Can the Democratic Party win the religious vote in 2008? Can it do what Al Gore and John Kerry failed to do when churchgoing "values voters" twice went overwhelmingly for George W. Bush, providing him precious millions of votes?
This question applies primarily to the Democratic nominee, who is likely to be Hillary Clinton, and who not coincidentally has a strategy to appeal to precisely these voters in the hope of securing a sizable enough sliver to make a decisive difference in 2008.
Hillary forecast her intentions only three days after the November 2004 election during a speech at Tufts University, where she confidently asserted that she and her fellow Democrats should not have ceded the evangelical vote to George W. Bush. She and they can play on that field, she insisted.
Or can they? Can she? That's the central faith question for 2008, and the answer thus far seems to be no. Religious conservatives remain highly skeptical of Hillary Clinton, despite her long, generally frustrated, attempt to change hearts and minds.
Tied to her past
It began way back in Arkansas, where Bible Belt Democrats and Republicans alike were suspicious of Hillary as a "godless liberal" up North. To combat the image, Hillary traveled the state, giving a speech titled, "Why I am a Methodist." While the speech was a genuine recounting of her background and beliefs, it clearly had political as much as spiritual motivation.
This cynicism dogged Hillary all the way to the White House, with plenty of intensity, but not always with a firm, factual base. For instance, Bob Woodward reported that when Hillary was writing her book, It Takes a Village, her then-adviser Jean Houston, a co-director of the Foundation of Mind Research, suggested that an imaginary conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt, one of Hillary's role models, might help her focus. Critics quickly interpreted this as a seance, but Houston never claimed any such thing. Nevertheless, the interpretations stuck.
Two years later, the accusations worsened as a result of the Monica Lewinsky incident. This elephant in the bedroom pops up in every discussion on the faith of either Clinton.
Inevitably, someone recalls the infamous moment when Bill, after strolling out of church with a Bible tucked under his arm on Easter Sunday, headed back to the Oval Office for a sordid moment with Monica.
To a degree, the scandal generated sympathy for Hillary, as many Americans accepted her assertion that Bill's admission brought her to deep prayer — her cross to bear.
On the other hand, many judged her guilty by association. After all, she had initially blamed the allegations on a "vast right-wing conspiracy," and she knew her husband's history. Her critics assumed that she held the marriage together to succor political aspirations.
Ultimately, by the end of the Clinton presidency, a 2000 poll by the Wall Street Journal/NBC News found that only 12% of the public described Hillary as "extremely/very religious;" of all the leading political figures polled, only her husband scored lower.
But that's in the past, right? Not at all. Hillary Clinton has been unable to budge these numbers as an elected senator looking toward a presidency of her own.
Two major hurdles
Today, there are two faith-related matters that religious conservatives find most troubling with Hillary: her church politicking is one, but first and foremost is her perceived stridency on the abortion issue.
The church politicking is a brazen, undeniable use of her faith for political benefit. Remarkably, she campaigned in 27 New York churches in the two months before the November 2000 vote, including six on Election Day morning alone.
But while values voters find her church politicking distasteful, they find her position on abortion — she may be the most uncompromising pro-choicer in the entire Congress — intolerable.
This is an enormous obstacle for her, and she knows it, as do leading religious voices in her own party.
"I think our party's leaders — some of them — are overemphasizing the abortion issue," said Jimmy Carter in November 2005. "I've never been convinced, if you let me inject my Christianity into it, that Jesus Christ would approve abortion."
Here again, the sum total of these factors is evident in another major poll, this time done in just the last few weeks by the Pew Research Center. That poll found that Hillary had gained no ground in the eye of the public. She once again was judged next to last in terms of religiousness, except for ... Rudy Giuliani.
And that's where this faith question gets most interesting.
A group of leading conservative Christians is threatening to bolt to a third party if the pro-choice Giuliani gets the Republican nomination, and they are not alone. The entrance of Rudy suddenly makes the predictable much less so.
However, even if these voters don't go to Rudy in 2008, they will not flee to Hillary — a trade-off that might be just fine with her.
If values voters stay home on election day — or go to a third party — then they will indeed do precisely what Hillary Clinton has hoped all along: Win her the White House.