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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Losing Their Religion

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.

3 comments on “Losing Their Religion

  1. Dwight Stewart on

    Most of these neo-cons are at least borderline fascist and most I know personally in Texas a raging bigots! They are careful WHOM they use the slur terms around, but as an “anglo” male, I assure you that they use them often when NOT in the spot-light. Unfortunately, reasonable, progressive religious people have ALLOWED right-wing hate mongers to speak for religious people in general. Progressive religious people are often actually fearful of their hateful, more organized, and sometimes down-right dangerous ultra-conservative counterparts. Only the loudest, shrillest, and most ignorant voices are too-often heard! Thus, people like myself (a life-long scientist AND free-thinker) are most often appalled by the utter nonsense that is spouted by the “religious right”! I know there IS a middle ground and I know there probably are sane, informed, & tolerant religious people, but that’s NOT who we hear from. Moderate & progressive religious people need to take a “shot of courage” and speak up.

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  2. chicago dyke on

    nice essay. probably the closest to striking a balance i’ve read on the subject. still, i object to the term ‘values gap.’ it assumes that because i am not a person who follows a religious tradition, i cannot have or understand “moral values.” i can, and i do.

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  3. Chris Glaze on

    I think “moral relativism” is a key phrase here, often lobbed at liberals. Interesting, given that “liberals” often get accused of dogmatic moralizing as well (re “pc movement”). Both of these criticisms are not without merit, but I think the fact that they both persist in our national debate points to the errosion of the philsophical foundations for “liberal” or “progressive” or whatever you want to call it.
    The Obama speech and Sullivan’s interpretation point towards a key idea that I think needs to be revived–there is certainly such a thing as objective truth, such a thing as right and wrong, but these things are not always easy to figure out. Call that truth God, reason, or whatever, but we all make appeals to it in some fashion when we decisively argue for ideas and policies. An important question is whether we have the courage to confront our mistakes and move closer to this truth. One could actually argue that it is in fact relativistic to assume one is infallible in their knowledge of it. And there is a strong intellectual tradition in Christianity that involves careful deliberation, just read Saint Augustine or Saint Thomas Aquinas, who has had a strong influence on both religious and secular thinkers.
    As I think E.J. Dionne points out in his op-ed in today’s Washington Post, progressive patriots acknowledge our fallibility and push to move the country closer to perfection. So I think whether you’re religious is aside the point. As someone who is entirely secular, I welcome insights from the Bible and other religous doctrines. I don’t agree with all of it, but neither do many social conservatives, whether they would admit or not. Name one prominent politician who has campaigned against usury.

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