Democrats and Religion

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.


  1. #1 Steven E. Hines
    August 29, 2006


    I agree with of your “Democrats and Religion” blog until I got to the part where you claim that Democrats are the party that values rationality (neither do the Republicans).

    Carry on.

  2. #2 Joe Shelby
    August 29, 2006

    Steven: he didn’t say Democrats value rationality. He said that Democrats should emphasise that they value rationality.

    there’s a difference. 🙂

    seriously, if rationality and reason become the focus of the leaders and movers of the democratic party, they can, at least for a time, lead the party into that direction and perhaps a better Democratic party may come out of that.

    it’ll still only attract the attention of the educated middle class, but that same class is increasingly disuaded by the republican catering to the religious right and the great mistakes of the current administration.

    the trouble is that the Democrats are still suckers for big business handouts as much as any other politician, so while some problems (like the attack on science and education and encroachment of religiously driven “morality”) may be better handled by Democrats, the attack on our freedom of speech by such big-business giveaways like the DMCA, ever-extending copyrights, or the lack of interest in reforming a very broken patent system, may never be answered as it should.

  3. #3 Peter
    August 29, 2006

    Religion is important to me. It’s important to you. You write about it.

    It’s important because it effects us every time it gets involved in politics and science and a variety of other subjects. So, despite being an atheist, I would say that religion is important to me, I would also say that I wish it didn’t. Especially since my father is a fundamentalist born-again (proper meaning, he takes the bible literally, plus he keeps trying to ‘save me’)
    That could be why the statistic is very high, it could also be lazy Christians (you know, the ones who aren’t really serious about religion, but go to church once in a while) are afraid because they’re consistently told science is out to get them. They’d say religion is important to them because Darwin is trying to take their church away and they have friends there, darn it. If people are constantly reminded by the media, by politicians, and by creationists (or when they’re much the same thing) of religion, they’re going to say its important to them.

  4. #4 J. G. Fellow
    August 29, 2006

    I’m not surprised about the 16 point plummet. The minute the Democrats rolled their strategy out it looked duplicitous and short-sighted. I’m sympathetic to many of the party’s goals and methods, I can only imagine how someone who is hostile to the party viewed their attempt to woo religious voters.

    That being said, your characterization of the outspoken form of Republican Religion is right on. As a minority in the religious world, I feel the cudgel whipping close to my religious garb, always making me a little less comfortable to openly support the religion of my choice…

  5. #5 Janne
    August 29, 2006

    Isn’t this whole angst a part of the problem of having a two-party oligopoly system? People differ on political and societal matters on any number of dimensions, but two parties allow you to choose only along one.

  6. #6 Joseph
    August 30, 2006

    I can think of a couple of other reasons that explain why religously inclined voters are defecting from the Democratic party.

    One possibility is the long-running and deepening schism within the Episcopal Church over the ordination of an openly gay bishop. Religious voters who interpret the Episcopal scism as a consequence of a liberal attempt at “bureaucratic capture” may be deterred from supporting Democrats.

    Another possibility is the media’s reaction to the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. While fairly reporting on the scandal very closely, various liberal media outlets attempted to leverage the scandal into a call for the ordination of female priests in Catholicism. An opportunistic pressure campaign launched against a vulnerable organization on behalf of a tangentally related liberal cause may have alienated more voters from the Democratic Party than it recruited.

    The third possibility is that religious voters are offended by the stereotypically liberal belief that religious liberals are just good people with a quiet, humble, personal faith while religous conservatives are evil dogmatists recruiting legions of mind-controlled dummies to trample down democracy.

  7. #7 Gerry L
    August 30, 2006

    The loudest religion these days seems to be from the Church of I-Got-Mine. These are the folks who demand both tax cuts and subsidies. They assume that anyone who is in need must be a bad person and deserving of their misfortune. And they mistake their own good fortune for moral superiority.

  8. #8 Steven
    August 30, 2006

    Gerry L,

    You sound like one of those fundamentalist preachers that lambaste non-believers for being hard hearted. Yes, there are people who are truly in need because of conditions that they have no control over. I have found that most Americans are willing to assist these people to get back on their feet. There are also many people out there who are perfectly capable but don’t want to make the effort to provide for themselves when they have the government to do it for them.

  9. #9 Comstock
    August 30, 2006

    I’m surprised to see these words coming from my fingertips, but I half agree with Steven. I was just reading about all the church-organized rebuilding and relief efforts to New Orleans after Katrina. I have little admiration for religion as a world view, but I gotta respect what a good number of religious people have done to help those in need.

  10. #10 David D.G.
    August 30, 2006

    “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.”

    I have been saying the same thing for years, but I have never seen it expressed better. A “Return to Reason” platform could be made quite appealing to the masses if it were done carefully and patiently, but I’m pretty sure that only a really maverick politician would have the self-assurance to do it; the rest are far too intimidated by the small, but very loud, contingent of religious fanatics.

    ~David D.G.

