On Being with Krista Tippett

Amy Sullivan

The Faith Life of the Party: Part I, The Left

Last Updated

October 2, 2008

Original Air Date

October 2, 2008

The Religious Right has gotten a fair amount of coverage in recent years, while the political Left has rarely been represented with a religious sensibility. Our guest, a national correspondent for Time magazine is a political liberal and an Evangelical Christian who has been observing the Democratic Party’s complex relationship with faith and the little-told story of its response to the rise of the Religious Right.

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Amy Sullivan is a national correspondent for TIME Magazine, author of the book The Party Faithful, and was previously an editor for The Washington Monthly.


October 2, 2008

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, the first in a two-part series on politics and religion below the surface of the U.S. presidential race. The religious right has gotten a fair amount of coverage in recent years. We’ll explore the Democratic Party’s complex relationship with faith and the little-told story of the left’s response to the rise of the religious right.

MS. AMY SULLIVAN: There is still a very high bar for Democrats to prove that they are truly, authentically, really people of faith. And even once they have, their positions on issues such as abortion and gay marriage are still kind of held up to prove that they’re not really religious.

MS. TIPPETT: Yet, as we’ll hear, religious energies are out in the open in the Democratic Party as they haven’t been for decades.

This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett.

This week we begin a refreshing, thought-provoking two-part conversation on politics and religion below the surface of the current U.S. presidential campaign. I’ll speak with two counterintuitive yet influential voices. Next week, conservative columnist Rod Dreher.

We begin this hour with Time magazine national correspondent Amy Sullivan, a political liberal and an Evangelical Christian. She’s also a savvy observer of the Democratic Party’s complex relationship with faith and the little-told story of the left’s response to the rise of the religious right.

From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Faith Life of the Party: Part One, the Left.”

My guest, Amy Sullivan, is a national correspondent for Time magazine and was previously an editor for The Washington Monthly. She’s worked in Washington, D.C., for most of her career beginning after college in 1995 as an aide to Senator Tom Daschle. She became well known during the 2004 election season for an analysis she wrote in The Washington Monthly titled “Do the Democrats Have a Prayer?” This year, Sullivan published a book: The Party Faithful. How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap. And her passion about this subject has roots in her own life and background.

MS. SULLIVAN: It certainly surprises a lot of people in Washington and in New York, where I’ve been working, when I tell them that I grew up in a home where we had portraits of Bobby Kennedy and of Jesus hanging on the walls.


MS. SULLIVAN: I don’t think they know many Evangelicals who grew up also stumping for Democratic candidates.

MS. TIPPETT: Amy Sullivan’s father was as liberal Catholic and her mother was an Evangelical Baptist. She attended her mother’s church, and she grew up with people who, as she puts it, were liberal because of their faith, inspired by pivotal biblical themes like those in the 25th chapter of Matthew, a passage Barack Obama also called formative for him. In that chapter, which is full of parables, Jesus teaches that whatever one does for the poor and neglected and weak, the least of these is done to him. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Amy Sullivan.

MS. SULLIVAN: Growing up, I was a pretty conscientious kid, which meant that when I read the Bible and particularly read the New Testament, I took it very seriously. I really worried about what we were taught, that, you know, we could encounter Jesus in ordinary people and we needed to be very careful that we were caring for them the same way we would if we knew that was Jesus right across from us.


MS. SULLIVAN: And so, you know, this would lead me to worry that I wasn’t being nice enough to the kids in my elementary school or wasn’t, you know, giving food away to people who needed it. I think it had a very strong impact on how I thought about my personal responsibility, but also the responsibility that we have as a society to care for people who maybe otherwise would fall through the cracks. And I think in many Evangelical communities, that is seen in different ways. I have a lot of Evangelical friends who say we’re sick and tired of being accused of not caring about the poor. That’s not it. It’s that we think that churches and private organizations should be responsible for taking care of the vulnerable in society, that that’s not a role of the state. And in my particular background growing up, there wasn’t that distinction. There was just the sense that people are hurting and we all are responsible for them.

MS. TIPPETT: So just clarify that. What is particularly Evangelical in your faith?

MS. SULLIVAN: It’s interesting. It was really through the course of writing this book that I got much more connected with what makes me an Evangelical.


