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Jacques Berlinerblau Jacques Berlinerblau is an Associate Professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the School of Foreign Service. Berlinerblau has published on a wide variety of issues ranging...

A collaboration with Washingtonpost Newsweek Interactive's On Faith site, The God Vote explores the role of faith in this year's election. It is featured here as well as on Georgetown/On Faith.


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"God? Yes! Theocracy? No!"

October 25, 2007

I consider it to be one of the most important campaign developments of 2008 that every major aspirant for the presidency must now submit a Faith and Values Portfolio to the American electorate. These portfolios are usually crammed with the strangest things, the most variegated faith-based overgrowth (e.g., spiritual mentors, conversion experiences, family Bibles trotted out for inspection by journalists). But beneath this luxuriant vegetation all FVPs are rooted in a candidate’s: 1) personal narrative of faith, and, 2) vision of the place of religion in American public life. For the first time in recent memory all the Democratic frontrunners have solid FVPs. This is unusual. Around primary time there has always been a John Kerry, or a Howard Dean, or a Jerry Brown, or a Paul Tsongas, or a Michael Dukakis on the ticket--secular ministers without portfolio. But with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, the Democrats are assured of nominating a candidate who can appeal effectively to religious constituencies.

John Edwards, come to think of it, occupies a storied place in the history of FVPs. The campaign he ran with John Kerry was the Chernobyl of the Faith and Values Industry. Kerry/Edwards 2004 is a cautionary tale. It is the very reason that all Democratic contenders have been polishing their portfolios, churching-up, citing the Scriptures and hiring consultants with advanced degrees in theology.

This having been said, let it be noted that when it comes to religious imaging, Edwards himself is quite impressive. As for the narrative, he speaks quite convincingly of growing up in the small-town, church-going America of Georgia and the Carolinas. He reports that he drifted away from religion until a family tragedy reawakened his faith.

Dwelling on his non-privileged past (as opposed to his privileged present) he can speak fairly convincingly of working class values. These values have been desecrated, he argues, by the policies of the current administration. As with all Democratic hopefuls, he will thump the Bible and he will identify poverty--not homosexuality or abortion--as its abiding priority.

A pious, Dixie Democrat is the gold standard in presidential races and Edwards knows fully well how to exploit his regional assets. Less heady than Obama and far more at ease discussing faith than Clinton, Edwards could charm a room of (undecided) Red State folks with his breezy, like-my-pastor-always-says oratory. Connecting with White Evangelicals is crucial in a general election, and he could most likely best his two rivals at this game.

In terms of his vision of religion’s role in public life, he is no George W. Bush -- and no Michael Dukakis either. All the Democratic frontrunners have understood that the electorate is uncomfortable with both extreme secularism and the theocratic Will to Power of the Christian Right. Like all Democrats, Edwards attempts to walk a middle ground--a strategy whose motto I describe as “God? Yes! Theocracy? No!

Yet even with his good religious imaging. John Edwards is flagging in the polls. My impression is that Democratic voters care infinitely more about winning this election than about the particular politician who will lead them to victory. That politician, they seem to agree, is Hillary Clinton.

All this, alas, reminds us yet again of an important lesson. While a good Faith and Values Portfolio is essential to modern presidential campaigning, it is not enough to win a party’s nomination.