A few months ago, Mike McCurry, one-time Bill Clinton press secretary, paid a visit to some of his friends at the Kerry campaign. The topic was not economics or Iraq or terrorism. It was religion. He warned campaign aides Michael Donlon and Michael Meehan that Kerry's campaign urgently needed to shake the image that the candidate was uncomfortable with spiritual matters. Kerry's got to talk about his personal faith, McCurry urged.
The response was not encouraging. "It's very hard for him to do it," they told McCurry. "It's just not a comfortable thing to address." It's a cultural thing, McCurry concludes: "You ask a Northeast Catholic to talk about his faith and he says, 'Eh, no. What is this, catechism?' " Beyond crusty New England reticence, the Kerry campaign also feared that if they spoke about faith they would inflame the situation with critical Catholic Bishops. Better to lay low.
But Kerry's refusal to engage on faith posed serious problems. A substantial "religion gap" had developed, with people who attend church regularly moving increasingly into the Republican camp. A Time magazine poll showed that only 7 percent of people thought of Kerry as a person of strong faith, a statistic that was feeding the perception of him as a waffler. He was running no better among Catholics than Al Gore did, which, considering he's the first Catholic nominee in 44 years, is pretty amazing—and politically worrisome since Catholics are heavily represented in battleground states like Pennsylvania (30 percent Catholic), New Jersey (45.9 percent), Ohio (28 percent), Michigan (28 percent), Wisconsin (34.4 percent), Minnesota (28.7 percent), and New Hampshire (38.2 percent). And the Bush campaign was hitting "values" hard and brazenly organizing churches to mobilize Republican voters.
So, in the last few weeks, the Kerry campaign has shifted gears. The Religification of John Kerry has begun. He started lacing his speeches with a Bible reference here and there. He released a TV ad discussing his faith, and just days before the convention began, the campaign hired a new director of religious outreach.
And then came the convention speeches. Early on, it became clear that, at minimum, the secondary convention speakers would ratchet up the God-talk. It started with Clinton, whose central rhetorical device—"send me!"—was a reference to Isaiah 6:8 where God asks who will go tell Israel the bad news of His judgment for the unfaithful. Barack Obama declared, "I am my brother's keeper" (Genesis 4:9), decried efforts to use faith to divide people, and then directly went after the link between the GOP and faith. "The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republican, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an AWESOME God in the Blue States."
On Tuesday, Ron Reagan Jr.—son of the man who helped birth the "religious right"—slashed them. He declared that the Republican opposition to stem-cell research was a case of "the theology of a few" threatening "the health and well-being of the many"—a clash between "reason and ignorance." I've been trying to think of an analogy to capture just how remarkable this was: Perhaps it would be Chelsea Clinton getting up at a Republican convention 20 years from now to attack the permissive immorality of the Democratic Party.
Definitive evidence that this was a concerted effort by the Kerry campaign to buff the party's spiritual image came when Joseph Biden, of all people—not exactly a guy known for his spiritual aura—did a little preachin': "Just as Joshua's trumpets brought down the walls of Jericho—just as American values brought down the Berlin Wall—so will radical fundamentalism fall to the terrible, swift power of our ideas as well as our swords."
But none of this would have mattered much unless Kerry showed more of himself. Surprisingly, Teresa Heinz Kerry and John Edwards talked little about faith, leading me to wonder initially if the strategy was to have religious secondary characters while the principals remained secular.
On Thursday, though, Kerry came out of the spiritual closet in a big way. While commentators focused on his efforts to reclaim the flag, he also worked mightily to take back the Bible. Wounded Vietnam veteran Max Cleland started it off by declaring, "The Bible tells me that no greater love has a man than to lay down his life for his friends." He even described how he'd given Kerry his personal copy of the Bible. Then came the bio film, in which Kerry declared, "I am alive today because of the grace of a higher being."
Kerry's speech itself repeatedly used religious imagery in describing public policy positions. Environmentalism was about protecting "the cathedrals of nature." Funding Social Security was driven by the commandment "Honor thy father and thy mother." It seemed that all of a sudden most platform planks came from the Holy Spirit. I was half expecting the next line to be, "And just as David slew the terrorist Goliath with A Rock, so too should we slay the terrorists in Iraq."
It wouldn't have been at all surprising if Kerry had stopped there, limiting his God-talk to policy metaphors. Instead, he decided to take on the God gap directly:
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 own faith on my sleeve. But faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday. 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. And whatever our faith, one belief should bind us all: the measure of our character is our willingness to give ourselves for others and for our country.
Nearly every phrase in this was politically well-calibrated. Citing Lincoln and Reagan, he's engaged in innocence by association. By saying he doesn't wear his faith on his sleeve, he tried to turn a perceived weakness into a virtue and imply subtly that Bush's religiosity is partly tactical. The idea that faith has informed his values "from Sunday to Sunday" was not only lyrical but also a way of pointing out that he's a regular church-goer. And the line about being on God's side and not vice versa is a direct slap at Bush's one faith-based vulnerability: the slight suspicion that he feels like he's been personally anointed by God. The one line that seemed off to me was "we welcome people of faith," which implies that they are an outside group whose support he'd like (like veterans or soybean farmers). An obvious Republican comeback: "They welcome people of faith. How nice of them. We ARE people of faith."
But the most important aspect of Kerry's faith talk—the element that makes me think it might be an electoral turning point—was the campaign's connecting of his faith and his Vietnam experience. The danger for Kerry in talking about faith was always that he'd seem inauthentic. The campaign was well aware of how foolish Howard Dean looked when he tried to seem religious by discussing that great New Testament book of Job. They had to find some way of talking about faith that tied more naturally to his biography. Vietnam was the obvious way to do it.
The faith-in-battle imagery succeeds on another level. Bush's religious talk works in part because it's part of a redemption narrative. Due to his drinking problem, he was fallen (or falling down). He found God and was saved. He had an obstacle, he suffered, and faith helped him to overcome. In Vietnam, Kerry, too, faced obstacles, suffered, and overcame, in part because of his faith. In some circles, the dodging-bullets-with-the-help-of-God metaphor might seem even more impressive than the detoxifying-with-the-help-of God one.
Kerry's certainly not in the clear on this yet. He can quote the Bible to tee up every new tax credit proposal and he still won't win over many conservative Catholics who loathe his position on abortion, especially partial-birth abortion. Many religious voters are motivated by ideology more than theology and will find Kerry too liberal regardless of how often he prays the rosary.
But on balance, Kerry took a major step toward convincing people that it was OK to believe in God and Democrats at the same time.