  11. #11 Pi Guy
    August 30, 2006


    Dead on. The two party system has led the commonly-held belief that there’s only one way to liberal or one way to be conservative. Traditionally (well, at least in my lifetime) Dems were socially and economically liberal, Repubs were conservative on both. But what about someone who is socially liberal and fiscally conservative? People of that persuasion are often affiliated with the Libertarian Party (which I believe is more in keeping with the vision of the founding fathers – essentially, seek happiness by making a living and a life for yourself and respect the rights and differences of others – than either of the other two parties). But again, we’re really living in an n-dimensional poltical space and that can’t be reasonably captured by the platforms of even four parties (and I don’t know what you call a social conservative who is fiscally liberal).

    The point (sorry for the Libertarian Manifesto) is that, with only two choices in a country comprised largely of Christians, if you think of yourself as Christian first and American second then whoever says “I believe!” gets the vote over someone who doesn’t profess their faith so strongly. For whatever reason – education, poverty, intellectual laziness, fear of dying and not having committed to something – many have forgotten why our ancestors came here in the first place and have decided that Father (Son and Holy Spirit) and not the people who live here, knows best when it comes maiking the rules by which we live.

  12. #12 Paul Merda
    August 30, 2006

    I absolutely agree that the Dems can not court the religious voters who vote GOP because of the different religious styles:

    I think this quote explains it all:
    “The primary difference between a religious philosophy and a religion is the difference between a tool and a weapon: one is aimed at spiritual attainment, the other at spiritual domination.” – Ben Tripp

    The Talibangelists need to be put back in theri place, but alas, aside from the poverty stricken, they are the demograhpic in the country that is reproducing the most. What are we gonna do?

  13. #13 Gerry L
    August 30, 2006

    Steven, I was not suggesting that all people — or even all religious people — worship at the Church of I-Got-Mine. It’s that these are the people who seem to be controlling much of the public dialogue. They use a few anecdotes about how some people have abused a program for the needy to justify an end to the program. Instead of thinking “There but for the grace of god go I” they are thinking “But how does this affect ME?” or even “How can I profit from this?”

  14. #14 Steven
    August 31, 2006

    Gerry L,

    How do you know what they are thinking? And who are they? What offends me about your comments is that you make these broad assumptions about how people think without having any way of knowing. Just like the fundamentalists who accuse non believers like me of “rebelling against God” because I don’t profess belief in god. I’m not rebelling against god, I just consider their arguments to be nonsense.

  15. #15 Jason
    August 31, 2006

    I think Gerry and Steven have brought up an interesting divide in the world of religious America. I think you’re both right about different aspects of American religion. Steven is right that the religious right today is strongly tied to a political agenda of tax cuts, welfare reform, business subsidies, etc. This is not to say that all religious people agree with this platform, but there is a strong and real alliance between evangelical Christians and conservative Republicans (look, for example, at John McCain’s pandering to Falwell and others – he hasn’t had a change of heart, he’s making strategic alliances). These two groups are definitely strange bedfellows, but there are some historical roots (the Protestant work ethic) that link religion and conservative views toward work and wealth.

    On the other hand, it can be shown that America averages higher per-capita private donations than other countries. While we as a nation do less to help the poor both here and abroad, Americans (particularly religious Americans) seem to greatly value personal philanthropy. (Of course, this can lead to overall harm, despite the good intentions of all involved. The world cannot turn on private, small donations, unless they are focused and used in a cohesive and effective manner.)

    So while individual Christians may believe in sacrificing a tithe to help others, they (conservative Christians) often support positions that harm the poor, or at the very least neglect them.

  16. #16 Jason R
    August 31, 2006

    I should probably clarify that this and the above comment are not from Jason Rosenhouse, but from me (who happens to share his first name). I’m sure no one was confused, but I had a sort of nagging guilt that my name would be interpreted as some kind of intentional deception.

  17. #17 Ken
    September 7, 2006

    The problem high-lighted by Gerry and Steven is fundamental. With Fundamentalist Christians everything boils down to all or nothing. You have to agree with them. Left and Left-leaning Christians tend to see more shades of gray. I think every religion experiences this conflict. The problem is that there can be no communication where one side will not accept ANY viewpoint of the other. So, are we just wasting our time trying to talk? Maybe we should go down the same path as the Fundamentalists and write them off as insane.

  18. #18 Steven
    September 7, 2006

    I apologize for the fact that my communication skills are not always that good, but what I was trying to say is something like this:

    No good can come from accusing those who disagree with us of having impure motives as the reason to take an opposing side of an issue. It only makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to understand what is the basis for the opposing position. And it makes the possibility of coming to an agreement on an issue even more unlikely. George Bush accused people who oppose the war in Iraq of being unpatriotic. People who are in favor of lowering taxes are accused of “favoring the rich at the expense of the poor.” Consider the harsh rhetoric on both sides of the abortion issue. Given the complicated nature of many issues, it is important for us to realize that legitimate reasons can exist for both sides of an issue. Not that we shouldn’t disagree, but we shouldn’t automatically demonize those that disagree with us.

  19. #19 Ginger Yellow
    September 18, 2008

    ” 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. ”

    Gee, that couldn’t have anything to do with a hundred and one articles by Amy Sullivan complaining that Democrats aren’t religious enough, could it?

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