Just over a week ago, a Democratic-led House Appropriations subcommittee voted to increase funding for abstinence education programs by $27.8 million - an increase that the last, Republican-led Congress had been unwilling to authorize.
Surprised? So were liberal activists. In a party that regards such religious right-approved programs as disseminating "false, misleading or distorted information," to quote California Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman, the vote led to reproductive rights activist James Wagoner branding Appropriations Chair David Obey a funder of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, and Huffington Post authors Yvonne Fulbright and Danielle Cavallucci blasting Democrats in a column entitled "Are You [censored] Kidding Me?"
Democrats say the move was a quid pro quo designed to win extra Republican votes in the House and ensure that a veto-proof majority backs an annual appropriations bill covering health and human services. But, in the wake of news that Bill Clinton counseled John Kerry to support the Federal Marriage Amendment back in 2004, and given the new focus of the party on outreach to religious voters, the base seems worried about Mr. Obey's true intentions and priorities.
The dust-up between the liberal Democratic base and newly outed "ultraconservative" Mr. Obey is the first in what could easily become a series of confrontations between Democratic leaders, eager to court Evangelicals, and Democratic foot soldiers, suspicious that their liberal social-policy objectives are being kept on the back burner.
With 26.5 million evangelicals and 31 million Catholics having voted in the 2004 presidential election (out of about 114 million voters total), and 79% of evangelicals and 52% of Catholics having voted for President Bush, it is clear that bringing values voters into the Democratic fold makes good sense from a numbers perspective.
Consider that, according to two 2006 surveys, 70% of evangelical voters see global warming as a serious threat and 62% of religious voters judge economic justice, poverty, greed, and materialism to be the most important issues in America. It seems that the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean, had a point when he told the Christian Broadcasting Network that "we have an enormous amount in common with the Christian community, and particularly with the evangelical Christian community."
Before assuming his chairmanship of the DNC, Mr. Dean pledged that, under his tenure, Democrats would pursue outreach to Evangelicals. With Congressional Democrats having formed a "faith working group," and Democratic consultants heading up Common Good Strategies (which aims to work "with the Democratic Party … to reach out and build authentic relationships with… religious communities"), and Democratic staffers taking lessons on reaching values voters, it seems that Mr. Dean was quite serious.
Mr. Dean's strategy may just have paid off in 2006, too. According to a 2006 CNN exit poll, the Republican Party's share of the Evangelical vote fell to 70%, compared to Mr. Bush's 79% from 2004; and, in two senate races where Democrats ran socially conservative candidates against supposed religious-voter favorites, Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum and Virginia's George Allen, the Republican percentage was even lower — 59% and 65%, respectively.
A gain of 5 or 10 percentage points may seem small to a casual observer, but in hotly contested races, where Evangelicals represent a reliable voting bloc, those percentage points can make all the difference. The 2008 Democratic presidential field is certainly aware of this. Hillary Clinton hired an Evangelical consultant in December, Barack Obama has links with mega-church pastor Rick Warren, and John Edwards vigorously campaigns against poverty by hitting on religious themes. Moreover, all three candidates have spoken openly and publicly about their faiths, from early on in the race.
However, with the Democratic Party remaining dominated by pro-choicers, supporters of gay marriage and civil unions, and a base that is deeply skeptical of public religiosity, the real question is how successful will Mr. Dean & Co. be in cultivating the so-called religious left. Will they be able to attract significant numbers of Evangelicals by campaigning on environmental and economic themes without offending their existing base?
Efforts to bring Evangelicals on board may not be coming out of left field, but integrating religious voters into the flock looks likely to be tough for those playing on the left wing.