By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Finding Jesus
ConnectSavannah Import Default Image
Ever since its development in the ‘70s as a place for successful Northeastern business executives to retire, The Landings on Skidaway Island has been known as the most Republican area of Chatham County.

In the 2000 election, 3500 voters on Skidaway Island voted for George W. Bush. Only 748 voted for Al Gore.

Cut to 2004. Despite another dismal election cycle for Democrats, a group with the once oxymoronic name of Skidaway Island Democrats has become “one of the most dynamic organizations in the area right now,” in the words of its president, Tom Oxnard -- who seems a little amazed himself.

In a couple of years, the Skidaway Democrats have gone from 60 members to over 140. A recent fundraiser the group held for Democratic Senate candidate Denise Majette raised $7500 in one night.

Karl Rove probably isn’t losing any sleep over those numbers. But in the intimate world of Chatham County politics, where word of mouth trumps TV advertising, those statistics represent a real and growing force.

Oxnard’s work paid off this past Nov. 2. On Skidaway Island, George W. Bush got 3600 votes, 100 more than in 2000. But John Kerry got 960 votes -- a whopping 28 percent increase over 2000.

Certainly no one expects Skidaway Island to go Democratic in our lifetime. But the remarkable success of the Skidaway Island Democrats points out the party’s current dilemma: How to reconcile their great local renaissance with their continuing failure nationwide?

Democrats in Chatham County indeed made remarkable gains this past election. John Kerry got 51 percent of Chatham County’s vote. Pete Liakakis easily bested Republican Frank Murray to become chairman of the Chatham County commission.

Pat Shay trounced incumbent Republican county commissioner John McMasters. And Democrat John Barrow narrowly defeated incumbent Republican Congressman Max Burns.

Interestingly, despite their contempt for George W. Bush, not a single local Democrat we talked said they would trade those local victories away for a Kerry win.

But all of them wrestle with the question of how the party will stay relevant outside the borders of Chatham County -- if it’s not already too late.

And part and parcel of that question is how the party will deal with the increasing importance of faith and values in American politics.

“I’ve got a confession to make,” said local party chairman Rex Templeton at a recent post-election meeting of Chatham Democrats at a southside restaurant.

“I actually felt elated on election night,” he said. “I decided early on that there’s absolutely nothing we here can do about the rest of Georgia or the United States. But we can certainly focus on attaining goals here within the ‘state of Chatham,’ as people used to call us.”

The impassioned meeting of local Democrats contained a cross-section of factions, from old-school conservatives on one side to grassroots activists inspired by the presidential bid of Howard Dean on the other.

They all had two things in common: extreme dismay at Bush’s re-election, and barely contained anger at what they insist is the Republicans’ hypocritical use of religion as an election issue.

Though the issue of the Republicans’ use of state gay marriage bans to turn out voters was a hot topic of discussion, gay rights itself was not. The emphasis was pragmatic, focusing on the larger issue of faith itself and how the party should deal with it in the wake of Nov. 2.

Templeton was a candidate himself this past election, a late fill-in to oppose State Sen. Eric Johnson after longtime Hinesville Democrat Rene Kemp dropped out at the last minute.

Though he never expected to win his race, Templeton said the election results showed some disturbing trends for Georgia Democrats in general.

“If you look at the voting results from the islands area on a map, you see what we’re up against,” he said. “I don’t see us in the near future taking back those islands.”

Additionally, Templeton said, the urban/rural divide and the black/white divide are both greater than ever.

“As a party we have lost the rural white vote in this state. You drive out in the country and you’ll see a guy with a broken-down truck in his yard, he’s late on all his payments, he makes $8 an hour -- and he’s got a Bush/Cheney sign in his yard,” Templeton said.

“And looking at the results in my own race, it was amazing how outside of Savannah the vote broke almost exactly along racial lines,” he added.

Indeed, outside of Chatham County and Atlanta’s Fulton County, Georgia Democrats are a quickly vanishing breed. One man who is finding that out the hard way is Democratic Savannah Rep. Tom Bordeaux.

After handily beating back a primary challenge this summer -- rumored to have been engineered by Republicans eager to oust him as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee -- Bordeaux ran unopposed in November only to see his party lose majority status for the first time since Reconstruction.

“We knew the other side would be able to persuade some members to switch from Democrat to Republican. But by every estimate, we really thought we would hold the House,” Bordeaux said at the same recent meeting of local Democrats. We thought 98 Democrats would come back to the House. We now have 81.”

Many at the meeting placed the blame for the Democrat’s current predicament at the feet of the party leadership itself, especially in Washington.

“The Democratic National Committee did not take the South seriously,” insisted Jack Star, local educator and activist.

“They did not establish a presence at the precinct level here, like the Republicans did,” Star said. “John Edwards should have campaigned in the South, but instead they muzzled him and sent him to places where he wouldn’t do as much good.”

Templeton agreed that Democrats really have no one to blame but themselves for the party’s poor showing with rural whites.

“That’s a mistake we have made,” he said. “We’ve not presented them with a platform.”

Joe Steffen, a local attorney who is vice chairman of the Chatham County Democrats, echoed Templeton’s remarks with a haunting anecdote of his own.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard otherwise good, decent people say things like, ‘I can’t vote for Kerry. Don’t you know he’s Satanic and wants to stick a knife in little unborn babies?’ Steffen said, shaking his head.

“The Republicans have hung this label around us, but we’ve done our share,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of it to ourselves.”