MS. SULLIVAN: I had really stopped using that term to describe myself for a good 15 years probably, certainly since I left for college, which is around the early ’90s, which was also a time when the religious right was the most visible vocal representative of Evangelicalism in American life. And I made the mistake I think a lot of people have of conflating political conservatism with Evangelicalism.


MS. SULLIVAN: And it’s been really instructive for me personally, and then to be able to turn around and describe it to other people, to explain that, no, that’s not being an Evangelical. It’s not a political definition; it’s a theological one.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. So you have been journalistically a close observer of American politics, and you’ve paid special attention also in recent years to dynamics of religion. In the Democratic Party and as you’ve noted, a lot has been said and written about the rise of the religious right and how it continues to evolve, but there’s this lesser-known story of the left’s response to the rise of the religious right. And in your book, you know, there’s a lot of wonderful important history that I agree has not been told parallel to the story of the religious right. And I wondered just as you watch this current election, what have you wished people had in their minds for context as they analyze the religious dynamics as they’re unfolding now. And obviously the election of 2008 is turning out to be very different, even religiously, than the election of 2004.

MS. SULLIVAN: Well, and it’s different than this particular election was even six months ago.


MS. SULLIVAN: Or one month ago.


MS. SULLIVAN: The fascinating thing is that religion does kind of throw an election upside down and it continues to be introduced in new and different ways, whether it’s Jeremiah Wright or Sarah Palin. I think one of the most important historical pieces that we still don’t always remember is that religion wasn’t always a factor in American politics, and particularly American presidential politics. We have gotten to the point where it really is something that politicians are almost required to talk about. And I hear all the time from people, particularly on the left, who are upset about the fact that we probably at this point in our history could not have a successful presidential candidate who just said outright that they were not a religious person.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MS. SULLIVAN: And even, you know, called themselves an atheist. It’s worth remembering how we got to this point in order to ask ourselves why it’s important to know about a person’s religious beliefs.

MS. TIPPETT: So what do you think of when you think of how we got to this point?

MS. SULLIVAN: Well, I think one of the biggest changes came in the 1970s after Watergate, and I think it was a perfectly rational response to the national trauma that Watergate was. Before that, a lot of voters thought that it was sufficient to know the policies of the candidates who were running for president, know where they stood on Social Security, know where they stood on foreign policy. But Watergate was not a failure of policy; it was a moral failure.


MS. SULLIVAN: It was an ethical failure. And I think, again, the very rational response of voters was to realize that they needed to know something about the candidate’s moral grounding.

MS. TIPPETT: Interesting.

MS. SULLIVAN: To know where those candidates’ ethics and sense of morality came from. And it was just, you know, a coincidence that Jimmy Carter came along in the first election after that who was our first very openly Evangelical candidate, talked about being born again. He promised the country he’d never lie to them. And so we were at kind of this turning point where Americans were yearning for a deeper understanding of their candidates’ morality. We could’ve gone in any number of different directions to give them that sense, but religion, in particular Evangelical strains of religion, quickly became the proxy for someone’s moral grounding.

MS. TIPPETT: Journalist Amy Sullivan. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media.

Today we’re exploring the liberal end of U.S. political culture’s unfolding relationship to religious people and energies. Next week, we’ll explore that from the conservative perspective.

The last two Democratic candidates for U.S. president, Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, were famously reticent about their faith. Yet, as my guest Amy Sullivan points out, the last Democrat to be elected to the White House, Bill Clinton, was a born-again Christian. Clinton was arguably even more comfortable than Jimmy Carter at quoting his Bible and speaking as a person of faith. Here he is in 1993 at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, a congregation of the Pentecostal, historically African-American Church of God in Christ.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: When I was about nine years old, my beloved and now departed grandmother, who was a very wise woman, looked at me and she said, “You know, I believe you could be a preacher if you were just a little better boy.” Proverbs says, “A happy heart doeth good like medicine, but a broken spirit dryeth the bone.” This is a happy place and I am happy to be here. I thank you for your spirit.

