WASHINGTON – In 2008, Barack Obama took aim at the "pew gap," the overwhelming Republican edge among voters who regularly attend church.
The Democratic presidential nominee came nowhere near closing it, but he didn't have to. He just needed an extra percentage point or two among traditional GOP constituents, and he got it.
The Democratic National Committee is promising a repeat performance in 2012. But some religious leaders and scholars who backed Obama in 2008 are skeptical. They say the Democrats have, through neglect and lack of focus, squandered the substantial gains they made with religious moderates and worry it will hurt Obama in a tight race against Republican Mitt Romney.
The DNC's faith outreach director, the Rev. Derrick Harkins, said the party has strong relationships with religious groups. But as evidence of their concerns, critics point to the public debate that followed Obama's endorsement of gay marriage, a decision the president said was based in part on his Christian faith.
No prominent clergyperson was sent out as a surrogate by the administration to explain the religious argument in favor of same-sex relationships. Instead, the main religious voices connected to Obama in the public sphere were the ministers who serve as his personal spiritual advisers and generally oppose gay marriage. Those ministers who were willing to comment – many weren't – said they were struggling with Obama's decision.
"I think there is a viable religious left who can be persuaded by a carefully articulated religious argument, but no one is making it," said Valerie Cooper, a religious studies professor at the University of Virginia and Obama supporter. "I'm concerned that the administration has not followed through on the promise of 2008."
Cooper recently attended a White House briefing for academics on the work of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She and other religious scholars say they understand that pressing issues such as the economy had to be the priority. Still, they argued more could have been done to broaden the party's tent.
"I get frustrated when I talk to evangelical friends or students and they ask, 'How can you be a Christian and a Democrat?'" Cooper said.
David Kim, a Connecticut College religious studies professor, helped advise the 2008 campaign when videos of incendiary sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former Chicago pastor, threatened to derail the nominee. Kim, who attended the briefing with Cooper, described the administration's faith-based work as "ad hoc" and "with no long-term strategy."
"I didn't really get a clear sense of what the mission is," Kim said.
In 2008, the Obama campaign sought ways to cooperate with religious moderates and conservatives and make them feel more welcome among Democrats. Many political veterans dismissed the idea as quixotic. For the past decade or so, exit polls have found that the more often a voter attends church, the more likely he was to back a conservative candidate, earning the GOP the nickname "God's Own Party."
The Obama campaign built grassroots support among religious voters by organizing "faith house parties," sending Roman Catholic and evangelical surrogates on the campaign trail, and holding faith caucus meetings at the party's national convention. Cooper remembers a conference call the campaign organized with Democrats who opposed abortion rights and a position paper the campaign circulated from a Catholic theologian about reducing the need for abortion.
According to exit polls, the effort paid off. Obama made gains over the 2004 nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, with voters who attend religious services more than once a week, 43 percent to 35 percent. Obama also won 26 percent of the evangelical vote, compared with 21 percent for Kerry.
"It wasn't huge, but it was statistically significant," said John Green, director of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute for Applied Politics. Religious Democrats began to talk of a new era for the party.
But from 2008 to 2010, when control of Congress was at stake, the DNC cut its faith outreach staffing from more than six people to one part-timer, according to The Washington Post.
Harkins, appointed last October, is the senior pastor at the historic Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington and has held many leadership positions, including as a past board member of the National Association of Evangelicals. He has little political or campaign experience.
Until last month, the Obama re-election campaign hadn't named a national director for religious outreach. Until he joined the campaign, 24-year-old Michael Wear was an executive assistant in the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships office.
Harkins said in a telephone interview that he brings to the job relationships built over years with clergy nationwide and noted that he works as part of a DNC team conducting voter outreach. The Obama campaign would not discuss specifics of its outreach, citing a policy of not disclosing staff numbers or strategy, but said efforts to reach religious voters have been part of the Operation Vote initiative targeting different constituencies.
"I don't think there's been any evidence of a deficit," Harkins said. "If there's a change we're seeking, it's to be broader, more robust, reaching a broader section of the faith community."
The issue is arising at a particularly sensitive time when Obama's critics are accusing him of enacting policies that are "choking" religious groups.
Catholic bishops have filed a dozen lawsuits nationwide challenging a Department of Health and Human Services mandate that most employers, including religious groups, provide insurance that covers birth control. The president has offered to shift the cost to insurance companies. But Catholic prelates said the accommodation still links the church to a practice that violates their beliefs.
Recently, evangelical, Orthodox Jewish, Catholic and Mormon leaders helped form in every state a new network of caucuses dedicated to religious liberty, with the birth control mandate as their initial focus.
The advocacy group Conscience Cause formed in February to rescind or revise the birth control mandate. The organization's board includes Jim Nicholson, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican under President George W. Bush, and Republican strategists Mary Matalin and Ed Gillespie. Gillespie is an adviser to the Romney campaign.
But some of the president's traditional allies are among the critics.
The Tablet, the British Catholic newsweekly read widely by American Catholic liberals, said in a recent editorial that Obama "has perhaps been misled into thinking that the widespread dissent to these teachings among Catholics means he can disregard the views of the bishops without having to pay an electoral penalty."
Four years ago, Douglas Kmiec, an anti-abortion former official in the Reagan administration, backed Obama, drawing widespread condemnation from fellow conservative Catholics. In a column last month in the liberal U.S. newspaper the National Catholic Reporter, Kmiec praised the University of Notre Dame for suing the administration over the narrow religious exemption in the birth control rule. In 2009, Notre Dame withstood intense criticism from American bishops and honored Obama, despite the president's support for abortion rights.
"Unwittingly, perhaps, the president has allowed his appointees to drift into the secular lane and stay there," Kmiec wrote.
Catholics, who comprised about one-quarter of the electorate in 2008, haven't voted in a bloc for decades, but the candidate who wins the most Catholic votes usually wins the election.
Some Democrats see no problem with consigning faith outreach to the sidelines. They argue that attempts to please moderate and conservative religious groups have kept Obama from fully enacting some policies important to party members. Among these critics are Democrats who consider church leaders' complaints about the scope of the birth control mandate an attempt to extend legal privileges to religious groups at the expense of women.
Advocates for faith outreach say that view is short-sighted, endangering the party and the president's re-election chances.
Keri B. Thompson, who specializes in political communication and teaches at Boston's Emerson College, had started volunteering for Obama when he ran for U.S. Senate from Illinois. In an interview after the White House briefing, Thompson said she was "thrilled" by the president's endorsement of gay marriage. But the day of Obama's statement, watching her Facebook page explode with comments, she said she saw some reservations amid the celebrating.
"There are some people in the religious community who are unsure," Thompson said. "I think they need to be brought to the table."