One way to win the hearts of black voters.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Jan. 22 2004 11:15 AM

The Path of Righteousness

Can a Democrat win the hearts of black voters? Yes, here's how.

The focus on Iowa and New Hampshire has diverted our attention from a factor that's about to become hugely important: the African-American vote. Half of the crucial South Carolina voters are expected to be black, and African-American numbers similarly dominate in other Southern states.

Al Sharpton will surely get some of these ballots, but he doesn't have nearly the support Jesse Jackson did during his campaigns, and none of the white candidates seem to have taken a decisive lead. For the first time in years, no candidate can be said to have cornered the black vote.

Now is the time for shrewd Democratic candidates to start lacing the speeches with Bible references. Before you throw things at the computer—I know it didn't exactly help Howard Dean to talk about religion—let me explain. Politically, the first burst of candidate God-talk (and punditry) seemed to assume that talking about religion is only about reaching out to the center in the general election.

But these guys have to win the nomination first, and the one group for whom faith and morality have historically been crucial is African-Americans. Candidates who think they can win the black vote by trumpeting affirmative action missed a lesson from the Clinton presidency. Part of his appeal was his use of biblical language and metaphors—and his understanding that African-American voters, especially in the South, are quite conservative on cultural issues.

A study from the Pew Forum on Religion found that 50 percent of polled African-Americans said Bush uses too little religious rhetoric compared to 8 percent who said he uses too much and 28 percent who said he used the right amount. Two-thirds of blacks said churches "should express their views" about politics—about the same percentage as white evangelicals—and 61 percent said they wanted more religious leaders advising the candidates. Asked the same question, only 19 percent of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics agreed.

On many of the issues over which liberals mock "the religious right," African-Americans are closer to the evangelicals than the rest of the Democratic Party. Fifty-one percent believe that God gave Israel to the Jews and that its existence fulfills the prophesy about the second coming of Jesus. The U.S. population as a whole disagrees, 46 percent to 36 percent; in fact, the only group that sees eye to eye with African-Americans on this question is white evangelicals.

Even more important, African-Americans tend to concur with the Republican position on the hot issue of gay marriage. Sixty-four percent oppose it as compared to 44 percent among white mainline Protestants and 30 percent among secular Democrats. Blacks even support the Republican position on the death penalty, despite evidence that its implementation tends to discriminate against blacks.

So, which Democrat is most conservative on social issues and most conversant with biblical language? Perhaps the Jewish guy, Joe Lieberman. He may be too far down at this point to pull it out, but he's actually the candidate with the most natural political advantages to appeal to African-American voters in the South. Another contender would be John Edwards, not only because of his accent but also because of his Clintonesque familiarity with biblical lingo, and conceivably Wes Clark because of his Arkansas roots and the fact that many blacks view the Army as one of the few American institutions that give them a fair shake.

To be sure, faith and values are not the only issues of importance to blacks. Bush-hatred works well, as will economics and health care. But it's hard to see how any one Democrat will stand out from the pack on those issues, so the biggest differentiators may end up being social and cultural. All the candidates need to remember is that among some voters, the Good Book isn't written by Al Franken or Michael Moore.

Steven Waldman is editor in chief ofBeliefnet, the leading multifaith spirituality and religion Web site.