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 Washington Notebook

December 8, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 44

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"It is not a myth that the Democratic National Committee doesn't understand religion."

Brenda Bartella Peterson,
an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, who, for eight days last summer, served as senior advisor for religious outreach at the Democratic National Committee


Kerry religion adviser recalls effort; Pro-choice community urged to value fetal life

By Joe Feuerherd

Politics is a rough business, presidential campaign politics unforgiving.

From the vantage point of a presidential campaign war room, particularly that of a challenger, molehills look like mountains, the trees obscure the forest. Perspective is lost.

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Which, it seems, is what happened to Brenda Bartella Peterson, an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, who, for eight days last summer, served as senior advisor for religious outreach at the Democratic National Committee.

A Kentucky native, Peterson's first fulltime foray into Washington politics came last year when she was tapped to head the newly-formed Clergy Leadership Network. CLN was one of the original "527 groups" -- political action committees first created by big-money Democrats (the Republicans eventually caught on) to circumvent the pesky restrictions on "soft money" contained in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act.

But unlike 527s founded by financier George Soros,, or numerous labor unions -- which poured hundreds of millions of dollars into parallel Kerry for President campaigns -- CLN never quite took off. The money never rolled in.

Yet Peterson was still a hot commodity, well thought of by Democrats who realized they needed to do something about their religion problem. So in June, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) made some inquiries: Would she be willing to come on board and head-up the party's religious outreach effort?

Recall what was happening that month. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, was running behind President Bush in national polls. Fewer than 10 percent of Americans viewed the Massachusetts senator as a man of "strong faith" -- an electoral death sentence for a presidential candidate in a nation where the overwhelming majority of voters want their president to embrace religious sentiments. In the Catholic world, the U.S. bishops met in early June and, behind closed doors, debated their approach to dealing with a pro-choice Catholic presidential candidate. Individual bishops condemned not only Kerry, but suggested that Catholics who voted for him were committing a serious sin.

Then, on June 14, Kerry campaign religious outreach director Mara Vanderslice came under attack from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. "Her resume is that of a person looking for a job working for Fidel Castro, not John Kerry," chirped Catholic League president William Donohue. Vanderslice would keep her job, but plans to make her the public face of religious outreach were scrapped in the face of Donohue's blast.

Significantly, in a strategy of appeasement that would foreshadow Peterson's fate, the Kerry campaign allowed Bill Donohue to dictate how it would deploy its staff. Donohue's power, such as it is, rests with his access to the media. A favorite of cable television bookers, he uses that platform to shadow box with those he declares a threat to religion. The Kerry camp, fighting and losing on so many fronts, had no stomach for such a battle.

The Kerry religious outreach effort was, in short, a major mess.

Peterson was to be part of the solution to that problem. She took the DNC job just prior to the Democratic Convention in August. She got off to a strong start, working "radio row" at the convention, getting the Kerry-as-man-of-faith message out to newspaper reporters and on television.

And then, on Aug. 2, Donohue distributed another press release. "Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson was one of thirty-two clergy members to file an amicus curiae brief in behalf of Michael Newdow's attempt to excise the words 'under God' from the Pledge of Allegiance," it noted. "The brief shows infinitely more concern for the sensibilities of atheists than it does for the 90 percent of Americans who believe in God. And this is the person the Democrats want to dispatch to meet with the heads of religious organizations? Are they out of their minds?" Two more Catholic League releases were issued over the next two days.

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Peterson resigned Aug. 4. A loyalist, she said at the time that she was leaving the campaign because it was "no longer possible for me to do my job effectively." In fact, she was pushed -- forced to resign because in the view of the campaign her position on the pledge made her an untenable campaign spokesperson, a distraction they could not afford.

The Kerry campaign had moved beyond allowing Donohue to decide how it deployed staff; he now had a veto over whom the DNC employed, at least in the area of religious outreach. An indication of a deeper problem in the Kerry campaign and the Democratic Party? Free to talk following Kerry's defeat, Peterson thinks so.

