Faith and Shoe leather: Chris Coons 92 M.A.R. and Rebekah Davis 06 M.Div. campaign for U.S. Senate, House of Representatives

By Frank Brown
Assistant Director, Publications

In one of the most volatile election cycles in recent memory, two Yale Divinity School graduates are running uphill campaigns for federal office against opponents who by conventional wisdom enjoy considerable advantages. Both are responding to the challenge with old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning, taking their messages directly to the voters.

CoonsChristopher Coons  ’92 M.A.R., a Delaware Democrat with a legal background and commitment to social justice issues, is running for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Vice President Joseph Biden

Rebekah Davis ’06 M.Div. is the Democratic nominee in Nebraska’s Third Congressional District, a vast, rural area that last sent a Democrat to Congress in 1935. Her feisty, barebones campaign is seeking to unseat Adrian Smith, a two-term Republican with financial support vastly superior to that of Davis, who has refused special interest funding. Traveling mostly solo in her 2002 Oldsmobile, Davis, a hospital chaplain, has logged 100,000 miles canvassing each of the district’s 69 counties. In Delaware, Coons is in a tight race against former governor and current U.S. Representative Mike Castle.

Coons, the elected head of New Castle County government, has been gaining in polls and is counting on strong support from a locally popular Biden. At Yale, Coons earned an M.A.R. in ethics at YDS and completed a J.D. from the Law School. While a student in New Haven, he volunteered at a legal clinic for the homeless and as a pastoral intern.

In a recent interview with YDS’s publications office, both Davis and Coons spoke animatedly about how the Divinity School helped shape their approaches to issues and decisions to enter political life.

Rebekah Davis ’06 M.Div.
A Democrat and a Christian

One question I often get on the campaign trail is—someone who has met me in the context perhaps of being their chaplain or as a guest homilist, will say to me in all sincerity after the service, when they find out I am also running for office: “You’re a Democrat? I thought you were a Christian?” What’s funny about that is it’s not actually said with malice. It’s said in all sincerity. And I can see the cognitive dissonance that this person is experiencing...There is a definite connection between the reasons between why I attended YDS and why I am running for public office. Because in my heart of hearts I see running for this congressional seat as a form of public service and statesmanship on the same way that I see YDS having a formation in cementing a lot of my deeply held convictions that, as people of faith, we should be active.

Nuance and the sanctity of life

More than anything, my YDS education instilled in me an appreciation for nuance.  My time as a student undoubtedly furthered and deepened my appreciation for the ‘gray areas.’  There is not a crystal clear delineation for so many things in life. In my case, I do feel that the government does have a legitimate role that should be played in a public policy which works to greatly reduce the number of abortions in our country knowing full well that no woman, at least to my knowledge, who has ever faced an unplanned pregnancy has called John Roberts or Anthony Scalia to say, “What should I do?” The reality is women who are facing an unplanned pregnancy will have a very different take on what their options are if we have implemented a policy in our country allowing women who need health care when they’re pregnant to actually have access to health care, knowing that the sanctity of life is not just the sanctity of life in utero but concern for those who come into this world and funding for programs such as special education, such as health care for kids.  One thing that I’m confronted by is how many of my fellow candidates who call themselves pro-life often end up being the same candidates who vote against things like health care funding for kids and educational funding and are often people who support the death penalty.

...And some have said, “Well you say you’re pro-life. Does that mean that you are advocating for a change of Roe v. Wade?” And I remind people that many who are pro-life candidates make that their platform - that they are seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade. In reality, I think that is not the best approach in terms of actually reducing abortions in our country, not least of all because overturning Roe v. Wade simply returns the question to the state. And that in reality, I think our best efforts in terms of reducing abortion in this country stem from having robust social programs in place, such as funding sex education in our schools, and prenatal care for women who are not able to afford it.

Health care

I continue to go out of my way to tell voters the reason why I support healthcare reform. I experienced firsthand the tragedy of seeing patients die, precisely because they lost their coverage when they needed it the most. … [In the hospital where I am a chaplain,] a 38-year-old mother came in the ER complaining of chest pains. An EKG was run. She was not having a heart attack. We pulled her records to find out that she was diagnosed with cervical cancer the year before. It was precisely at that time [that] she was dropped from her coverage. And not willing to lose her home, not wanting to go into financial peril, she simply stopped going to her treatments. She could not pay for it out of pocket. A year later she comes back in and what was causing the chest pains was that the cancer had metastasized throughout her body. I was with her during her stay and I happened to be the chaplain on call the night she died at three in the morning. I was the one to tell her 8-year-old daughter that her mother had died, knowing full well that there was no rational explanation to tell her. …Her mother was dropped from her coverage, precisely when she needed it the most. 

Campaigning across two time zones on a shoestring

DavisThis is an area that covers 69 counties. It is 65,000 square miles and I just put 100,000 miles on my car – actually, over that - since the start of my campaign 21 months ago.…I grew up here, I knew how big this state was but even I was shocked by just how vast this district really is. I only made two pledges at the beginning of this campaign because I don’t believe candidates should be in the business of making promises they may or may not be able to keep.  [My first pledge was] to spend meaningful time in each of the 69 counties.  I did that before the primary. I am now working on loop two through each of the 69 counties for the general election. And, the second pledge was that I would not accept special interest money.

Voters’ top three questions

You might be surprised by this but, undoubtedly, the top three questions I get when I am canvassing door-to-door or local businesses are, not necessarily in this order: First, What do you feel are the rights of the unborn? Second, where do you stand on the Second Amendment? And the third question is, what does my husband do for a living? The irony there is that I am not married but I think it shows an assumption by people in this area about someone my age – a perception that by my age, I should be married, with children. This can be a stumbling block. = …I haven’t accomplished some [of] the things some feel I should have by the age of 28.

