A “spiritual struggle”

The Washington Post on the silence of most Democratic presidential candidates about religion. In a story called “A Spiritual Struggle for Democrats,” the Post cites public opinion polls showing that voters “want to hear more about faith from their national leaders,” and proceeds to speculate about why the leading Democrats seem unable to satisfy this yearning. Based on interviews with the candidates, the Post embraces the easy non-answer that most Democratic candidates “are uncomfortable discussing their faith as publicly as Bush does.” The Post goes on to note that Bush is “relentlessly courting” conservative white Evangelicals, “those Christians who, among other things, see abortion and homosexuality as going against the Bible.” At the same time, the Post suggests that Bush has mastered the art of talking about religion without offending non-Evangelical voters.
So the Post’s explanation is essentially this — the Democrats are too intellectually and/or morally superior to stoop to cheap religious talk, whereas Bush has mastered such talk to the point that he can energize his right-wing base, satisfy the desire of more mainstream voters to hear about spirituality, and not appear too fanatical.
The Post never identifies the real reason why none of the top Democratic contenders is talking about his faith — such talk is a massive turn-off for the Democratic base. This isn’t speculation. I happened to catch pollster Frank Luntz the other night on Chris Matthews’ show. He had organized a focus group of Democratic voters for a recent presidential debate. Members of the group registered real-time reactions to the statements of the candidates, enabling Luntz to evaluate the degree of approval for every thought uttered. A graphic displayed the reactions in the form of a line that reflected the overall popularity of whatever was being said at the moment. During Wesley Clark’s presentation, he made the mistake of talking about his spirituality. The line plummeted. I have been involved in this sort of exercise as a lawyer preparing for trial. Rarely have I seen a more dramatically negative result.
Core Democrats, then, simply don’t want to hear about religion. But, by a margin of about 2 to 1, Americans do. That’s the real “spiritual struggle for Democrats.” If the Post had been willing to talk candidly about the Democratic base, it wouldn’t have missed the story.

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