Preaching Donkeys

"MOST Americans would be surprised to learn that God is a Republican," a bitter Walter Mondale said in 1984 after Jerry Falwell and a host of other conservative religious figures called for the re-election of Ronald Reagan.

For eight years, Reagan has been the darling of the religious right. The 25 million member voting bloc helped him gain a majority in 1980. In his reelection more than 70 percent of white evangelical voters backed the president.

This election, however, there is every reason to think this voting bloc is up for grabs. Evangelical territory isn't necessarily a Republican bastion--born-again Jimmy Carter carried it handily in 1976 (despite his interview with Playboy Magazine and his pro-choice, pro-ERA platform). And Michael Dukakis should carry it, too--especially if he intends to make headway in the South.

Skeptics will wonder whether a liberal Northeasterner can make inroads with the evangelical community. They should remember that Reagan, a divorced actor who seldom attends church, took in more evangelical support than a Southern Baptist sunday school teacher. (The Southern Baptist Convention, with nearly 15 million members, is the largest evangelical group.) The main reason: Carter ignored evangelicals while Reagan actively pursued their support.

THE Republicans won over the bloc by default, not a divine mandate on the issues. Evangelical voters support adding funding to the poor as well as cutting funding to abortion clinics. They are not natural allies of the Contras and the Defense department; they would be more likely to back peace in Central America and the Middle East.


The Democratic strategists have mistakenly dismissed the group as a single-issue--anti-abortion--constituency. Instead they should be appealing to evangelicals on the issues they have in common, such as aid to children, the elderly and the poor. Winning over the bloc is much more a question of how a candidate frames the debate, than his stance on every issue; righteous positions can be taken on many fronts, even without crossing the barrier between church and state.

And the Republicans have made it even easier for the Democrats to attract evangelicals in this election. Dukakis can capitalize on the sleaze factor. Evangelicals would welcome a President promising to bring ethics back to Washington. "St. Dukakis," as his wife so fondly calls him, seems a lot cleaner than the Republican candidate, who is rumored to have had a long-term affair and has dealt with drug-dealing dictators.

ALTHOUGH abortion will be a key stumbling block to courting the religious vote, it need not be insurmountable. Evangelicals have distrusted George Bush's sincerity on the issue, since he shifted rightward to curry their support in 1980. And Reagan has done little to overturn Roe v. Wade. Even considering the Republican's pro-life platform, as one politician said, the party's concern for human life begins at conception and ends at birth; yet, evengelicals purportedly want to save and help people throughout their lives.

The Democratic platform would appeal to many who attend conservative Christian churches each week. The Democrats have protected programs for the elderly, kept Reagan's hands off the school lunch programs, and they've protested when the Republican have gone after food stamps and other programs which benefit the poor, the elderly, and the sick.

Although the evangelical leadership pledged their support to a president as telegenic as they were in the last two elections, this time around endorsements from the discredited, scandalized preachers will hold much less weight. Rank-and-file believers are still the type of people that the Democratic party has traditionally attracted--poor Southerners.

The Democratic party is known for its ability to pull together diverse groups. Jesse Jackson's success is proof that party can garner much support from a populist platform and a charismatic pitch to the disenfranchised. The Democrats should find this method to be equally effective in attracting evangelicals.