Party at the Crossroads | Pittsburgh City Paper

Party at the Crossroads

Can Democrats be a party of values too? Should they try?

A priest, a minister, an atheist, and two political consultants walk into a newspaper office ...

Stop us if you've heard this one before. In the wake of the November election, a chorus of voices has cited a Republican rout -- powered in part by the religious right -- as evidence that Democrats need to find God. Some of the evidence has been sketchy: Exit polling showing that more than one-fifth of voters put "moral values" at the top of their agenda, for example, was likely the result of a poorly constructed poll question. But it's hard to argue the larger trend: Among voters who attend church regularly -- two-fifths of those polled -- George W. Bush led Democratic challenger John Kerry by a margin of 61 to 39 percent. Even Catholics, a traditionally Democratic constituency, went for Bush this election.

Can Democrats do anything to reconnect with people of faith? Should they even try, or will doing so just alienate the voters who haven't left them?

To hash out some answers, we brought five people with connections to the spiritual and political worlds to the offices of City Paper (where all we worship is Mammon). Between them, our five panelists -- activists and analysts, people of faith and atheists -- have a message both more hopeful and more despairing than Democrats might expect.

It would be fairly easy, most on the panel say, for Democrats to appeal more to voters of faith -- even without abandoning key Democratic positions on issues like abortion. Some contend that if the party doesn't do so, it risks seeing Republicans encroach even further into key Democratic constituents like Catholics and African Americans. But reaching out to believers may not be enough: The party is being pulled apart by forces much larger than those of faith. In the end, it may not have a prayer.


Don Friedman
is a local political consultant who works closely with labor unions.

Father John Sawicki
is an assistant professor of political science at Duquesne University.

Rev. James Simms
is pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church in Point Breeze and a member of Allegheny County Council.

Carol Stabile
is a Women's Studies professor at the University of Pittsburgh, an atheist and a political activist ... not necessarily in that order.

Dianna Wentz
is a Democratic consultant who has worked on local and national political campaigns. She is also a diaconal minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church and hopes to someday start a faith-based third party, the Trinitarian party.

City Paper: We're talking about whether Democrats need to try reconnecting with religious values and the people who vote based on them. But the first question is: How did Dems lose that connection? Are Republicans just more moral people?

Dianna Wentz: The Republicans are better at looking at key demographic groups and deciphering what one needs to do to turn out those groups and energize them. ... Both parties have principles within their platforms that are Judeo-Christian in nature. One party is better at capitalizing on that, and the other party is afraid.

I was talking to people in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party two years ago, trying to start talking about moral and family values to evangelical voters. What was the Democratic answer? "Let's talk in a generic sense. Let's bring Jesus together with Islam and Judaism. Let's just talk in generalities." In politics, with any battle for any demographic group, you look at what moves them. If you're looking to move a group who views Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior, you need to use the name "Jesus Christ." You don't use generic, feel-good terms.

Carol Stabile: I think it's naïve to sit around now and say, "What happened?" when for the past 40 years we've seen a concerted effort by Republicans and fundamentalists to move this country away from social welfare and issues that people of all faith care about, and to focus on wedge issues that people get angry about. It's a way of not talking about the issues at hand. It allows them to produce these socially reviled categories. Moral values have always been used to produce black folk who don't line up with the moral platform, or gays and lesbians.

The polling data says 22 percent of people were concerned about moral values; I think 19 percent said they were concerned about the economy and jobs. We're talking a difference of 3 percent. But has the media picked up on the economy-and-jobs people? No. It's all been about moral values.

James Simms: I think it's a misread to say moral values don't mean much. It's obvious that they mean an awful lot to a lot of people. If you go back and look at the people who came here, they were religious revolutionaries. They minced no words about taking this country for God. They were thanking God for the plague they inflicted on Native Americans. The folks [who crafted the] Constitution didn't mince words about needing God-fearing men in Congress. Now we're right back to talking about putting God-fearing men in office.

This didn't just jump up out of the ground and now all the sudden we've got this fervor. This fervor has always been with us.