By the grace of God and you’re help, last year I was elected president of this great country. I never dreamed …

MS. SULLIVAN: Bill Clinton has been better than almost any other Democrat in terms of just having a real instinctive understanding of the religious world, being very comfortable talking about his own faith, but also knowing how to speak to different religious groups. How to talk to Catholics, how to talk to Evangelicals and mainliners. Al Gore did not have that same comfort level, but he also wasn’t surrounded by campaign advisers who were comfortable with the idea of a Democrat talking about religion, so he really seeded that fairly early on to George W. Bush who then, as we all know, made his religious identity a key part of his political persona as well, both in 2000 and 2004.

MS. TIPPETT: And of his electoral success.

MS. SULLIVAN: Exactly. It was a real reason that a lot of voters, particularly in the last election, who would just admit flat out that they disagreed with him on half a dozen different key policy areas, said, ‘Well, I’m voting for him, because he’s a man of faith.’


MS. SULLIVAN: And that’s something that Democrats have found very difficult to understand, and particularly in 2004 when they had a candidate of their own who was a deeply observant Catholic. What a lot of people don’t know is that John Kerry attends mass whenever he possibly can, which is at least once a week, and is informed quite a bit by Catholic social teaching. And yet was extremely uncomfortable talking about it.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I mean, you say people don’t know it, but he ran for president, and it’s not something that came across about him.

MS. SULLIVAN: Exactly. Well, it wasn’t just John Kerry. One of the things I found was his running mate at the time, John Edwards, has a leather-bound embossed copy of The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, which is a book read by millions and millions of Americans. And he reads it every day. And this was a detail I found out after the fact by someone who had seen it in his office. It was certainly not something that the campaign ever thought was relevant or that voters would want to know about.

MS. TIPPETT: So, I mean, let’s talk about that. You wrote in 2003 in a Democratic publication that until professional Democrats get over their aversion to all things religious they will continue to suffer the political consequences. Has the Democratic Party gotten over that aversion or is it getting over that aversion?

MS. SULLIVAN: Very slowly.


MS. SULLIVAN: By baby steps.


MS. SULLIVAN: And I would say the biggest change we’ve seen from, say, four or five years ago is not even necessarily among the political class of the Democratic Party. It’s among Democratic politicians themselves who now, you know, whether it’s Catholics who are reacting kind of as a backlash to what they saw as the Church stepping in to prevent one of their own from becoming president in 2004 or whether it’s just religious Democrats who now feel that they have more of an obligation to be open about who they are. Many more Democratic politicians are talking about their faith, are making issue of it on the campaign trail, are feeling very free to connect the issues they care about with values issues. They were very upset by the idea that the only values in the campaign are abortion and gay marriage. And there’s been a real push —

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Those were the moral values that defined us.

MS. SULLIVAN: … to fight that idea.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s been pretty fascinating to me that the pat generalizations of the last few elections that you could make — that the Republicans would be more openly and articulately religious and Democrats less so — you know, have pretty much been turned on their head. Not just John McCain, who is somebody who is a person of faith but not that comfortable talking about it, and a Barack Obama, who has been very much at ease with that as part of his identity.

MS. SULLIVAN: It has and it hasn’t. Earlier in the summer, I would’ve said we’ve seen a seed change from 2004 and that certainly both parties are presenting very different pictures of what we have come to assume in terms of religion and Republicans and Democrats. The selection of Sarah Palin really has highlighted the double standards that I believe still exist. And I say this as someone who has very carefully watched how both Republican and Democratic politicians are covered …


MS. SULLIVAN: … when it comes to their faith. And there is still a very high bar for Democrats to prove that they are truly, authentically, really people of faith. And even once they have, their positions on issues such as abortion and gay marriage are still kind of held up to prove that they’re not really religious.

MS. TIPPETT: And so who sets that high bar? Is it journalists? Is it Evangelical Christians?

MS. SULLIVAN: I think conservative Christians certainly have, at least the ones who are politically active, have an incentive in defining what it is to be authentically Christian as someone who has very conservative policies when it comes to abortion and other hot-button moral issues. But journalists have bought into it. You know, if you’ve watched Barack Obama over the last few years, there’s no question if you listen to the speech that he gave in 2006 to Jim Wallis’s Call to Renewal organization or you listen to the answers that he gave at the Saddleback Forum, which I think was incorrectly interpreted as a real mistake for him or a weak performance. But his answers were much more comfortable. The way he talked about faith sounded like many Christians I know, both liberal and conservative, in terms of trying to be humble, trying to look for God’s will in his life.

