the Democrats and religious Americans

In The Atlantic just before the New Year, Michael Wear–an evangelical who helped Barack Obama with “faith outreach”–offered a critical assessment of the Democrats’ relationships with Evangelicals, 81% of whom supported Trump in 2016. Wear argued that it is a civic obligation to strive to engage all sectors of the society, and it’s a political necessity to engage religious Christians, given their large numbers. Wear wouldn’t expect Democrats to compromise on the substance of abortion, but he suggested that they could acknowledge the moral motivations of abortion’s opponents and look for common ground where it exists. He also decried a certain tone-deafness or ignorance about religious values and traditions, which sometimes verges implicitly on contempt. For instance:

[Wear] once drafted a faith-outreach fact sheet describing Obama’s views on poverty, titling it “Economic Fairness and the Least of These,” a reference to a famous teaching from Jesus in the Bible. Another staffer repeatedly deleted “the least of these,” commenting, “Is this a typo? It doesn’t make any sense to me. Who/what are ‘these’?”

Wear’s remarks are a bit anecdotal and could give a misleading overall impression. However, in The New Republic, Sarah Jones responded in a way that I thought vindicated Wear’s point. She argued that the Democrats should “frame abortion access as a moral good”; women suffer from any wavering on that topic. (Note that an outright majority of women have been against abortion in several recent years.) She added, “The country is becoming increasingly secular and increasingly liberal on issues like marriage equality. The Democratic party won’t win by catering to social conservatives, and it shouldn’t try.”

Leaving aside Wear’s point that national leaders should always try to engage any significant group, Jones is also wrong empirically. It’s true that the proportion of Americans who do not believe in God has risen–to 10% in 2016. Still, 89% say they believe in God, 64% believe in Hell, 54% believe that “religion can answer all or most of today’s problems,” 53% say that religion is very important in their own lives, and 55% claim to belong to a church or synagogue. The secularization trend is subtle and modest. I also fail to see a trend in the pro-choice direction:

Ed Kilgore offers a more interesting response to the Wear interview. He notes that whenever Democrats become concerned about losing “religious” voters, the conversation turns to White Evangelicals (see the Wear interview) or to “cultural conservatives” (as in Jones’ reply), with sometimes a passing reference to Jews. The discussion overlooks Catholics of all backgrounds, Protestants of color, Mainline Protestants (who number 36 million, mostly Whites), Muslims, Hindus, and other religious minorities.

Many of these constituencies see politics through religious lenses, at least in part. They are prone to be alienated by an aggressive secularist agenda, and they are likely to see issues like abortion as morally complicated, wherever they land. Often enough they vote for reasons other than religious ones. For instance, a majority of Mainline Protestants supported Trump, which I would attribute mainly to their race and class rather than their faith. Still, there are powerful faith-based reasons that they might oppose not only Trump but also Paul Ryan’s economics. Meanwhile, religious congregations remain sources of social capital and bottom-up political power that progressives ignore at their peril.

See also the political advantages of organized religion.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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