Win or lose, a life-changing experience

For me, the biggest thing I take from all of these months of campaigning is that ultimately these races are about something far more important than just the candidates running. It’s about how we as voters approach the system, how we engage the debate and what issues we choose to focus on. …I think - going back to YDS - my unequivocal belief in equality for all people, really does stem from the biblical idea that in God there is neither a Jew nor a Greek. We have all these modern-day obstacles towards equality and if candidates choose to make these races about issues above and beyond just party affiliations, or just the current trigger issues of the day, I think that says a lot about the future of our system…This experience has shown me there is a lot to be said in terms of the person-to-person connections we can make to change how people engage with politics as a whole.

Chris Coons ’92 M.A.R.
Decision to attend YDS

My YDS education was an opportunity to crystallize, through formal training, through reflection, and through the divinity school community, experiences I had before I got there. …Those experiences, whether they were faith or cultural or economic or political experiences in Kenya and South Africa and all over the US - first with The Coalition for the Homeless and then with the I Have a Dream Foundation - pushed me to want to have some better grounding in my own faith. I had not taken any religion coursework in college. I audited one class at Union Theological with Cornel West when I was at the Coalition for the Homeless in New York and realized I strongly needed and wanted some grounding in traditions and doctrines of my own faith.

CoonsOutside the YDS classroom

Ultimately, I did a fair amount of work in the New Haven community around housing and homelessness and education and scholarship opportunities. I was an active leader in the housing and homelessness clinic at the law school and a group of us as law students sued the governor of Connecticut successfully on behalf of 1,200 homeless families and children in my first and second years of law school, which was quite sort of a challenging experience.  In my last year in New Haven and then actively for a few years after my Yale Divinity School experience, I helped launch the I Have a Dream Foundation which provided college tuition scholarships for a whole class of kids from East Rock. Both of those were practical, hands-on experiences of trying to put the educational and faith-formation experience of YDS into practice in the world.  I spent one of the three years I was affiliated with YDS as a student pastor intern at Downtown Cooperative Ministry with Sam Slie.  [Sam Slie ’52 M.Div., 63 S.T.M., was a lecturer at Yale Divinity in religion in higher education in 1965-75 and 1980-83 and served for 11 years as associate University Pastor with William Sloane Coffin Jr. at the Church of Christ at Yale.]

Political life at Yale

I volunteered briefly on Rosa DeLauro’s campaign [to represent the New Haven area in the U.S. House of Representatives]. I volunteered in ’90 on Harvey Gantt’s campaign [for U.S. Senate] in North Carolina briefly. I was interested in politics. I would say most of my life I have weighed whether I would end up as a preacher, professor or politician. I have always been interested in communicating with others, values-based leadership and helping form and sustain a positive community. A lot of the process of my discernment was figuring out which of these areas I had gifts that I needed to put to work in the world and which of these areas I had interests or hobbies but was not particularly skilled. Let’s just hope I’ve chosen wisely!

Values-based leadership rooted in a practical approach

I’ve always been someone who enjoys the challenge of integrating across the practical and the values based. My undergraduate education was in chemistry and political science. My graduate education was in law and ethics at the Divinity School. And, I have found that in my public service career here in Delaware I have enjoyed both the practical, hands-on, operating role of county executive where I am charged with operating and managing a government efficiently and delivering valued public services, at the same time that I’m engaged in the much broader outreach and public community leading and values formation role of being an elected official. 

Real world application of a YDS education

The majority of the county is unincorporated, so I’m involved in a wide range of things from public works to parks and libraries, to housing and senior services, to public safety and emergency management, to job creation and economic development. It’s a great way for me to apply the principles and values that were honed at YDS. I have also taken on the opportunity to continue a lay ministry role. I have preached twice this year at predominantly African American churches in Wilmington. I‘ve preached relatively regularly over the last decade, more typically at Presbyterian churches, and I find that both a challenging and rewarding experience.

Faith and leadership

I would think that the YDS experience helped me be clearer about my faith and about its role in forming a leader, and being able to listen to and hear the concerns of people up and down the state of Delaware from a faith perspective.  We are overwhelmingly a nation of people of faith, but as I’ve worked as an elected official, I have worked to make it clear that I respect and value those that have no faith in a higher being. I think it is an important principle in a pluralistic democracy. Most people want to know what I’m going to do to generate jobs, to rein in federal spending, to strengthen education, to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and none of those on the face of them initially seem to be questions that indicate what religious tradition you might come from. But helping a community make tough choices in a fair and responsible way to me is all about values-based leadership.

Shoe leather and the mechanics of winning

Delaware is remarkably small, but what makes this winnable as a race where my likely opponent will outspend me by at least a million dollars is the very small number of people whose votes I need to change in order to be successful. Six months [ago], when I got in, there were polls that showed me, I think, 28 or 29 points back. There are polls in the last few weeks that show me 11 points back. That distance I’ve closed with shoe leather and persistent active engagement up and down the state. We have hundreds of volunteers working on the campaign. The number of people whose votes we need to change – if you do the math – is about 28,000. And this is an electoral environment in which the president and vice president are still fairly popular in Delaware, the state and county government have delivered balance budgets on time in the last two years, and we have made some real progress in creating new jobs. It’s a really different political economy than in the rest of the country. 

Spending significant family money on the campaign

My wife is very engaged and committed to this campaign. Ultimately it was a difficult personal decision to invest that much of our personal savings but we both believe that the country is at a very tough moment in its history and it’s worth risking this much personally on the outcome of the race.

Gratitude for YDS classmates’ encouragement

Whether it’s messages by Facebook or e-mail, whether it’s contributions of prayer, time, money, or voluntarism, any sort of encouragement or support means a great deal.