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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Mike McCurry on Faith and Politics

The following remarks were delivered on 26 February 2007, at the SBL-sponsored Bible and Religious Leadership in the 21st Century Conference held at Wesley Seminary.

Attention in the press and elsewhere to the subject of faith and politics can scarcely be missed. The current storyline is mostly about Democrats and progressives rediscovering the faith vote in America. According to this narrative, Democrats woke up the morning after the 2004 election and suddenly realized that about 70 percent of all voters profess themselves to be religious, many of them very much so. According to the pollsters, large margins of voters stipulate that a candidate's moral philosophy and religious views will make a great deal of difference in how they vote.

Some of us wanted to cry "DUH!" at this less than startling revelation. The conversation about speaking to political issues from a faith perspective had, in fact, been underway in lots of places for some time. But the conversation was mostly subterranean — held here and there at seminaries and prayer groups and occasional seminars. Candidates — and their political advisers and supporters — mostly did not want to "wear their religion on a sleeve," as Senator John Kerry put it in the 2004 campaign. In fact, Kerry late in the campaign managed to give a thoughtful address on how his Catholic worldview informs his views on peace and social justice. Most of the commentary however went to the question of why it had been such a struggle for a devout Catholic Democratic candidate for president to find an occasion to reflect on his faith.

Now that has all changed. There is something of a Great Awakening happening among many Democratic political operatives. More and more campaigns and campaign workers are finding that their own faith experiences are relevant to the public debate. Outreach efforts and organizing are underway. Candidates and campaigns are quoting Scripture all over the place although we could use some help from theologians to get beyond the predictable passages like Micah 6:8 and Matthew 25. Cast a stone in any direction and you'll make contact with a Democrat who is walking humbly, loving kindness, doing justice and professing all this in the name of the least, the last and the lost.

I think this is exciting and as a matter of raw politics, very encouraging as Democrats ponder how to get to the magic number in campaigns ahead. But there is some disquieting about the fact that we are just now understanding the cost of having been absent from the moral debate, from the culture wars, for these past decades.

I want to explore why the Democrats were absent in the first place. How is it that the Republicans managed to entwine themselves with the Christian evangelical right and leave much of America with the notion that they are the party of the religious and the Democrats are the party of the secular. How did they sustain that impression in campaign after campaign in the 1980s and 1990s?

Why did Democrats who are faithful and religious people and politically active, not stand up and challenge this notion that moral America was only of the conservative mind? Why were they uncomfortable talking politics and faith in the same breath? This is a question I have to ask myself because I have to plead guilty. My own experiences, I hope, offer something of a window into the dilemma that Democrats and progressives have faced.

Start with the political culture of the Democratic Party. Scratch a Democratic activist, and you will find someone who began adult life in movement politics. We marched against the Vietnam War. We organized bus trips to the South during the civil rights marches. We held the first teach-ins on the rights of women and the demand for equal rights regardless of gender. We rode bikes to classes and jobs on the first Earth Day and built a sustained environmental movement. We were employed as labor organizers and spent time in the grape fields of California with migrant workers.

Some of these were my own experiences growing up in Northern California in a Congregational Church. We had a youth minister who was a seminarian at Pacific School of Religion and he organized many a field trip to Berkeley for anti-war protests and clashes with University authorities over an empty lot known as People's Park.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the mainstream church felt alive with politics. As a youth delegate to the 1970 General Synod of the United Church of Christ, I heard Joe Duffy — then a candidate for U.S. Senate in Connecticut — deliver a keynote, and we spent a lot of time arguing about whether Angela Davis should be allowed to speak.

Looking back, I am struck by how secular the environment was. There was political organizing taking place but I'd be hard pressed to say anyone connected it well to a prophetic tradition or scriptural admonishments about justice. There was no shortage of politics. There was a shortage of faith and politics.

As I went along in college and started life as a young adult, I did not pay much attention to the church. I went on to work in the United States Senate. I developed a good reputation as a press secretary. I spent my Sunday mornings devouring the New York Times and the political talk shows.

I was pretty typical for my generation of Democratic political activists. It never occurred to me to that I was missing something in my life because I had stopped devotions, Bible study, or regular worship. When I saw the church active, the church was on my ground working in politics. I wrote many press releases quoting leaders of various mainline churches supporting the legislation or agendas of the politicians who employed me. That made me comfortable. I thought maybe even it's OK that I don't go to church because I am working on all these great things that the church supports.

