Democrats took the reins of power in Congress last week in no small part because of new and effective outreach to religiously faithful voters in last November’s midterm elections.
Now the real work begins. To build a long-term relationship with these religious voters, Democrats will need to do more than meet with ministers and talk about raising the minimum wage and protecting the environment while declaring "Jesus would do" these things — and that isn’t only because I am an Orthodox Jew. Judaism teaches me to be more focused on deed than creed; Democrats should learn the same lesson while realizing they can achieve their goals without reversing their positions on the hot-button issues of abortion, gay rights, and the like.
• First: Listen to Hillel. The rabbinic sage Hillel formulated "the golden rule" this way, "That which is objectionable to you, do not do to your fellow." Democratic leaders should heed the ancient rabbi’s words resisting the impulses of their church-state separation stalwarts such as Rep. Bobby Scott and Sen. Dick Durbin, who will press to roll back anti-religious discrimination provisions put in place by Republicans in recent years. To go down this road would validate those who view Democrats as the anti-faith party.
• Second: They shouldn’t stop there. The second application of Hillel’s rule will come with the early reconsideration of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Too much of the rhetoric in this debate, from both sides, fails to acknowledge the serious moral arguments on each side. Democrats can do so by mandating a strict ethical oversight process for stem cell research into pro-research funding legislation. It already exists for other fields like DNA research; it wouldn’t hurt here.
• Third: Democrats should seize an opportunity to put forward a proactive piece of religious liberty legislation. The best candidate for such action is the Workplace Religious Freedom Act.
"WRFA" would prod employers to accommodate their employees’ religious needs in the workplace –- allowing the wearing of religious clothing such as yarmulkes and turbans, schedule changes for holy day observance and even conscientious objections –- where doing so would not be burdensome to the employer’s business. Everyone loves it; Rick Santorum and John Kerry were its sponsors last time around; the liberal National Council of Churches and Union of Reform Judaism to the conservative Southern Baptist Convention and Agudath Israel and scores of other groups in between love it.
It was never passed, however, because of backroom objections to it by employer lobby groups such as the Chamber of Commerce in past Republican Congresses. Democrats now have a chance to "out faith" the Republicans.
• Fourth: Democrats would also do well to assist religious traditionalists — particularly Catholics and Jews — with the affordability of sending their children to parochial schools. And here’s a dirty little secret: Republicans have left this door wide open.
Despite a great deal of Republican rhetoric for the past six years touting a commitment to "school choice," other than enacting a small voucher program for the District of Columbia, Republicans have delivered little to the average parochial school-using family. Of course, Democrats would never embrace a broad school voucher proposal — the teachers’ unions firmly in their camp wouldn’t stand for it. But there is a third way: Model the hugely successful state tax credits in place for individual or corporate contributions to schools and/or scholarship funds. These tax credits allow local schools — public, parochial and private — to raise needed funds in their communities for equipment purchases or program costs for things the school can’t cover in their regular budgets. Their success — and the fact that these tax credits do not yield the polarized debate pitting the public sector against the nonpublic sector — has resulted in Democratic governors such as Pennsylvania’s Ed Rendell, Arizona’s Janet Napolitano, and New York’s Eliot Spitzer expanding these tax credit programs or proposing new ones.
If congressional Democrats would spearhead the creation of a federal education contribution tax credit and thus deliver new resources not only to the public sector but cash-strapped parochial schools as well, they will receive resounding gratitude from the families in religious communities while doing something that benefits their local public schools simultaneously.
• Fifth: Democrats should consider putting their stamp on the issues associated with President Bush’s "faith-based initiatives" by re-establishing the bipartisan consensus supporting government partnerships with religious social welfare agencies. It is hard to recall, but perhaps the only policy issue Al Gore and George W. Bush agreed upon in the ‘000 campaign was the desirability of expanding government partnerships with faith-based charities.
Quite simply, Democrats can obtain a Republican president’s support for funding increases for an array of social welfare programs in exchange for clearly codifying the president’s basic principle of "equal treatment" in the grant application process for all prospective non-governmental partners, whether they are religious or secular.
If Democrats discovered religion in the ‘004 election exit polls, they succeeded in ‘006 by getting some religious traditionalists to discover them in return. Democrats were deft on the campaign trail in exhorting religious audiences to "know" the Republicans "by their deeds." More of the faithful pulled the lever for the Democrats on this basis; it now falls to the Democrats to more than preach, lest they too be cast aside for breaking faith.
Nathan J. Diament is director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. This article first appeared in beliefnet.com.