MS. TIPPETT: Journalist Amy Sullivan.

At speakingoffaith.org, watch Barack Obama’s reflections on his Christianity as well as those of John McCain, at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. You can also watch Obama’s speech at the 2006 Call to Renewal conference. Here’s Obama in 2007 speaking more personally at the Redemption World Outreach Center, an Evangelical congregation in Greenville, South Carolina.

MR. BARACK OBAMA: What I discovered is God works in mysterious ways. Because I thought that I was helping other people, but it turned out they were helping me. I thought that I was coming to save a community, but, in fact, I was the one who was being saved. Through that ministry, through that interaction with the church, I accepted Jesus Christ into my life. And so these days, when people ask me, ‘What role does religion play in your work? You’re running for the presidency of the United States, the leader of the free world. What role does faith play?’ I say, ‘It plays every role.’

MS. SULLIVAN: And yet, it may be because of Barack Obama’s unique family background, the fact that his father was born a Muslim, the fact of his name, that has really raised serious questions among a lot of voters you talk to who they’ve heard Obama talk about his faith. They know that he’s been a Christian for over two decades and been very involved with his church. But they don’t believe it. They don’t quite think that he could be an authentic Christian.

And yet, along comes Sarah Palin, who, to date, has not spoken publicly about her faith, at least not on the campaign trail, who does not describe herself as an Evangelical. She says she’s a Christian, but she no longer calls herself Pentecostal, even though she grew up in a Pentecostal church. And she was immediately, within a matter of hours, accepted by the religious right as one of them and described in nearly every paper in America as a woman with a deep religious faith.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. So, I mean, how do you analyze this? What does it mean? Where does it come from? What does it say about the people who are writing about this or accepting this logic?

MS. SULLIVAN: I think this is a result of really 40 years of religion being seen in the public square as something that belonged purely on the right. And there are all sorts of reasons for this, but it includes the fact that I think the religious left kind of drew back into the shadows as the religious right really rose to power and the fact that Democratic politicians felt less and less comfortable talking about their faith, in part, because when they did speak as religious individuals, they were assumed to be conservative. It was assumed that their policies would move to the center and to the right along with their faith. And so it became, I think, politically damaging for a lot of Democrats to be open about their faith. Not because people wouldn’t vote for them, but because of the assumptions that were made about what the politics must really be.

And I think I give the religious right a lot of credit. They were very, very effective at establishing this conventional wisdom that if you’re religious you must be conservative, and the issues that must drive you must be these moral hot-button issues. And my profession really fell for it.

MS. TIPPETT: Your profession of journalism.

MS. SULLIVAN: Well, for years you would see, particularly on cable shows, when there would be a debate about religion, they would book somebody from the religious right and then they would put them opposite someone from the ACLU.


MS. SULLIVAN: Or Barry Lind.

MS. TIPPETT: As though there is nothing in between.

MS. SULLIVAN: And the pictures the viewer at home would get was that religion was on the right, and on the left you had people who wanted to keep religion out of the public square.


MS. SULLIVAN: Which is a perfectly principled view that I respect quite a bit. But there was no room for people who were religious and had liberal politics.

[Sound bite of music “God’s Got It”]

MS. TIPPETT: Like Amy Sullivan, my guest next week, conservative columnist Rod Dreher, has strong opinions about how media coverage fuels the culture wars. You can preview that interview now on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org.

And we’re continuing to give you a behind the scenes look at the deliberations, research, and production that go into this program. In my recent post on SOF Observed, our staff blog, I reflected on a trip I took to the University of Mississippi, a flash point of the Civil Rights struggle and, after some suspense, the site of the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. Find links to all of this and much more at speakingoffaith.org.

MS. TIPPETT: After a short break, stories of a fairly dramatic shift in religious energy at the recent Democratic National Convention. And Amy Sullivan’s insight into how Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are grappling, not always in synch, with the polarizing issue of abortion.

I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.

[Sound bite of music “God’s Got It”]


MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett.

Today, “The Faith Life of the Party,” the first in our two-part conversation on politics and religion below the surface of the current U.S. presidential campaign. Next week, I’ll be in conversation with conservative commentator Rod Dreher of The Dallas Morning News.

