Evangelicals and outreach
Democrats have been speculating about how to reach out to evangelical Christians. This discussion would be more productive if participants were more explicit about their concepts of outreach.
There are at least three different outreach models floating around. Call them "compromise," "image," and "alternative." This division isn't meant to be exhaustive or exclusive. In fact, most outreach proposals combine strategies from all three models.
Compromise outreach calls for substantive policy changes on social issues like abortion and gay rights. Proponents of compromise urge Democrats to change their platform to appeal to evangelical voters.
Image outreach is concerned primarily with marketing the Democratic brand to religious people in religious terms. Proponents of image outreach are apt to scold Democrats for alleged condescension and demand Democratic leaders who are "comfortable" talking about "faith" and "values." Image outreach and compromise outreach are mutually compatible. Most proponents of compromise outreach also endorse image-based approaches. However, many Democrats advocate image alterations as an alternative to substantive compromise on social policy.
At this point, neither compromise- nor image-based outreach seems promising. Compromise outreach to is morally unacceptable and politically naive. Image outreach is already underway but it doesn't seem to be working. Nor should we expect it to. Evangelicals have a very specific policy agenda and no amount of god-talk or "respect" will win them over without credible promises to deliver their goods. Besides, the right wing propaganda machine ably slimes all religious overtures by Democrats as insincere or condescending, thereby sinking us deeper into the hole that image outreach was supposed to dig us out of.
Alternative outreach proposals call upon Democrats to reach out to evangelicals without necessarily reaching out to them qua culturally conservative evangelicals. Alternative outreach differs from compromise outreach in that it doesn't call for changes in Democratic values or policies.
Alternative outreach comes in two main flavors: religious and non-religious. So far, the best known non-religious outreach strategies are populist. The goal is to appeal to middle and working class citizens. Many of these people are also evangelicals, but the hope is that a populist economic message will sway them independently of their religious affiliation.
Other alternative outreach schemes are self-consciously religious, i.e., they hope to reach out directly to voters and religious institutions in much the same way as the corporate right has already done. Religious outreach identifies core Democratic values that resonate with core evangelical values and forges alliances based on shared objectives. The civil rights movement may be an example of a mutually beneficial alliance between Democrats and evangelicals. I'm not an expert on this period, but it seems that this alliance was built on areas of substantive policy agreement. During the civil rights era Democrats didn't reach out to evangelicals with slick marketing, they cemented practical alliances based on true common cause.
I don't know whether Democrats can find equally compelling areas of common ground with evangelical groups today. Perhaps Democrats can make common cause with evangelical groups over economic justice, peace, or other issues of mutual concern. The alliance between the religious right and the corporate right may seem inevitable in retrospect, but it too is built on a sometimes uneasy compromise. Proponents of religious alternative outreach are urging Democrats to cultivate compromise in the other direction (economic interests over cultural interests). Whether such outreach is feasible remains an empirical question.
In lieu of a conlclusion, here's an interesting article about the growth of evangelical congregations in New York City:
The Political Conversion of New York's Evangelicals [NYT permalink]