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You Don't Get What You Don't Work For

Another good testament of faith and politics, this time from Mara Vanderslice, the former head of Religious outreach for the Dean and Kerry campaigns, I love her point of view on what the Democratic party needs to do, to give the religous communities a full "seat at the table" in the party. And I think that at a grassroots level we should begin making this happen. "You don't get what you don't work for."

Photo of MARA VANDERSLICE"I mean, when I started we didn't have any lists to start with; it was the first time that a Democratic presidential campaign had hired someone to do this. And so by the end of the campaign we had close to 5,000 people participating and volunteering for us. We had more than 100 letters to the editor published all around the country, of Christians and Catholics and Muslims saying, you know, "My values, my deep religious faith leads me to vote for Kerry and Edwards."

So really, we think it was a tremendous beginning, and I hope the Democrats will continue to understand the energy that's out there in the faith community, to find a place at the table in this party.

The real goal of our programs was to provide a space in the campaign for people whose faith calls them to justice: to love mercy; to promote the common good; to never forget the least among us -- those Jesus called us to serve, those who are sick and poor, those in prison. People in the faith community have so long been told that only one party represents their religious and moral values. But what we were finding is that there are thousands of people, maybe millions of people in the country [who] believe that the values the Democratic Party espouses [are] much more in line with biblical and Gospel teachings.

I think it was very new in many ways for Democratic political operatives, and because of the newness, I think, it was slow going. You know, we've always done a great job of reaching out into the African-American church communities, and administrations -- White Houses -- have always had liaisons with the faith community. But in a political campaign it was a new thing, and so there was some timidity around the language, around how to proceed. It was very new. But again, I think the effort was a tremendous beginning, and we barely scratched the surface.

But I hope, if we've been able to show anything, we've shown that there's a current out there, there's a longing, a hungering for people to find their religious and moral voice as Democrats.

I just only can hope that we've cracked open that door now, and soon the party will see we need to let [in] the whole flood of these religious people that want a place at the table in the Democratic Party. They're longing for candidates to speak to them with authenticity, to speak out of moral principle and values that they can relate to.

We have so much to offer the country with our policies, but we need to stop talking about them just as policies. We need to ground them in the moral principles that the people are looking for.

If there's anything I can say to the Democrats moving forward, [it's that] we've just barely scratched the surface this time; there's so much energy out there for people in the religious community to have a space at the table.

I think the Democratic Party should create a faith and values center. They should have full-time staff that will cultivate these relationships for the long term. I think we learned that people connect with candidates when they speak personally from their faith and from the principles that ground their vision and their leadership. I think we've learned that there's so much out there waiting for us that we haven't even tapped into yet. But it won't be enough for Democrats just to wear the clothing of faith. There needs to be a long-term engagement with the religious community and an investment in building infrastructure, in building the grassroots, in reaching out to religious leaders and to religious people.

I also believe that the Democratic Party -- we really need to engage in a more thoughtful debate on the abortion issue in this country. I can't tell you how many times I had conversations with people of deep faith [who] said, "I support you [and] everything you are doing on every other issue except for this one." It is such a painful and divisive issue in this country, and we have, therefore, avoided it, I think, to a large extent. I don't think that does service for us. I believe that we need to work across our differences to find ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies. There are a million and a half abortions every year in this country, and no one can feel that's a good place for us to be. But we need to support the programs that we know reduce the need for abortions.

I had heard that [the Republicans] had at least 10 staff people in many of the key battleground states, paid staff people working on reaching out to the religious community. So they have made a tremendous effort to do this over many years. If the Democrats want to regain that ground -- I believe that we can -- we need to make similar efforts to do so.

I was inspired every day I was there by the people at the grassroots who would say, "Thank you so much for being there. Thank you for being a voice on the phone that I can call to and say, 'People in my church are praying for me because I'm voting for John Kerry.'" Those stories out there of people that have been hungering to have a place as Christians at the table in this party -- that was enough to keep me through all the challenges that we faced.

You don't get what you don't work for, and we really proved when we made an effort that people in the faith community would come to our side and come to see that, you know, our vision of promoting the common good -- that we share their values.

I think the biggest thing I'd like [to say] to encourage everyone is, this needs to be a long-term effort if we're thinking about Senate races, midterm elections, even the next presidential cycle; we need to start building this outreach on the ground now.

Photo of MARA VANDERSLICE I've never been more on fire for the work that I'm doing. I hope that I'll find a way to continue to pioneer this path for the Democrats. I'd love to be involved in continuing to build up the voices of faith in the party and providing the training and infrastructure on the ground to state parties, to future candidates, to reach out to these constituencies, because I just believe that the religious community can be the conscience and the soul of the Democratic Party, and the more we bring that back in, I believe, the stronger our party will be, the better we'll be able to represent our positive vision for the future, and I think it'll help us start winning elections again. So I'm very excited to continue this work.

To me, my decision to follow Jesus Christ has to impact every single part of my life, including how I want to act in the public sphere and the kind of government policies I want to see and the kinds of community and country I want to live in.

So, to me, there can be nothing more honorable than trying to live out that care and concern for those whom Jesus spent time with and loved and cared for. And I just believe that the Democratic Party knows and has the vision and the way forward to move to help the poor and the vulnerable and to promote the common good. For me, there is a real, direct connection between being a Christian, between my values and my political engagement."
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