With the current Democratic presidential candidates acknowledging and addressing issues of faith in a more substantive factor than in 2004, Hanna Rosin and Jason Byassee’s separate articles on political consulting firm Common Good Strategies (CGS) help us understand the slowly increasing role of faith within other levels of the party. Both authors note that CGS is noteworthy because its seven clients during last year’s elections—including gubernatorial candidates Ted Strickland (Ohio) and Jennifer Granholm (Michigan)—not only won all of their races, but also (in Rosin’s words) “made astonishing gains” among white evangelical voters that were disproportionate to the Democratic Party’s overall slight narrowing of the “God gap.” Byassee explains the reason why in his interview with CGS co-partners Maria Vanderslice and Eric Sapp:
“So what do these consultants actually do for candidates? Vanderslice and Sapp stress that they mainly help candidates be themselves and speak publicly about the faith that is already in them. ‘Our candidates don't all sound the same,’ Sapp insists. Which is true. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania was a conservative Catholic and outspokenly pro-life before he ran for the Senate; Ted Strickland was a United Methodist minister and longtime advocate for the poor before he ran for governor of Ohio. But for Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, a middle-of-the-road Democrat, it was something new to be talking about God on the stump, as she did during a campaign speech at Hope College in the conservative Christian region of the state. In the end, she performed much better among white evangelicals than Democrats tend to do, garnering some 35 percent of that vote. CGS would argue that faith was in her all along; it just needed to come out.”
It’s notable that the ways in which CGS help their candidates articulate their faith involve quite proven strategies. In particular, reframing language in order to discuss controversial social issues may be a newer idea for politicians left of center, but it is a tactic upon which conservative politicians—particularly religious conservatives—have successfully capitalized for quite some time. Yet where CGS has to be careful is ensuring that their candidates subsequently avoid falling into a style-over-substance trap. As an example, the CGS slogan “poverty is a moral issue” that Byassee cites is a variant of a line from Jim Wallis, arguably the top leader of the “religious left” movement: “Budgets are moral documents.” A terse, powerful statement upon first glance, to be sure, but Wallis has now recycled it enough (examples here and here) that its substantive content becomes a bit more murky. This isn’t to say that Wallis is inauthentic—I don’t necessarily believe that to be the case—but rather that it becomes easy to, as Rosin alludes, turn discussions of faith into “rhetoric” that is less than convincing.
Yet I find the efforts of CGS to be generally encouraging, for they’re helping to demonstrate that left-of-center candidates can incorporate their faith in positive and productive ways. This is especially true for Strickland, who has maintained high approval ratings and healthy bipartisan relationships during his first year in office.