My guest this hour, Amy Sullivan, is a national correspondent for Time magazine, a political liberal, and an Evangelical Christian.

Though media coverage didn’t focus on this, there was a dramatic increase in religiously oriented activity at the recent Democratic National Convention in Denver. Each night of the convention began with an invocation and ended with a benediction led by diverse faith leaders. An interfaith caucus met through the week for discussion. Leah Daughtry, the CEO of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, opened it with the first-ever interfaith gathering. Daughtry served in the Labor Department in the Clinton Administration. She is also a part-time minister of a Pentecostal church.

MS. LEAH DAUGHTRY: Over the past few years, many have had much to say about our efforts to bring faith to the Democratic Party. With all due respect to the commentators and my friends in the media, we didn’t need to bring faith to the party. Faith was already here.

MS. TIPPETT: I asked Amy Sullivan if the religious activity at the recent Democratic National Convention surprised her.

MS. SULLIVAN: It was somewhat astonishing to see a caucus for people of faith, but, you know, when I was watching it, what I felt was less kind of a sense that I was witnessing something new and more a disbelief that this hadn’t existed before.


MS. SULLIVAN: It’s amazing to me that it was 2008, and that was the first time that the party made room for people who are Democrats because of their faith. And they still have a ways to go. I would say that certainly a majority of Democratic delegates are people who have strong faith. And yet, I don’t think they knew about the caucus. When you looked around the room, it was mostly people from the professional religion ranks who you see at conferences in Washington all the time. And it was great for them to have their own space at the convention. It’ll be even better if in 2012 your average Democratic delegate who isn’t necessarily involved with these organizations now feels like that’s a space for them as well within the party.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Now, the caucus. There was also the interfaith event. Is that what you’re talking about or is this something — was that another …

MS. SULLIVAN: That was separate. The interfaith …

MS. TIPPETT: Attended by 3,000 people, is that right?


MS. TIPPETT: And were those delegates rather than just professional religious people?

MS. SULLIVAN: I think it was a mixture of delegates, but mostly religious leaders who had come to Denver to kind of be on the outskirts.


MS. SULLIVAN: And then people from the Denver community as well. It’s so hard to try to assess what difference this makes, because it obviously was a space for people to worship that hadn’t existed in previous conventions. And yet it was also so hamstrung by continued Democratic attempts to include everybody under the sun and therefore often represent nobody.


MS. SULLIVAN: Just as one example, there were references in the program to Buddha and Mohammed and to all sorts of religious faiths. There was a real disagreement among the organizers on whether the name Jesus could be mentioned, because that was seen as something that was divisive, which, as an Evangelical Christian, it just breaks my heart to think that Jesus is a political term that can be seen to exclude and divide people.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, so as you said, our fellow journalists have often not seen the nuance, you know, and recently I’ve seen this happen in a few publications. The New Yorker — there was an article in The New Yorker where somebody had suddenly discovered Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo and Ron Sider, you know, I don’t know what you want to call them.

MS. SULLIVAN: Not quite new on the scene.

MS. TIPPETT: Evangelical Christians who’ve always been about progressive politics and have been around for decades. Ron Sider started Evangelicals for Social Action. And so The New Yorker discovers them and they’re new, but the truth is they have been around a long time. They are more visible, though, outside. Are these kinds of figures also gaining more clout inside the party?

MS. SULLIVAN: They are definitely being listened to in the party, which wasn’t happening a few years ago. Now, you know, whether you take a somewhat more cynical view of this, as my friend E.J. Dionne likes to say, that Democrats found God in the exit polls of 2004.

MS. TIPPETT: E.J. Dionne, of course, another great Democrat who is a deeply religious person.

MS. SULLIVAN: He’s definitely been on this beat for a long time.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. SULLIVAN: And I do think there’s some of that involved. I think that there are Democrats who are sick of losing and if one of the ways they could win is to reach out to religious voters, well, then by god, they’re happy to do it. But they want someone to kind of hand them a battle plan for how they can win by reaching out to religious people. And I think there are others who are genuinely just not sure how to go about forming these relationships with religious communities they haven’t spoken to in decades.

