Democratic Faith Outreach: Not Dead Yet?

Dan already highlighted Michelle Boorstein’s piece in last weekend’s Washington Post, raising questions about whether the Democratic Party was still dedicated to its once-vaunted faith outreach.

Boorstein’s piece focused on the party’s paring down of staff dedicated to faith outreach, but one additional observation caught my eye:

The Eleison Group, the primary group doing faith consulting for Democrats, worked on more than 40 campaigns in 2008, including many congressional and gubernatorial races. Although the group wouldn’t talk about specific clients, it has no 2010 national campaign contracts at the moment.

Now if that makes it seem like the Eleison Group represents the sum total of the Democratic Party’s faith outreach capabilities, that’s because, well, the Eleison Group does just about represent the sum total of the Democratic Party’s faith outreach capabilities. Unlike the Republican Party, which is so thoroughly enmeshed with the religious right both ideologically and strategically by virtue of a bevy of religious right groups which have long both pressured and insinuated themselves into party politics, the Democrats’ faith efforts have been more about election-time messaging than about policy. And the Eleison Group has been a the forefront of those efforts, with one of its founders, Burns Strider being a key player in creating the House Democrats Faith Working Group and the faith advisor to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Eric Sapp, Strider’s partner, attributed Democratic success in ’08 to faith outreach (a claim that, as Dan points out, is subject to debate). “There is no question looking to ’10 that faith voters will play a key role in a number of races,” Sapp told me today. “We’re working on campaigns in several states already and are in on-going conversations with the Party about creating a more comprehensive program that builds on past success, and we’re hopeful one will be put in place soon.”

But Eleison’s clients have tended to be conservative and anti-choice Democrats. Parker Griffith, the Alabama congressman who switched to the Republican Party, and Bobby Bright, another Alabaman who votes more Republican than Democratic, were Eleison clients. Both Bright and Griffith, as well as Mississippi’s Travis Childers and North Carolina’s Heath Shuler, also Eleison clients, voted for the Stupak amendment but against the health care bill last November, and against the final bill in March. Perhaps the Democratic Party — understandably — hasn’t detected all the benefits of Eleison’s faith messaging?

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email