John Sawicki: If the question is whether the Democratic Party is in trouble because it hasn't addressed moral values, I think the answer is yes. Over 30 years ago, a young Republican intellectual named Kevin Phillips wrote a book called The Emerging Republican Majority and he more or less mapped out what we see developing here. If I were a [Democratic National Committee] planner, I would be deeply, deeply alarmed. There is nothing but thunderbolts and lightning here for Democrats nationally. Kerry had 146 to 183 [electoral votes] for Bush in states where the margin was more than 5 percent. In states where one side barely eked out a victory, Kerry got 69 votes compared to 37 for Republicans.

Stabile: I still disagree that the problem with Democrats is moral values. I was listening to NPR the day after the election, and they were saying the Democrats had to back off the gay-marriage issue -- in other words, they have to become as homophobic as the Republicans. And I kept thinking, "We're in the middle of a war with Iraq that isn't going well. We're spending $500 billion on military spending, the deficit is spiraling out of control, and we're spending only $55 billion on education. What percentage would say gay marriage is the greater threat?"

Don Friedman: That's the wrong question. Elections -- except for some intellectuals -- are never about the arguments. They're never about the nuances of policy. They are about people. George Bush's objections to the gay lifestyle were what people understood. They may not be able to understand if he's doing the right thing in the Iraq war, but they understand he is uncomfortable with homosexuality.

Simms: I think that's what the moral-values contest is about: It's about passion.

Stabile: I'm struck by the irony of this. Don is criticizing me for making a moral argument on the ground of political strategizing, which is all about cynical calculations, right? But it's immoral to preach intolerance; it's immoral to preach hatred.

Friedman: I happen to agree with you. But it's also very popular.

CP: But why is sexual behavior always the hot-button issue? I can look to the epistle of James, which denounces rich people more strongly than anything the Bible says about gays: "Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver is cankered, and the rust of them ... shall eat your flesh as it were fire."

Simms: Amen.

Wentz: Can you imagine Bill Clinton delivering that at the convention?

CP: So why hasn't he done it? Father Sawicki, here in Pittsburgh you can find a tradition of labor-activist priests like Charles Owen Rice who saw economic matters as spiritual concerns. Why are they less visible today?

Sawicki: I don't know that they aren't present anymore. But I think Catholics have moved from a marginal community of immigrants with no education outside of their clergy. Many of them have found places in the community and politics and business, and they've changed the way they articulate those issues. I don't think you can find the street organizing that you did 50 years ago. I think now you're finding Catholics in Congress, and who are much more polished in approaching these issues. And the Catholic definition of these social issues has differed in many ways.

They now have vehicles to make their voices heard that were not available a few generations ago. They've changed the way they approach the issues of advocacy and power.

CP: Don, you've looked at some demographic data in your day. Do you see these trends emerging from your numbers?

Friedman: I feel the trends in my own lifetime. I was one of four Jewish kids in a suburban rural school in western New York. We resented having to say the Lord's Prayer because it was not a very Jewish prayer. I harbor that resentment to this day. Kids are no longer forced to say that in public schools, but I see that turning around.

If you want to live that life, then choose it. But don't force it down my throat. My wife, my sister and my daughter are being told what they can and can't do with their bodies, what medical treatments they can and cannot get. That's not your decision to make.

Simms: But isn't this what happens when you get a level of frustration? In this region for example -- so many old people who don't understand what the kids are doing. They don't understand the music, the drugs being sold on the corners, they don't understand why people aren't going to work in the steel mills anymore. I think what happens is you say, "Here's what's wrong: We've lost moral values." That's a big tent. It doesn't have to be in a Jesus context; it's just what I feel is wrong. I'm in Homewood, I can't stop gunfights on Formosa Way -- that's wrong. Moral values.

[During the campaign I was] in a room full of black clergy. And Jesse Jackson comes in, stumping for Kerry. We're talking about foreign policy, HIV in Africa -- all of these big issues. And one of my colleagues raises his hand and says, "You know, Reverend Jackson, we're really concerned about this gay-marriage stuff." I mean, I almost fell out of the chair.

Sawicki: I think Americans are very fair-minded people, irrespective of their religious beliefs. And when you appeal to that fair-mindedness, Americans respond. But absent a direct appeal to that, they tend to vote their gut feelings. Which is what Rev. Simms just said.

