Communications major, who asked Sullivan about the shifting political positions of young evangelicals, said she considered herself a young evangelical, even if she didn't like the term's connotations. She said her religious beliefs played an important role in her political decisions, but that didn't mean she had to vote Republican.
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Juliette Jeanfreau, a Leadership major, said hearing Sullivan speak was like listening to her own coming-of-age story. Jeanfreau said she had grown up in an environment where the idea that being a good Catholic meant voting Republican prevailed, but she was not so sure whether her political beliefs needed to fit the ideas of the Catholic Church perfectly.
"I don't want to be excommunicated, but I think I have to figure this out by myself," she said.
Contact reporter Amaya Garcia Martinez at email@example.com
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