Will Harold Ford Jr.’s Religion-Heavy 2006 Campaign Unsettle New Yorkers?

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Photo: Christ Hondros/Getty Images

Out on the campaign trail, Harold Ford Jr. is fond of declaring, “I love Jesus, I just can’t help it.” He asks an audience to "heal and make whole this great country of ours" with "a renewed sense of faith." He decides to visit one particular bar because, he says, “my God is telling me to stop by.” He travels the state, handing out business cards with the Ten Commandments printed on the back, to demonstrate, he says, that he knows “the difference between right and wrong.” He claims that God “has smiled and looked down on this campaign." He films an ad in the pews of his own Baptist church.

If this was all transpiring during his current listening tour of New York — or later on, should he eventually decide to take on Kirsten Gillibrand — Ford would be on the receiving end of more than a few cockeyed expressions. But it happened in Tennessee, less than four years ago, in a hotly contested and ultimately unsuccessful Senate run against Republican Bob Corker.

Since his pseudo-campaign began here in early January, Ford has attempted to transform himself into a candidate more palatable to New Yorkers than the Tennessee centrist who once boasted that his record “doesn’t describe a liberal.” He quickly announced a newfound support for same-sex marriage, and has worked tirelessly to explain that, though he used to refer to himself as pro-life, he’s actually always been pro-choice (the president of NARAL New York recently conceded that Ford wasn’t “anti-choice” — but he wasn’t pro-choice, either). But less attention has been paid to his equally understandable departure from his former religio-centric campaign style.

During his 2006 campaign, Ford’s constant display of his religious faith, unusual for a Democrat, piqued the national media’s attention. “Ford's intertwining of the secular and the sacred would make many urban liberals squirm,” Jonathan Darman wrote in a Newsweek cover story. For some in the media, it was about time — MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, for one, commended Ford for not being “afraid to say the word God.”

Of course, all candidates have traits that they choose to minimize or emphasize for maximum political gain — as if turning the hot and cold knobs of a sink until the temperature is just right — and Ford clearly took pains to flaunt his love for God and Jesus before the deeply religious Tennessee electorate. But it wasn’t all just for show, either: As anyone who’s seen Ford quote Scripture from memory can attest, he really is that religious. “I know for Tennessee voters it was important for them to know about his faith, because it gives people insight into his core values,” says Peter Brodnitz, Ford’s pollster in that campaign. “But I have no reason to believe it was not sincere.” When MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson asked Ford if he was running as an “explicitly Christian” candidate, Ford responded, “I don’t know how else to be.”

Well, he’s found a different way to be in New York, and with good reason. In a recent Pew Survey measuring the religiousness of all 50 states, Tennessee was ranked fifth. New York was 41st. Only 46 percent of New Yorkers say that religion plays an important role in their lives, compared to 72 percent in Tennessee. Not to mention that a much larger chunk of New Yorkers — and Democrats in particular — aren’t Christians: In New York’s 2008 presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, according to a CNN exit poll, 16 percent of voters were Jewish, 6 percent were neither Christian nor Jewish, and 15 percent didn’t subscribe to any religion at all. Consequently, you’re more likely to find that “explicitly Christian” candidate in the files of Nexis than out on the stump.

In his place is a man who, while proud to discuss his faith (some of that Scripture reciting happened in upstate churches this January), is way less concerned with smacking voters over the head with it. Instead, in diners, schools, and senior centers around the state, Ford is hammering away on the themes of jobs, tax cuts, and independence from party bosses. Jesus? Not so much. Handing out business cards with the Ten Commandments printed on them? Now Ford is ingratiating himself to his would-be constituents by doling out tidbits of his New York know-how — name-dropping restaurants he visits, discussing his daily commute, even gushing over the city's smell, which is usually disgusting, actually, unless you're standing next to a Nuts 4 Nuts cart.

Ford wouldn’t directly comment on his 2006 campaign or the role religion would play for him in a New York run, but he did send over this statement:

“My faith has always been a deeply personal and important part of my life. As a young person, it taught me the difference between right and wrong. As I consider a possible run for Senate in New York, my faith and family will be central elements in that decision making process. I believe New Yorkers of all faiths, or none at all, can appreciate that.”

Of course, there's a big difference between harboring personal religious beliefs and the persistent proclamations of such beliefs in the public sphere. As we’ve seen with the fallout from his now-defunct positions on gays and abortion, Tennessee Ford is very much going to be an issue of any campaign New York Ford takes part in, and the former’s comfort with mixing God with politics in the not-too-distant past could make New Yorkers uneasy — and serve as yet another reminder that Ford has, indeed, spent nearly his entire life in the South, where that type of discourse is more acceptable. “Religion means something in Tennessee in a political sense. It doesn’t mean that here,” says Douglas Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. “In a sense, his public expression of his values just doesn’t fit the political culture in New York.”