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Hillary Gets Burns

John on December 13, 2006 at 11:25 am

According to The Hill newspaper, Hillary has just hired the faith outreach guru from the House Democratic Caucus, Burns Strider:

Strider now heads religious outreach for the House Democratic Caucus, and is the lead staffer for the Democrats’ Faith Working Group, headed by incoming Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) created the working group in 2005 when Democratic strategists recognized that the party lost ground in the previous election because of trouble appealing to centrist and conservative voters in rural areas, who tend to be church-goers driven by moral issues. Strider was an aide to Pelosi when the group formed and joined Clyburn’s staff as policy director of the Democratic Caucus in 2006.

Strider’s move to Clinton’s camp suggests that Democrats will woo so-called faith voters in the 2008 election. The plan is buoyed by the Democrats’ success in winning over religious voters in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania in the midterm elections.

This hasn’t worked out so well for the Dems in the past:

Religion was given considerable lip service by candidates seeking election as chair of the Democratic National Committee. The eventual winner, Howard Dean, said that Democrats are “definitely going to do religious outreach.” Some observers have been skeptical, recalling that Dean, former governor of Vermont, cited the Old Testament book of Job as his favorite New Testament text during his presidential primary bid in 2004.

Perhaps more significant stumbles took place at the party level last summer, when many Democrats were urging candidate John Kerry and the party to become more conversant with faith issues and constituencies. Kerry, unwilling to talk much about his Catholic faith, addressed a range of moral-political issues such as heath care, environmental protection, and disparities between rich and poor. Meanwhile, President Bush, GOP leaders and the Religious Right were framing the “faith and values” debate around the fight against gay marriage, abortions and terrorism.

The Democrats twice added religious advisers, then suddenly pulled back on each of them. In June, not long after Kerry’s team appointed Mara Vanderslice, a socially liberal evangelical, as director for religious outreach, party officials told her not to talk to the press. In August the DNC’s newly named senior adviser for religious outreach, Brenda Bartella Peterson, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister, was asked to resign after only eight days on the job.

Both steps were taken after William Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, fired off news releases pointing to issues in the two appointees’ pasts. “Why are Kerry and the DNC imploding on religion?” Donohue asked. “Because too many of the elites running the show are devout secularists who put a premium on freedom from religion.”

Sounds like Burns (Burns is a middle name, first name Jesse) is quite a bit more sincere than Howard Dean:

“I believe strongly in the power of faith in the public arena,” said Strider. Strider met his wife Karen while performing mission services in Hong Kong and China. Karen was a missionary in Japan at the time, he said. Strider said that while growing up he attened the Nazarene Church in Tallahatchie County. After searching several congregations in Washington, D.C., he decided to attend the United Methodist Church with his family, he said. Strider said working 16-hour days makes it difficult for him to spend time with his family. He and Karen have two boys Will, 5, and Pete, 3, who are the center of his life.

This Religion News Service story describes him as “the matchmaker”:

Burns Strider’s business card says he’s the policy director for the Democratic Party Caucus. But that title masks another role he plays for the
party: matchmaker between politicians and religious leaders.

Strider, 40, is a former senior aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who chose the amiable adviser to shepherd the House Democratic Faith Working Group. There, Burns, who considers himself both a Methodist and a Southern Baptist, has cultivated a broad and devoted network of clergy and others in the faith community.

“He probably does more than anyone on the staff level to move this thing forward,” said Eric Sapp, a partner at Common Good Strategies, a Democratic consulting firm. “He’s got the ear of a lot of people.”

Strider sets up sessions with Democratic lawmakers, clergy and leaders of faith-based groups — the type of “it’s-about-time” meetings that Democrats need to do more often, Strider said. The two biggest mistakes either party can make are to ignore and to manipulate faith communities, he claims.

“Both of these result in the same thing,” he said. “Either way you are going to suffer in the long run.”

Plenty of religious groups share similar agendas on the environment, poverty and foreign aid with Democrats, but they had not met until Strider brought them together.

“Too many times, we tend to say people of faith are here, and Democrats are (over) here,” he said, gesturing toward opposite ends of a long table.

If he is sincere, I think this is probably a good thing. I’d much rather argue over who does a better job representing people of faith than over whether or not we’re creeping toward theocracy. Still, it’s hard to imagine Hillary Clinton in the same light. If Hillary is a believer, as the Hill story above is at pains to suggest, she has done a pretty good job hiding it. One can certainly be a liberal Christian, but at some point the Christianity part of it ought to have some noticeable effect on the liberal part. I don’t see that with Hillary, but it’s certainly possible that Burns does. If so, I’m willing to give him a respectful hearing.

So, Burns, if you want to communicate to some skeptical but interested conservative Christians, I’d sincerely love to do an interview with you by phone or e-mail. You can contact me through this blog. I promise not to publish that picture of you with the big fish!

[HT: Michelle Malkin for the Hill story]

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Category: Religion & Faith |

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