There are groups, you know, from my home state in Michigan — the western half of the state is very much full of conservative religious denominations, particularly the reform church. And in 2006 the state party decided to spend a year just going around having get-to-know-you meetings, really introducing themselves to these religious leaders and to the communities for the first time. And it’s hard to know how you’re going to get people to vote for you if you’re not even speaking to them. It may be at the end of the day after you’ve met with them, you find you don’t have a lot in common, but that’s in fact not what happened. They did find areas of common ground. I’m not sure that means that there are droves of new Democratic voters, but there are at least voters who are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, willing to give them a listen.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: By contrast, Barack Obama, I hear, has been much more effective for quite a while, for a number of months, at reaching out to high-level Evangelical leaders, who also have had little contact with the Democratic Party in recent years. And I’ve also heard that the McCain campaign has not been as effective at reaching out to those particular leaders of constituencies. But is that really coming from him more than the Democratic base or the party is that what …

MS. SULLIVAN: Well, you put your finger on it. Yes. That one of the reasons Bill Clinton was so successful with religious voters and able to bring people who didn’t agree with him to sit down and talk is that it came from Clinton who almost served as his own religious liaison in the White House, because he knew more about that community than almost anyone else.

It’s the same here where this is something that comes from Obama. He knows what the weaknesses of the party have been. He knows that he is uniquely qualified to talk to people who don’t agree with him. And he’s willing to spend two hours sitting in a room with people that include Franklin Graham, who really didn’t let him off the hook, who really nailed him with a couple of really tough questions about what Obama thinks about salvation, who he thinks is going to Heaven or not. And Obama didn’t back down. He didn’t give the answers that he knew the leaders wanted to hear, but also refused to let them leave thinking, ‘All right, well, he’s not with us exactly where we are in these theological questions so, you know, we can write him off.’

MS. TIPPETT: Right. The questions were about members of his family who are not Christian, right? Whether his Muslim father went to Heaven.

MS. SULLIVAN: Well, Franklin Graham asked him, “Do you believe Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?” and Obama answered, “Jesus is my way,” which is not what Franklin Graham wanted to hear. He wanted to hear that as a Christian Obama believed that you could only be saved through Jesus. But his answer is very understandable when you know that his mother was not a religious person, didn’t grow up in the church, and didn’t raise him in the church. And he simply said, “I cannot believe in a God who would allow my mother to suffer eternally. She was the best person I have ever known, the most moral person. And there has to be room in my faith for someone like that.”

MS. TIPPETT: Journalist Amy Sullivan.

I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, in the first of a two-part series, we’re exploring the liberal end of U.S. political culture’s unfolding relationship to religious people and energies. Next week, we explore that dynamic from a conservative worldview.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Abortion has been a religious fault line in U.S. political life since the Supreme Court legalized it in the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. The 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver reaffirmed the party’s unstinting support for legal abortion, but for the first time, the party’s abortion platform also explicitly promotes health care, income support, and adoption processes that would support a woman’s choice to have a child. Though not uncontroversial, my guest Amy Sullivan reported that this development was hailed both by pro-life and pro-choice Democrats as an important step forward.

MS. TIPPETT: Not surprisingly, I think a lot of the religious energy and debate that had religious dynamics at the convention had to do with the issue of abortion. And I find that it’s so easy for any discussion about this to just get stuck on abortion. And, you know, what I’d love to discuss with you and what I’m trying to discuss with many people these days, is why is it? How would you explain why abortion is this deal breaker? You know, why is this the place where it seems both sides fall into a rut and there is no reconciliation and it becomes so polarizing?

MS. SULLIVAN: Well, it has become the issue a lot of people use, particularly a lot of religious people, to judge whether you are really religious or not. And so, you know, we’ve discussed for a number of politicians, particularly for Catholic politicians, that becomes the position a lot of people point to, to say, “Aha. Well, you can’t really be a Catholic. You say you’re a Catholic. You abide by Catholic teaching on all these other issues, but if you don’t support abortion restrictions, then clearly you don’t follow the teaching of the Church.”

