When she was director of religious outreach for John Kerry's Democratic presidential campaign four years ago, Mara Vanderslice could hardly have seemed lower on the campaign totem pole.
“I had one unpaid intern who didn't have a phone,” she said. “We didn't have a budget, and they never let me talk to the press.”
Her low status reflected a widely perceived unease in the Democratic Party at reaching out to voters on religious grounds.
What a difference four years can make. This election season has featured Democratic campaigns attempting to frame issues such as poverty, environmentalism and health care in religious contexts.
Political observers say the changes are evident in advertisements on Christian music stations, biblical references in stump speeches, and networking with pastors, as Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and others in his party try to appeal to people who might view the party as hostile to religion.
“It could not have changed more in only four years,” Vanderslice said. “The Obama campaign has six staff people (on religious matters). Josh DuBois (Obama's head of religious outreach) is actively speaking to the press. They're doing ‘Faith and Family' tours.”
For her part, Vanderslice has formed a political action committee called The Matthew 25 Network, choosing the name from a well-known biblical passage in which Jesus prods people to help the “least of these” – the poor. The group has raised about $300,000 and is working on behalf of Obama.
Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs for the Family Research Council, an influential conservative lobbying group, said he objects to the Democrats' approach. He said it is morally problematic to equate poverty issues with abortion.