by Scott Winship
There are a lot of things I don’t understand. (No, it’s true.) I’ve never understood the appeal of The Big Lebowski, for instance. I don’t understand how Cops could have had higher ratings than Arrested Development. And I don’t get how anyone can enjoy the taste and texture of coconut.
Similarly, I think a lot of progressives are confused about the values gap. (Not at all a strained transition there.) For example, many seem to believe that the answer to Democrats’ problems is for our candidates to find religion or fake it. This is frankly ridiculous. Religious beliefs are among the most personal we have. No one can be expected to change their beliefs out of electoral concerns. And good luck faking greater devotion. The bottom line is that Democratic politicians are disproportionately drawn from (relatively) secular areas and segments of the population compared with Republicans. Absent an active campaign at the party level to change this, it’s unlikely that Democrats will end up more outwardly religious in the future.
The question is: is this a problem? I could make an argument that it is not. The U.S. is among the most religious nations in the world, but faith remains a mostly private matter. Over three quarters of the population says that religion is an important part of their life, yet little more than half pray everyday, and only a third attend religious services weekly. The latter are roughly equally divided between Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. (This all comes from the National Election Study of 2004.)
On the other hand, ceding to the Republicans so many of those for whom religion is an important factor in their voting is quite a consequential decision in a nation so closely divided politically.
A number of Democrats are themselves devout, but few are comfortable with and effective at describing how their faith affects their life or policy orientation. Amy Sullivan has a must-read piece in Slate on Barack Obama’s recent speech on faith and politics. She clearly outlines how the speech shows the way for Democrats struggling to connect with religious audiences.
The problem is that Obama can reach the devout largely because he is one of them. Other than Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who could both cite scripture effortlessly, no Democratic nominee going back over 40 years has conveyed that religious faith was an important influence on their politics.
This conundrum leaves few possible strategies for Democratic nominees running in places where religious faith cannot be ignored. I disagree with those who counsel “reframing” on the theory that values voters are just voting on “values” per se rather than on specific values they hold. It is as if the problem is what gets defined as an important values issue rather than the poor performance among voters for whom current values issues are important. I don’t deny that many religious Americans who oppose abortion and gay marriage also support greater generosity toward the poor. But the problem is that too large a fraction of them decide their vote on the basis of abortion or gay marriage instead of greater support for the poor. It is not that they don’t understand the parties’ positions on these issues – if redistribution is more important to them than banning abortion, they will vote for the Democrat.
At this point, you’re probably asking, “But what should we do, Scott? Show us the way, o ye car-less sage.” No? Well, let me offer my two cents anyway. Candidates who are themselves religious yet pro-choice or in favor of gay marriage should be prepared to discuss how they reconcile their faith and these relatively liberal positions. Bill Clinton is perhaps the master in this regard.
More-secular candidates should be up front about their views rather than trying to skirt these questions with poll-tested pablum (“Abortion is a decision between a woman and her doctor.” “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.”). The data does not support those who think that conventional progressive absolutist positions on abortion and gay marriage command majority support. Nonetheless, secular candidates can pick and choose their fights more carefully, acknowledge the lack of consensus on controversial issues, promote incremental measures that move the country toward their goals, push for state experimentation, and adopt rhetoric and tone more consistent with public opinion. This is how the President deals with abortion, rather than espousing a loud-and-proud anti-abortion agenda.
Addressing the values gap doesn’t require that progressives clothe themselves in an entirely new moral wardrobe. But it does require that we wear the occasional conservative suit when we would rather be “fashion forward”, that we throw out those garments in our closet that never fit, and that we resign ourselves to bringing the rest of the country around rather than expect that traditionalists will immediately accept our haute couture.
by Scott Winship