That’s been — it’s hard to call it a simplistic way of looking at the issue, because I don’t mean to say that people who believe strongly in a purist approach to eliminating abortion that they are not well motivated, but I think that we have had these two very extreme approaches up till now. One is, you know, just to very broadly describe them, one is to put all your eggs in the Roe basket and say, ‘Well, we just need to overturn Roe v. Wade or we need a Constitutional amendment to ban abortion and that’s our goal and nothing short of that goal is acceptable.’ And the other is to say, ‘Well, maybe it would be a good thing if there were fewer abortions,’ and many people on the left are not even quite willing to put themselves there. And that’s a little odd because if you put it to most ordinary Americans they would say, ‘Well, of course it would be a good thing if there were fewer abortions.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And there is, in fact, a majority of people who, even in that same moral values exit poll in 2004, right, there’s something like a 60 percent majority of people who will say they — abortion with limits, right? I mean, of course, then there’s a discussion to have about what those limits are.

MS. SULLIVAN: That is the majority position in the U.S., is people who think that there should be limits on abortion, but it should absolutely not be outlawed.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And, you know, you talked a minute ago about the Saddleback Forum and I also felt like this was one of the parts of Obama’s answers, which was really poorly reported. The only thing that was pulled out was the sound bite where his direct answer to the question “When does life begin?” was, “Well, that’s above my pay grade.” But then he went on to give a very nuanced reflection.

MR. BARACK OBAMA: That’s above my pay grade. But let me just speak more generally about the issue of abortion, because this is something obviously the country wrestles with. One thing that I’m absolutely convinced of is that there is a moral and ethical element to this issue. And so I think anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue, I think, is not paying attention. So that’d be point number one. So point number two, I am pro-choice. I believe in Roe v. Wade and I come to that conclusion not, because I’m pro-abortion, but because, ultimately, I don’t think women make these decisions casually. I think they wrestle with these things in profound ways, in consultation with their pastors or their spouses or …”

MS. TIPPETT: And so it sounds like he’s actually in a different place on this issue than the convention was? Is that right?

MS. SULLIVAN: He is. You know, it’s really amazing to think back, I believe it was three years ago, that Hilary Clinton gave a speech on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, in when she declared that abortion was a sad, even tragic choice, for many women, kind of stating what most of us know to be true. And that resulted in a ton of media coverage. It was, ‘Oh, my goodness. That must’ve been the first time a Democrat ever said those words about abortion.’ And yet, just a few years later, not only can the Democratic presidential nominee show up to a conservative Evangelical church for a discussion, which would’ve been news enough a few years ago, but, as you say, he can acknowledge that there’s a real moral dimension to abortion and that the goal should be to make it less prevalent than it is.


MS. SULLIVAN: Right. And to do whatever you can to take practical steps to actually lower that instead of fighting kind of these continuous battles that don’t actually budge the abortion rate a bit.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I was moderating a panel discussion recently, and Jim Wallis was on the panel and Richard Land was on the panel from the Southern Baptist Convention. And I posed this question about why is this the deal breaker. And Richard Land, you know, laid it out. I mean, he said this gets the question of the dignity and sacredness of human life and what more important question could there be, but where both sides get stuck — it’s precisely that kind of analysis that a lot of Democrats use to talk about why they support the policies they support. I mean, I know at the Denver convention, Bishop Charles Blake of the Church of God in Christ who is a pro-life Democrat, right, said that part of the reason that he — I mean, he really challenged the party on that, but he also said that he’s a Democrat, because of the policies it has towards people who are already born. I don’t know, I’m just longing myself for a more nuanced discussion across the divide.

MS. SULLIVAN: It’s exactly right. And I think that now we’re seeing more space within the party for religious leaders and particularly pro-life leaders to really challenge Democrats. It’s not as if anyone thinks that the Democrat Party will or even should change its platform to oppose Roe v. Wade or to support restrictions on abortion. I think the party has always stood for protecting a woman’s right to choose and that’s where it will stay.

But it should be seen as progress that there is space to move towards reducing abortion rates in a way that also protects women at the same time. You know, it was striking to see Bob Casey Jr. giving a talk at the convention and almost mentioning that he was a pro-life Democrat and that he disagreed with the platform and with Obama on that issue. That, itself, I think was a sign to many pro-life voters that they are welcome in the Democratic Party in a way that they may not, in fact, have felt welcome in the past.