A lot of what I hear is, "Oh, the Republicans play dirty pool," or, "Oh, the Republicans are scaring people." I think the Republicans are just good at this. They understand the culture that they are dealing with. Democrats could win over voters if they just understood the way in which you have to talk to people. You've got to speak in a language they understand. I think Americans are hearing Republican rhetoric; I don't think they're hearing Democrats.

Simms: You don't have to really talk about what's in the Bible. You talk about feeling a certain way. When I hear Kerry talking about "my plan" -- every politician has a plan. That's just political speak. But to get someone talking about "I understand what frustrates you" -- that's not a plan, that's you sitting where I'm sitting.

It's almost like reading the 23rd Psalm in a New English translation; it's just not as comforting as the King James. So it's the language of comfort, the language of tradition that is important. But when you start getting specific and saying, "Yahweh has to be in the White House and Jehovah has to be in the Senate," that's scary.

Stabile: I don't want the government adjudicating moral values. As an atheist, I think that's between people of faith and their churches. I think you can't universalize that without selling certain groups of people down the river. I can't help but think about the way "moral values" were mobilized in the interests of anti-abolitionists who were lynching African Americans. I don't see how we can win on them.

Sawicki: There are some lessons the Democrats haven't learned yet. Republicans are much better at not being as contemptuous of electoral groups than the Democrats are. I know that statement will draw some wrath. But we know when people don't like us; we can sense when we're being held in low esteem. I'd say evangelical Christians in general feel this way. If you want to recapture the South, you have to be able to talk to these people. At the very least, you shouldn't allow them to think the party holds them in contempt.

The language of faith counts for a lot in America. I think that's been grossly underestimated by Democrats. Why was Governor [Robert] Casey [a pro-life Democrat from Pennsylvania] not allowed to address the Democratic National Convention [in 1992]? If you can answer that question, then you don't need to have this roundtable on the future of the Democratic Party.

Friedman: You know what my job was at that convention? My job was to be the floor leader of the pro-choice forces. Governor Casey was ill, and he couldn't speak standing up. He could only speak sitting down. And we were not going to let him speak to the press while seated in our delegation. I had to make sure we had enough people to shout out any conversation between Casey and reporters, and to make sure the people who would be offended by that weren't in camera view. I made sure the national press could not interview Governor Casey. And it was all about the fact that he wanted to run for president on an anti-choice platform, telling my wife and daughter what their rights were.

CP: Father Sawicki, if the Democrats are going to start talking faith, do they have to change their stance on abortion?

Sawicki: I wouldn't say that, though I'm not a supporter of abortion. I don't know that abortion is the lightning-rod issue that we've made it into politically. I think Americans can be mobilized back and forth on some of these issues, even if the core constituencies are not going to budge at all.

Simms: That's where you talk about faith and society. You don't just stop talking about the right to life on the abortion issue. I think a strong faith stand will take you beyond that into the quality of life that people live after they are born. You have to push the envelope out to make sure society is providing opportunity to all its citizens. That's what makes the Republican position so myopic.

Sawicki: If you think my premise is correct, it opens up a whole range of possibilities for Democrats. But a lot of people don't think it's correct.

CP: Maybe two of them are here. Don and Carol?

Wentz: They represent groups that bring in a whole boatload of money to the Democratic National Committee.

Stabile: Yeah, Jews and atheists. We're the power bloc.

Wentz: I was going with [pro-choice groups] NARAL and Emily's List.

CP: But Carol, what if the Democrats didn't change their positions, just their rhetoric? What if they said, "Jesus said, 'That which you do unto the least of these, you do unto me,' and that's why welfare is a good thing" -- would that alienate you?

Stabile: Absolutely. I mean, I'm already alienated from the Democratic Party, but I would certainly not want that. It's really exclusionary. This is the first presidential election in which I actually voted for a Democrat. And the only reason I voted for John Kerry was to cut off the religious right's access to seats of power. I mean, that really scares me. The father said before that the Democratic Party was intolerant of religion --

Sawicki: I didn't say that; I said they have to learn to speak the language of faith. There's an important distinction, though it may not mean much to you. We as Americans have trouble agreeing on issues of religion, but we don't have trouble agreeing on the language of faith.