I did not know then, but the mainstream church was in serious decline in those years and there were many, like me who had stopped going. For those of us active in politics, maybe the church was offering just a bit too much of what we could get every day on the job.

Something changed for me during the course of John Glenn's campaign for President in 1984. I got married. My wife, one of God's army of angels if every there were heavenly soldiers, commanded that we would find a church. So back I went. We found Congregational and Methodist churches along the way and as kids were born, our attachment to a faith community grew stronger. I drifted away from Sundays with newspapers as we found our way back to Sundays with the Word.

When I finally started working at the White House — even in the late 1990s, a 24-7 work environment — I decreed Sunday mornings off limits. That was to be my Sabbath — less for reasons of piety than self-preservation. My local United Methodist congregation was a safe sanctuary. No matter what swirl of zesty headlines we had faced that week, I could go to church and there I would be accepted. I could be Mike or Mr. McCurry without honorific baggage. I also had the luxury of reading texts from the Bible, thinking about them, and applying them to the things I saw and did not see in my weeks at the White House.

I learned much later that others at the White House were doing the same. Rahm Emanuel had his rabbi come to the office once a week for prayer and study. George Stephanopoulos, in his book All Too Human, described his personal struggles. I sat next to George for a whole year on planes and in motorcades during the 1996 re-election campaign and did not know the demons he faced. There was nothing in the culture of the place that asked us to reach out to each other in any kind of pastoral interest; in any shared sense of faith or love of God.

In the culture of the current White House, I suspect that requests for Bible study, prayer, personal witness, Sabbath time are quickly honored. Maybe they are mandatory attendance. But the culture of that place is much different than was ours. We had spiritual souls who attended to their faith life in isolation. We would have found community together, but there was no one to convene the faithful. We did not have church at the White House.

Back to this idea that we don't wear religion on our sleeve. That is especially true of mainline Protestant churches and Catholics. I believe that outwardly professing religions, Baptists and non-denominational evangelicals in particular, are much more comfortable expressing faith and using religious vernacular. It is no surprise that the last two Democratic Presidents were comfortable expressing faith in professing, evangelical vocabulary. Yes, there are more concentrations of those kind of faithful voters in the South, but Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were common not only because of geography but also because they knew the melodies of spiritual appeals in political rhetoric. Both of them sung those old-time religion tunes pretty well.

What I am now discerning is that the recovery of a faith vocabulary for Democrats and progressives has less to do with finding out that it makes good political sense to speak religious to voters. It has more to do to with finding that we ourselves are on a spiritual adventure that is informed by our own faith.

In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the institutional church discovered politics and became much involved with pushing a political agenda through the institutional church. In the new century, a much wider spectrum of the political world is rediscovering faith. We are finding that faith draws us deeper into a relationship with God that impacts what we do in the political realm.

I have been "outted" as a religious Democrat but I have been amazed at the number of people calling out to me and asking to be a part of a spiritual dialogue about finding our way forward in the haphazard business of public policymaking. People are hungry to connect their faith lives to the work they do in politics. This is a connection that did not come naturally for Democrats and progressives over the past several decades. But it will — increasingly so.

I close with this observation. When we ask when did Democrats seem to have lost their way in expressing their beliefs though a prism of faith, many mention Martin Luther King. The civil rights fight is the last time we spoke truly prophetically, many say. Many now long for that kind of righteous justification in advancing the agendas they advocate.

I think it would be well to remember that among the most powerful of Dr. King's arguments was the "Letter From Birmingham Jail." That was not a speech destined to be delivered at a political convention. It was a message of faith to people of faith — specifically to segregationist-supporting white clergy who questioned Dr. King's ministry in Birmingham.

If Democrats and progressives truly wish to reach the faithful voters of America with arguments and messages that resonate, they will need to dig deep into scripture and find first how the eternal word of God speaks to them. Then — only then — will they find the language that will translate well into the communities they desire to reach.

Mike McCurry is best known as the former press secretary for Bill Clinton's administration. He is a Washington-based communications consultant and is associated with the firm Public Strategies Washington, Inc. and the internet technology firm, Grassroots Enterprise Inc.

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Citation: Mike McCurry, " Mike McCurry on Faith and Politics," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=658

 
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