The Matthew 25 Network
By Stephanie Block
The words are all about feeding the hungry, freeing sex slaves, caring for AIDS orphans – the stuff, more or less, of Matthew 25, in which Jesus exhorts those who hope to inherit the kingdom to help, in very practical, material ways, their fellow men.
And these are the right words, used to craft a message to Christian voters in terms Christians find familiar and comforting. The purpose for using them, however, is to narrow the “God gap” between Republicans, who have a long-standing advantage among religious voters, and Democrats.
Whose bright idea was this? Any of a number of people have noticed and decried this “gap” but it’s only been in the last four years someone has developed an effective way to bridge it. That someone is Mara Vanderslice, who has formed the political action committee called the Matthew 25 Network to “coordinate grassroots mobilization in these Christian communities, develop credible religious surrogates in the media, respond to negative faith-based attacks, and communicate directly with undecided voters through paid advertising and direct mail.” [Background authorized and paid for by The Matthew 25 Network and published at www.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/politics/Matthew25Background.pdf]
Vanderslice is an evangelical Democrat. She interned with Jim Wallis’ left-wing Sojourners and its political offspring, Call to Renewal, was the director of religious outreach for the John Kerry and John Edwards campaign in 2004, and worked on numerous successful campaigns in 2006, including Senator Bob Casey (PA), Governor Ted Strickland (OH), Governor Jennifer Granholm (MI), Representative Heath Shuler, and Governor Kathleen Sebelius (KS).
The challenge for Vanderslice has been reaching out to religious voters. Democrat candidates needed “a new language to use in talking about faith and values, aimed in part at neutralizing hot-button issues.” Rather than demand “choice,” pro-abortion politicians were told to emphasize abortion “reduction,” making abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” [Hanna Rosin, “Closing the God Gap”, Atlantic Monthly January/February 2007]
Instead, they were to “talk about serving others; promoting the common good; protecting the environment as God's creation, and alleviating poverty.” [Rosin] When the issue of same-sex marriages arose, they were to change the subject to the financial pressures on marriage.
The tactic works. According to one report, candidates coached by Vanderslice did 10 percentage points or better than Democrats nationally. They’re getting elected.
Obviously, evangelicals are a major target of Vandersplice, her Matthew 25 Network PAC, and the various organizational efforts of her mentor, Rev. Jim Wallis. They aren’t the only ones, though. Catholics – 47 million (according to Time Magazine) of whom could vote in US elections – tend to be “conservative” about abortion and homosexuality but “liberal” about issues of governance and social welfare. How to tap into that potential, liberal lode?
The Matthew 25 Network has a good number of Catholic “endorsers” – Ron Cruz, former Director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Hispanic Affairs; Sharon Daly, former Vice-President of Catholic Charities; Delores Leckey, Senior Fellow, Woodstock Theological Center and Former Director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth; Vince Miller of Georgetown University; David O'Brien of College of the Holy Cross; and Sr. Catherine Pinkerton, who serves on the board of Faith in Public Life and works for NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby.
A number of these people – Sr. Catherine, Ron Cruz, Sharon Daly, Vincent Miller, and David O'Brien – are on Obama’s Catholic National Advisory Council. During a Matthew 25 Network conference call that included Sharon Daly, she discussed Catholic pro-life beliefs and added, in true Vandersplice form, that Obama supports abortion reduction measures and the need to address the circumstances that increase abortions.
Obama, trained by Alinskyian organizers, also understands the power of language and the need to use it persuasively. At one of Jim Wallis’ Call to Renewal conferences (June 28, 2006), Obama delivered the keynote address. He said, “….the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical - if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to ‘the judgments of the Lord.’ Or King's I Have a Dream speech without references to ‘all of God’s children.’ Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.”
He said many other things but closed with the story of a pro-life doctor who had written to him, challenging his pro-abortion rhetoric. “So I looked at my website and found the offending words. In fairness to them, my staff had written them using standard Democratic boilerplate language to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade. So I wrote back to the doctor, and I thanked him for his advice. The next day, I circulated the email to my staff and changed the language on my website….”
An Alinskyian says what needs to be said to win. One pro-Obama blogger wrote, “We have to win. Period. If this means he has to say he disagrees with the Supreme Court on the death penalty and child rapists, that he agrees with the handgun decision, and that he has to bring religion into the campaign, than so be it. No only do we have to win, but we have to win by a big enough margin so they can’t steal the election. Again. There is no other option - if we lose this time we lose everything.”