Yesterday, the Matthew25 Network had a conference call with reporters to unveil their plans for the general election. The group is composed of believers who are Democrats and who are “inspired by the Gospel mandate to put our faith into action to care for our neighbor.” The group is the brainchild of Mara Vanderslice, who held the thankless job of religious outreach director for the religiously challenged Kerry campaign in 2004, but whose talents at organizing religiously motivated voters has gained the attention of leading Democrats since Kerry’s loss. Vanderslice is one of the leading progressive evangelicals in the country. She is smart, plugged in, savvy. And, as we learned on the call, this year she has a half million dollar budget to spend on ads promoting Barack Obama to religiously motivated voters.
Vanderslice will be placing the ads mostly on Christian radio. This is a very intelligent way to use limited resources. The market is self-selected and the message can be directly tailored to it. The Matthew25 Network will focus on key swing states, especially Ohio, Michigan and Colorado, but they will also run ads in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Missouri and North Carolina. Vanderslice said the group has also placed print ads in the National Catholic Reporter, although that might be preaching to the liberal choir.
Usually, Democrats do not advertise on Christian radio because they worry that increasing turnout among evangelicals is likely to result in more GOP voters. But, that was a self-fulfilling prophecy. So long as Democrats declined to make their case to evangelicals and other religiously motivated voters, James Dobson of the conservative group Focus on the Family, the Rev. Pat Robertson, and their ilk had the radio waves to themselves.
When the Matthew25 Network ran its first radio ad Dobson’s organization responded with a fusillade. Dobson called the ad “highly seductive” which he did not mean as a compliment. He and his co-host spent several minutes discussing the ad and hurling accusations of dishonesty at Obama. There was little in the way of Christian charity in the exchange.
The Matthew25 Network also intend to run ads on Spanish-language radio stations, and the Rev. Wilfredo DeJesus, from the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, spoke movingly on yesterday’s about why Hispanics are beginning to turn to Obama. Rev. DeJesus is heavily involved in efforts to assist those undocumented workers recently rounded up in an immigration raid in Iowa. It is often forgotten that a significant minority of evangelicals are Hispanics.
Also on the conference call was Sharon Daly, who worked at the Bishops’ Conference for years and was one of the vice-presidents of Catholic Charities. Daly noted that she had never gotten involved in partisan politics before but that this year she felt she could not stand on the sidelines. She noted her discontent with the Bush administration but also the affinity she felt for Obama. One wonders how many there are like her, people who have not gotten overly engaged in politics until now. Daly and DeJesus both said they hoped Obama would move their way on abortion, but that he was committed to reducing the number of abortions. This posture will not satisfy some in the right-to-life movement, but others see it as the best approach to such a divisive issue.
Matthew25.org is new evidence that the Democratic Party is not longer going to let itself be cast as the party of irreligion. The group’s message, calling for a politics that reflects the whole spectrum of values yielded by the Gospels and not just a few hot-button issues, confirms another trend in politics this year, an insistence that religion be reasonable and thoughtful when it enters the public square. And, the fact that the effort is led by young people highlights a third trend in 2008: Younger evangelicals are not content to follow the path marked out by their elders. They are asking new questions and discovering different answers.
Michael Sean Winters