MS. TIPPETT: Journalist Amy Sullivan.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: I just want to touch on a very interesting critique you’ve made that for a long time the Democratic Party kind of got around some of the issues with this by, as you called it, outsourcing religion to African-American churches. And talk about what you mean by that and how is that evolving? I guess the Jeremiah Wright events kind of came back to bite the Democrats. So talk to me about that dynamic.

MS. SULLIVAN: Well, and I think one of the reasons that the discovery of some of Jeremiah Wright’s more fiery and controversial sermons surprised Democrats as well as Republicans, is that Democrats for so long had thought of black churches as kind of these innocuous places where you could hear good gospel music, good brunch after the service. It was a place where politicians felt they needed to go the weekend before the election. But it was because it was a convenient place to find a lot of black voters under one roof, not because they were necessarily thinking of it as a religious house and apparently they weren’t listening to the sermons.

MS. TIPPETT: With a robust and challenging theology.

MS. SULLIVAN: Exactly. Most black pastors aren’t giving Jeremiah Wright sermons every week, but they are preaching truth to power. They’re angry and they’re upset, and that’s the prophetic tradition, is being angry at the injustices in the world. And I think almost many Democrats were listening to the music of the pastors’ voices. You often hear black preachers described as melodic …


MS. SULLIVAN: … without actually listening to the words that they were speaking.


MS. SULLIVAN: And so when I talk about outsourcing religion, you know, in the past it’s not been unusual at all to hear preachers giving prayers or offering prayers at Democratic conventions, but they’ve almost all been black. Because I think, again, that was seen as kind of a safe religious leader. I think the low point for Democrats in 2004 was where some white Catholic activists came to the Kerry campaign in Ohio, which we all know turned out to be something of a key state, and said that they wanted to do some outreach on behalf of the campaign and the field director looked at them and said, “Well, but we don’t do white churches.”

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And, again, I mean, just to circle around — we just have a few minutes left — there’s this level of political strategy which can sound quite cynical and is quite cynical on every side of any campaign at many moments, but you are not only a journalist about this, you feel that it’s really important and it’s important for you to be able to bring these things together in your life as a private person. You’re suggesting that Democrats and all kinds of religious people need to become more articulate about that; is that right? I mean, that’s, for you, is an antidote to the ruts we’ve gotten into?

MS. SULLIVAN: I think it’s key. We are not going to change our cemented stereotypes of who religious Americans are unless more people who deviate from the norm that we’ve seen, more people who are liberal in their politics, if not their theology, become vocal and talk about their faith and who they are as political beings as well. You know, I think of it in terms of coming out of the closet


MS. SULLIVAN: And it’s not always a comfortable thing. I’ve spent much of the past few years talking about being a liberal and being an Evangelical, both with conservatives and with liberals, and none of them are happy about it, because it just shakes up too many things that they thought they had settled. But we almost always have productive conservations. I have conservatives who are really curious to know how I can reconcile being liberal with a Christian identity, not to mention even being Evangelical. And it’s been really useful to walk them past the issues that have been kind of where their politics started and ended and to really push them to think beyond just sticking with one party. And that, I guess, is kind of my bottom line, is as a religious individual I just don’t think that I should have just one political option open to me.

I think all sorts of religious voters have erred by not challenging their political parties. Really, if you’re a religious person it’s tough to look at either political party and think that you match up exactly with every issue in that party. But when you’re only voting for one party, they have no incentive to really listen to you or to respond to your concerns. And that’s why we’re seeing change this year, I think. If Catholics and moderate Evangelicals end up being swing voters the way we’ve thought that they will be, they’ll be in more of a position to really demand that both parties listen to them and listen to their concerns.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Amy Sullivan is a national correspondent for Time magazine. She’s the author of The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap.

At speakingoffaith.org, download my complete unedited interview with Amy Sullivan as well as this program for free. In both of my conversations with Amy Sullivan and next week’s guest, conservative columnist Rod Dreher, we discuss the difficult subject of abortion. This is also a topic Speaking of Faith would like to take on, with your help, from a fresh perspective. Help us reframe how you and others might engage in this dialogue in ways not yet imagined. Find a link to Share Your Story on our home page, speakingoffaith.org.

The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, with assistance from Amara Hark-Weber. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith.

And I’m Krista Tippett.


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