03/05/2007 12:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can Democrats Close The "God Gap"?

There is data available on both sides of this debate, but a Christian organization's recent poll suggests that Democrats could be making inroads among evangelical Christian voters. The Barna Group took an interesting survey approach by measuring Democrats and Republicans according to 32 measures of belief and/or spiritual activity. The results suggest that stereotypical thinking may well be wrong, and that white Christian voters may not be the monolithic Republican bloc some assume them to be.

I've been beating this drum for years now, since I wrote about what I called the Christian Wedge in 2004. By "wedge," I referred to that segment of white evangelical Christian voters that should be receptive to a Democratic message - thereby driving a wedge into a bloc previously considered a Republican stronghold. (I specify "white" here because commenters often forget the large number of African-American Christians, who tend to vote heavily Democratic.)

Christians aren't a homogenous group. Neither are white evangelical Christians. The Barna Group's study offers some intriguing insights, and Democrats should study it carefully. Here's just one example: One of the data points measured was the belief that "eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works."

That's an important metric. We religious progressives (personally, I prefer the term "spiritual, but that's just me) often assume that evangelicals will respond to Democrats based on the words of James 2. That chapter reads in part:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Democrats' commitment to the poor may move many Christians, if properly communicated, but it's far less likely to affect those who believe in salvation through grace alone.

In fact, the Barna study identifies those it calls "9-point evangelicals," who hold nine-critical beliefs that are strongly identified with fundamental Christianity. Not surprisingly, this group is strongly Republican - although it is surprising that the GOP holds only 59% of these voters.

The "9-pointers" may not be fertile ground for Democratic outreach, although that's worth further investigation. Other Christian subgroups, however, surely are. The goal for a Democratic politician should be to find those groups that might respond to that politicians own core beliefs, then speak to them directly.

I've been forthright in my criticism of those on the Right, including ministers, who exploit religious faith to promote a political agenda. I'm not suggesting that Democrats attempt to do as these leaders have done, nor do I think they could. And while I've quarreled with some evangelical leaders, I've always respected people of all beliefs - even if I sometimes feel their belief has been used by those leaders for the wrong reasons.

I believe that Democrats can continue to make inroads in this community, and that it's important they do so - but whatever they say to them has to come from the heart. People recognize insincerity, so please - no transparent ploys or awkwardly read Bible passages, if you don't feel it. (If you do, by all means, go for it.)

Nor, in my opinion, should Democrats abandon their core Constitutional values - including separation of church and state. The power of sincere commitment includes the Democratic commitment to freedom of thought in speech and belief, and that need not (and should not) be sacrificed for perceived political expediency. In fact, the people who are receptive will respect honest talk on points of disagreement.

In short: Stand up for what you believe in, and identify those of all beliefs that will stand with you. That's not pandering - it's the opposite. I'm afraid that distinction gets lost sometimes.

I'll offer this, in all appropriate humility, as a place to start: with respectul dialogue, and by the recognition that we're all human beings trying to work our way through this life according to our best and limited understanding of what is right and good.

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