The issue of faith -- and how to address it -- is at the heart of Democrats’ current soul-searching. Some exit polls showed that “values” were the single most important factor for as many a fifth of voters this November, trumping Iraq, outsourced jobs, terrorism and the skyrocketing cost of health care.

Currently, there seem to be two views on religion within the Democratic party:

One faction maintains that church and state should always be completely separate. Any discussion of faith, they say, simply plays into a cynical Republican ploy to demonize liberals -- literally, in this case -- as anti-religion.

“We can’t out-Christian the Christians,” counseled Tom Bordeaux. “We have to keep speaking to bread and butter issues that really affect people. In the end, voters always respond most to bread and butter issues.”

But the other faction, in the ascendancy since Nov. 2, says that if faith is sincerely important to that many voters, then the Democratic Party should sincerely make an effort to connect with them on that issue.

Emphasis on the word sincerely.

The Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson, a local United Methodist minister, told the gathering of Savannah Democrats that many Americans form their worldview on the basis of religion -- and simply do not respond to arguments that don’t take spirituality into account.

“If you don’t talk about faith, you’re just not going to reach some people,” Nelson said. “If you don’t go to certain places and talk about Jesus, they’re just not going to listen.”

Rex Templeton framed Nelson’s argument in starkly pragmatic terms.

“If you accept that 20 percent of voters vote on issues of faith, we can’t afford to write them off,” he said. “You can’t win an election if you give away 20 percent of the vote right off the bat.”

Templeton said the party’s issues with religion are not new.

“As a party, we’ve made so much of an effort to be politically correct,” he said. “I remember one meeting where before the minister said a prayer, he was asked if he wouldn’t mention Jesus so he wouldn’t offend anyone at the meeting who wasn’t a Christian.”

But a consensus is emerging that Democrats could make a stronger case to Christians based on Jesus’s admonitions to help the poor and the sick and “the least of these.”

One local minister who takes that exhortation from the book of Matthew to heart every working day is the Rev. Micheal Elliott, executive director of Union Mission, a successful non-partisan nonprofit that helps the homeless.

Elliott says if Democrats look to the New Testament to guide them through their current political wilderness, it would very much be a return to their roots.

“In the past, Democrats passed initiatives like Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and Clinton’s war on homelessness. There were a lot of spiritual undertones behind those things,” Elliott says.

“But they’ve drifted away from their core values over the last few years, and that quote from Matthew 25 is a big piece of that core,” he says. “The Democrats now have to do some reframing.”

So in answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?” many Democrats say He would probably support more of their party’s platform than the Republican platform, especially on economic justice issues and civil rights. Wage equity, protecting jobs and Social Security, and containing health care costs are all ways Democrats could follow up faith with works, as the New Testament teaches.

However, many observers stress that simply spouting off Biblical quotes out of context and unaccompanied by action will only hurt Democrats in the long run.

“Some of the faith-based stuff that Bush has done is interesting and intriguing,” Elliott says. “The Republicans are at least trying to do some things, whereas the Democrats for a long time have given it mostly lip service.”

Joe Steffen spoke passionately on this subject, stressing that an appeal to faith has to be more than just focus-group window dressing.

Holding up a Bible, Steffen said, “This is the playbook for millions of people out there. I mean, this is it. If you want to appeal to those voters, you have to read this and understand it. It’s not enough to just throw out a few Bible quotes. If you’ve ever heard a middle-aged white man trying to rap, then you know what that would sound like to a person of faith.”

If the Democrats currently suffer a credibility gap on religion, many observers agree that filling that void was an effort by predominantly white churches -- evangelical and Roman Catholic alike -- to endorse George W. Bush and Republicans down the ticket.

One woman said before the election she was in a church where the minister, without ever actually saying the name “Bush,” made it abundantly clear which candidate he expected his congregation to vote for.

But Templeton, with the voice of experience, said that’s largely a case of what goes around, comes around.

“We’ve got to be careful about pointing fingers there,” he counseled. “I can remember many a time when ministers in local African-American churches have come out and told their congregations to vote Democratic.”

Despite the uncertain future they now face, Georgia Democrats can take hope from one state where their party did surprisingly well this November, in a race where religion did not play a major role.

Montana -- which gave Bush 59 percent of its vote -- not only elected a Democratic governor in a near-landslide, but gave Democrats control of one of the two state houses and four of five statewide offices.

Montana is very different from Georgia in that it’s overwhelmingly white and outside the Bible Belt. But the states are similar in that both went strongly for Bush, and both have large rural populations with firmly established gun cultures (Montana has the highest percentage of hunters in the U.S.)

Montana’s new Democratic governor-elect, Brian Schweitzer, campaigned to his state’s gun owners on deeply personal terms: An outdoorsman himself, he convinced Montana ranchers and hunters that protecting the environment was the best way to ensure their hunting and fishing rights in perpetuity.

By explicitly calling for more state ownership of land in order to “keep Republicans from selling it to the highest bidder,” as he put it, Schweitzer was able to turn the traditional conservative distrust of government on its head -- enlisting bureaucracy as a friend of property rights rather than an enemy.

As former Schweitzer staffer David Sirota put it in Washington Monthly, Schweitzer’s “success in using outdoorsmen's priorities helped him bridge a cultural divide that ultimately allowed voters to hear a message they already know deep down is true: that the GOP has sold out its small business roots and has abused power when left unchecked.”

It was a bold strategy of political jujitsu that may or may not have a prayer of working in Georgia. But in its success may lie whatever chance Democrats have of remaining competitive in the Peach State and beyond.

This is the first of an ongoing series exploring faith and politics. Coming soon: local clergy on the theology behind bringing values into action.

To comment on this article, e-mail us at