The campaign didn't really understand who Donohue was or where he fit on the Catholic-religious continuum, says Peterson. She viewed him as a partisan, a member of the religious right intent on discrediting people of faith who signed on with Kerry. If it hadn't been her signature on the "under God" amicus brief, she says, "Donohue would have found something else."

(The fact that DNC officials either didn't do a Google search on Peterson prior to hiring her -- which would have revealed her signature on the amicus brief -- or did one and dismissed it as irrelevant, has more to do with their competence than with their ideology.)

Peterson makes no apologies for signing onto the amicus brief, calling it a "principled position." She believes she could have been effective in the job.

Bigger picture: "It is not a myth that the Democratic National Committee doesn't understand religion," says Peterson. The natural connection party officials have with labor or environmental groups -- a sense of the players, who is important and who is less so -- is not present with religious groups beyond African-American churches, says Peterson.

It is regrettable but true, says Peterson, that "11:00 a.m. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in our nation." To be competitive, says Peterson, Democrats have to reach out beyond their base and develop relationships with a broad range of denominations and congregations. Such an approach, well-executed, might have shaved two or three or four percentage points off Bush's margins among white Protestants and Catholics.

Perhaps the DNC officials who canned Peterson were right to do so. It's true that her signature on the amicus brief would have been, at a minimum, a minor annoyance. And with fewer than 100 days to the general election, the campaign needed no additional problems.

Or maybe, just maybe, they should have shown some backbone. Stuck with the one they brought to the dance.

But why expect courage on the small stuff when so little was shown on the bigger issues? Peterson's pledge problem was a molehill, not a mountain, a tree in crowded woods, not a forest. The cautious Kerry campaign and the DNC, however, didn't know the difference.


"The youngest of teens should not have to face an abortion or any medical procedure alone. This is not just about rights; it is a matter of health, safety and compassion."

Another pro-life plea for parental consent laws? Well, not quite.

The quote is from an essay, "Is There Life after Roe?" by Catholics for a Free Choice president Frances Kissling published in the current issue of Conscience, the organization's quarterly magazine.

"Surely," asks Kissling, "we agree that young women aged 13, 14, 15 (and even older) need their parents at this time? And surely, [the response of prochoice activists] which implies that only teens who are at risk from their parents choose not to tell them, rings hollow in the ears of most parents who know that their kids are loathe to tell them where they are going on Saturday afternoon, let alone that they are pregnant?"

Says Kissling: "The precise moment when the fetus becomes a person is less important than a simple acknowledgement that whatever category of human life the fetus is, it nonetheless has value, it is not nothing."

On efforts to ban late-term abortions, including "partial birth abortions," Kissling says she is "convinced that the negative reaction of some Catholic leaders to Senator Kerry's candidacy was based on his opposition to banning this procedure. In the absence of any other way for prochoice legislators to express a concern about abortion, this bill and others like it became the only way people might have come to believe that prochoice does not mean proabortion. It is as if we demand that our political supporters mask moral concern and merely uphold legal rights because we fear that the expression of any sadness for the loss of fetal life will be interpreted as weakness."

Kissling argues that by grappling with the value of fetal life the prochoice movement will be strengthened. "Why should we allow this value to be owned by those opposed to abortion? Are we not capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time; of valuing life and respecting women's rights?"

Ultimately, Kissling gives little ground. On the aforementioned example of parental consent legislation, for example, she suggests more funding for additional counseling programs, not legal proscriptions, to promote child-parent discussions.

Still, there are few voices in the hardened abortion debate who challenge their side's assumptions or tactics. Kissling has posed some provocative questions for her allies in the prochoice movement, particularly those who see any discussion of such questions at such a delicate political time as a potential misstep on the slippery-slope to overturning Roe v. Wade.

Whether they choose to help answer them is another question altogether.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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