Slate offers up this depressing article, by Amy Sullivan about how religious people view the Democratic Party:
Which is why it is startling that in the two years since this Democratic revival began, the party’s faith-friendly image has dimmed rather than improved. The Pew Research Center’s annual poll on religion and politics, released last week, shows that while 85 percent of voters say religion is important to them, only 26 percent of Americans think the Democratic Party is “friendly” to religion. That’s down from 40 percent in the summer of 2004 and 42 percent the year before that–in other words, a 16-point plunge over three years. The decline is especially troubling because it cuts across the political and religious spectra, encompassing liberals and conservatives, white and black evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. The Republican Party also experienced a drop in the percentage of Americans who say it is friendly to religion–eight points over the past year. But that decrease occurred mostly among white evangelicals and Catholics and the reasons for it seem obvious: Two years of broken promises by the GOP.
Eighty-five percent of voters say that religion is important to them. I suspect there is a fair amount of lying and imaginative redefinitions of the word “religion” reflected in that stat. But it is absurdly high nevertheless.
Sullivan goes on to discuss some of the reasons for these stas, especially relentless right-wing attacks and media bias. The following paragraph is especially revealing:
And that doubt is fed by media coverage that reinforces images of who is and is not religious. Conservatives complain about media bias all the time, but when it comes to religion, journalistic paradigms help Republicans and hurt Democrats. When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer introduced a discussion of Pope John Paul II’s funeral with Robert Novak and Paul Begala in the spring of 2005, he tossed off the comment, “I’m sure Bob is a good Catholic, I’m not so sure about Paul Begala.” It was an absurd remark–Begala is a devout pro-life Catholic who named his oldest son John Paul–but also a revealing one, because it demonstrated how accepted it is to assume that Republicans are religious and Democrats are not.
Sullivan is exactly right here. Media talking heads have scripts to read from as surely as actors do.
But Sullivan goes wrong in her final paragraph:
And they should shout from the mountaintops about Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid’s plan to reduce abortion rates, talk to every evangelical who will listen about tackling global warming, and re-embrace the concept of the common good that once united religious and political progressives. Democrats, take those lights out from under your bushels.
Those are worthy suggestions, but they won’t work. The reason is very simple.
Democratic religion is very different from Republican religion. Democrats instinctively see religion as a private matter. It seems obvious to them that there should be a solid wall of separation between church and state. Religious Democrats like Paul Begala and Jimmy Carter represent a reflective, intellectual sort of relligion. They don’t mindlessly rail against science or cite Bible verses in public policy debates. They understand that there is a big difference between hostility to religion on the one hand, and hostility to the government endorsement and support of religion on the other.
Not so with the Republicans. For them religion is a cudgel used to distinguish those who think as they do from the vile enemies that must be destroyed. Their’s is not a religion that values calm, rational argumentation. It prefers instead dogmatic statements it is deemed illegitimate to challenge. Republicans appeal to devotees of the mindless, “God said it, that settles it” sort of religion.
So why do religious voters tend to prefer Republicans? Because the mindless version of religion is far better represented in this country than the thoughtful version. The relentless Republican media machine certainly has an effect on public discourse, but in the end it is successful because it is selling a message people want to buy.
The time when vague talk of the common good could persuade religious voters to support progressive goals is long past. The sort of religion that holds sway in much of the South and the Midwest is not the sort that gets out of bed for the common good. Instead it is the sort that sees itself as a tiny island of righteousness floating in an ocean of secular evil. The sort of people who like that sort of religion are going to find Republican simple-mindedness more appealing than Democratic nuance.
The nature of religion in this country has changed dramatically over the last thirty years. Today’s religious voters support Repbulicans because they like the sorts of things Republicans do when they have power. It’s that simple. The most media-savvy Democrats in the world will not change that fact.
Democrats might have better luck going after the tens of millions of voters who currently don’t vote out of disgust with the whole system. Instead of trying to put a religious gloss on their party’s message, they would do better simply to state, forthrightly and unambiguously, that theirs is a party that values science and rationality. It’s a party that believes that religion can be a wonderful thing in the lives of individuals, but is universally lousy when used as a basis for public policy. Alas, that would probably take more courage than most of today’s Democratic politicians possess.