It was the fall of 2002 and Democrats were in a pickle. Still smarting from losing the White House via a Supreme Court decision two years earlier, they saw a post-9/11 country rallying around George W. Bush. A heady mix of fear and patriotic fervor had produced a rainbow of threat alerts, violations of civil liberties, and an inexorable march toward an ill-conceived war with Iraq. The party was desperate to find a candidate who could beat Bush in 2004.
I was in something of a tight spot as well. Nearing thirty, I was in my first semester of a doctoral program in sociology at Princeton and had already realized I'd made a terrible mistake. All I wanted to do was write about religion and politics. But when my professors told me I wrote "like a journalist," they didn't mean it as a compliment. Unless I wanted to emerge from academia sounding like a human regression analysis, I needed another outlet for my ideas.
One pitch email, seven months, and a few thousand drafts later, "Do the Democrats Have a Prayer?" ran as the Washington Monthly's June 2003 cover story, and I had found my calling.
In the article, I applied my academic research to the problem Democrats faced. Although my Princeton colleagues would have chided me for drawing conclusions from an impossibly small sample, I focused on the fact that the only two successful Democratic presidential candidates for nearly four decades were Southern Baptists who were comfortable with the language and culture of faith. "To become America's majority party again," I predicted, "Democrats will have to get religion."
Eager to dispel the assumption that religious communities were homogenous blocs, I borrowed and coined a few pithy phrases to describe "freestyle evangelicals" and "convertible Catholics," two cohorts I thought Democrats should court. I analyzed the ways in which Bush sought to communicate his affinity with Christian voters both overtly (through faith-based initiatives) and subtly (by, for example, referring to "wonder-working power" in a State of the Union speech). And I pointed out that national Democrats most often did the opposite: At the time, John Kerry argued that his identity as a Catholic had no bearing on his role as a senator, and Al Gore stopped talking about religion entirely after pundits mocked him for ruminating on the evangelical catchphrase "What would Jesus do?" In hindsight, I put too much emphasis on the language that politicians used and not enough on the long-term...