Stabile: My kid goes to a city school, and the people I talk to at school aren't interested in moral values; they're interested in stopping shootings in their neighborhood.

Wentz: How is that not a moral value?

Stabile: It's a political issue. Once we start talking about it as a moral value, it becomes privatized. It becomes a matter of individual faith and individual responsibility. The principal of my son's school was murdered. And I don't see the moral-values crowd standing up and talking about the issues that speak to women, that speak to poor people, that speak overwhelmingly to people of color. I'm not trying to detract from the language of faith and comfort, but that is pie in the sky [unless] people have jobs, and they have educational and economic futures. If the Democratic Party follows the Republicans down the road of moral values, all that stuff is going to be left aside: We'll just start complaining about how my version of the Bible is different from your version.

Wentz: I think what's playing out in this room right here is what the problem in the Democratic Party is having, which is looking at people like Carol and saying, "We can't alienate you, and if we talk in this language, are we turning our back on them?"

Friedman: There's another issue being alluded to here, which is the de-urbanization of America. Obviously, there was a time when the Jews weren't welcome, the Poles weren't welcome, the Catholics weren't welcome. But as urbanization took hold, people learned to tolerate each other, even if they had separate neighborhoods. Those urban areas were the core vote of the Democratic constituencies after World War II. But people view life differently once they leave the urban core. As they moved into the suburbs, they no longer had to be as willing to tolerate differences. So you can tell your neighbors how their lawn had to look and how their house had to look, and how big their house had to be. It tended to be very racist and very exclusionary.

Stabile: I think the Republicans are very contemptuous. I think they're contemptuous of women in general, like most fundamentalists. I think they're contemptuous of people of color, and I think they don't have any problem turning their backs on them. They don't have any problem not dialoguing with those communities.

Friedman: Democrats have to drop some constituencies. The Republicans are quite willing to drop some constituencies to satisfy the main part of their party.

CP: What constituencies should we drop, Don?

Friedman: You may say "we," but if the party drops its constituencies, I wouldn't be part of it. Still, if I had to map a winning strategy for the party, I'm gonna say, "We need to focus on groups that look good in Cheswick and in Shaler and in Brentwood. And we need to forget about Homewood and Bloomfield, and forget about the urban core neighborhoods."

CP: I can't imagine that Rev. Simms would be happy with that.

Simms: Actually, I think he and I are pretty close. What he just said, the Democratic Party has already done. The other side is that in Ohio, for example, about 16 percent of the African Americans voted for Bush.

Democrats made sure African Americans were not too visible in this campaign because they didn't want to alienate anybody. Nobody talked about an urban agenda, or anything like that. ... My e-mails lit up from [people] all over the country who were just saying, "We're not hearing anything over here; what's going on?" Whether it was for moral values or whatever, a significant number of African-American people went over to vote for Bush.

I think the African-American community needs to say the Democrats are not the only game in town. I don't think we can afford to have blind loyalty.

CP: So Rev. Simms is OK with black voters going their own way, and the rest of you feel the Democrats can't represent you at all. It seems we're all comfortable with the Democrats going down the toilet.

Stabile: It already is in the toilet.

Wentz: I'm not comfortable with the Democratic Party going down the toilet; I'm comfortable with other parties evolving. Can either party represent the big tent that they espouse? Isn't it more honest that you truly have a party that represents pretty much everything that you represent, rather than just a tiny bit of it?

Friedman: I have no particular devotion to the Democratic Party's future existence. If the party doesn't succeed, another party will. I believe that the best thing that can happen in many ways is that the Democratic Party begins to crumble a bit. Because that's going to make the Republicans overreach and then they'll begin to crumble.

Wentz: Yeah, but the fear is that the country itself will crumple after all the years of Republican leadership.

CP: Right. Father Sawicki, I imagine you'd say these ideas we're talking about -- stripping away constituencies, being willing to go to third parties -- would be bad advice for the Democrats.

Sawicki: Yes, I would. If I were advising the DNC, I would remind them that Americans are fair-minded people. The Republicans made a good case about not changing horses in the middle of a war, and I think a lot of people bought that. And Republicans are willing to talk even when they're not going to get anywhere. They very patiently set the stage for working with constituencies in the future. They are happy to put articulate spokespeople up front who they think will appeal to constituencies who aren't currently supporting them. George Bush has done a masterful job of advancing Hispanics and African Americans in his cabinet.

But Democrats still have an important message. This state above all knows about the impact of issues like health care. Look at the career of [former Sen.] Harris Wofford [who ran on a health-care platform in 1988]. When people are concerned about something, they tend to vote in that direction, and the party that is best able to frame a language of faith and comfort on that issue wins. I don't see any reason why the Democrats are less able to do that.

CP: How do you use the language of faith to address with those issues, Rev. Simms?

Simms: For me, it's fundamental that we are to love one another. It's about tolerance, it's about acceptance. It's about caring for somebody else's future. I see the scriptures as compelling us to act on issues. It's not a reflective or navel-gazing situation. That's what makes it so radical. So I find it very much part of the fabric of our faith to talk about augmenting our school programs by doing something in the church, or offering job training for people to get jobs.

CP: That sounds a lot like what Republicans would call a faith-based initiative. As a county councilor, do you find ways to translate scripture into public policy?

Simms: I don't have to wear it on my shoulder, or pull out my Bible every time we discuss an issue. It's the lens through which I look at the world. It's about trying to create a more open society and a more fair and just society. That's what I hope I will do until I go to my grave.

CP: But the most controversial thing you've done as a public official was voting against the living wage for county employees and contractors. A lot of the people supporting the wage were church groups who based their support on their faith. So at the moment of truth, you couldn't reconcile that message with what you did as a politician. People called you a hypocrite for it.

Simms: That's OK. If you look at what we had to vote on -- the legislation, rather than the concept of a living wage. There's no way you could not support living wage -- it's mother and apple pie. But it would have been irresponsible to put an unfunded mandate on county government and expect it to carry out something that would cost over $5 million. I think my obligation to the citizens of Allegheny County was bigger than that piece of legislation.

CP: We've talked a lot about what faith can do for politics; what does politics do to faith? Does it cheapen religious belief? Many of the issues Republicans use seem contrary to what's in the Bible. School prayer -- which Don was objecting to -- keeps coming up, even though Jesus cautioned us against praying in public like the hypocrites do. Do progressives also risk distorting faith by bringing it into politics?

Sawicki: I wonder if the way you framed the question begs the complexity of the issue. Prayer in the school is not a Roman Catholic thing. I think part of the Republican genius is to take groups that have not traditionally gotten along well, and allow them to see in a single standard-bearer somebody who is listening to them. In this last general election, Roman Catholics supported the Republicans nationally for the first time ever. They've managed to lure enough Catholics away from the Democrats to position themselves as the majority party, and they ran against a Catholic candidate. That should speak volumes.

CP: Rev. Simms, do you think a progressive movement can do justice to the faith?

Simms: I don't worry about that. My experience as a pastor comes out of the African-American community, and the church has been at the center of the community. My tradition has always been a little different. Take our church as a microcosm; we own the building, the land. We can mobilize people and we can mobilize capital. Look where our leadership has come from. [Black clergy] have an opportunity to decide -- are we going to actually be players? Can we play in this game?

CP: I gather Carol doesn't see the same opportunities.

Stabile: I'm not a huge stakeholder in the Democratic Party. It seems like for my adult lifetime that the Democrats have done nothing but react to an agenda set by Republicans and corporate America. It used to be that you could count on Democrats to be against the death penalty, for example. But before everyone else got here, Dianna and I were talking about health care, and there are things that we can connect on and talk about. We're going to have to hash out the abortion issue, and we might never agree on that. But issues that bring people together -- rather than those that divide them -- might provide some potential for organizing.

CP: Dianna, do you think your faith is going to help or hurt in that discussion, and the other ones that Democrats are having?

Wentz: The Democrats need to get over the fear they have. The civil-rights movement of the 1960s was a spiritual movement. It didn't happen because people thought it was nice or a good thing to do. They did it because it was in scripture, and in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ led the Democratic Party to where it is today.