The Democrats' Religion Problem

The Democrats just got some bad news on religion. A recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows an inverse relationship between church attendance and voting for Democrats. While 63 percent of people who attend church more than once a week vote Republican, 62 percent of people who seldom or never attend vote Democratic.

That gives George W. Bush and the Republicans an overwhelming advantage with the "religious" as we enter a critical election year. One major reason is that Republicans are much more comfortable talking about religious values and issues and promising that their faith will impact their policies. The president is more publicly expressive about his faith than any occupant of the White House in years, and he is very proud of his "faith-based initiative"—even though it has turned out to be more symbolic than substantial. But when it comes to religion, symbolism, language, and style matter a great deal.

The Democrats, on the other hand, seem visibly uncomfortable with the subject of religion, preferring the vague language of "values"—and even then are hard-pressed to say what their values actually mean. The Democratic candidates shy away from the topic of religion and promise, as John Kerry, Howard Dean, and John Edwards have put it, that while they might have faith, it won’t affect their public policies. What? It seems the Democrats are offering a totally private faith with no implications for political life. But what kind of faith is that? Where would we be if Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself?

And Dean, the Democratic front-runner, said recently the presidential race should stay away from the issues of "guns, God, gays, abortion, and all this controversial stuff" to focus on "jobs, health care, and education." So, even God should be kept on the sidelines and in the private recesses of a candidate’s heart while we focus on the "real" issues.

Such bad political thinking and worse theology simply hands the issue of religion to the Republicans. If that doesn’t change in this campaign, just wait to see the Pew religious numbers next time. And if this election is as close as many believe it will be, the huge Republican advantage on religion could spell the Democrats’ defeat. Virtually conceding religion (and many religious voters) to the Republicans is not only terrible strategy, it seriously diminishes the debate over the meaning of religion and public life.

With Democrats sitting on the religious sidelines and failing to comprehend the questions of faith, Republicans are allowed to define the "religious issues" in narrow ways that primarily benefit them. It means the "religious issues" in this election will be reduced to the Ten Commandments in public courthouses, marriage amendments, prayer in schools, and, of course, abortion. While important questions, will these issues really exhaust the meaning of religion in this election year? Yes, if Republicans have their way, and Democrats let them have it.

What happened to the biblical imperatives for social justice, the God who lifts up the poor, and the Jesus who says he will judge us, and the nations, by how we care for "the least of these"? How a candidate deals with poverty is a religious issue, and the Bush administration’s failure to support poor working families should be named as a religious failure. Fighting pre-emptive and unilateral wars based on false claims is also a religious issue—Iraq was not a "just war" in theological terms. Neglect of the environment is another serious religious issue.

If the Bush administration has failed on these counts, it is a religious problem and not merely a political one. But where are the Democrats saying that? The failure to define their concerns in moral and religious terms is, among other things, a gross political miscalculation.

Rather than suggesting we stay away from issues like "God," the Democrats should be arguing for economic security, quality health care, educational opportunity, and a just foreign and military policy on moral and religious grounds—that true faith means a compassionate concern for those left behind.

But the Democratic candidates seem to want to convince us they are entirely "secular" and speak only of the separation of church and state when the issue of religion comes up. Most Americans support that, but the separation of church and state does not require banishing moral and religious values from the public square. On the contrary, the social fabric depends on such values and vision to impact our politics. It is indeed possible (and necessary) to express one’s faith in ways that are inclusive and not exclusive, that shape one’s convictions about public policy while respecting the pluralism of American democracy.

There is a long history of religious faith undergirding progressive causes and movements in American history. From the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil and human rights to peace and the environment, prophetic religion has led the way to social change. But the current crop of Democrats don’t seem to know that history. They had better learn it fast.

God is always personal, but never private. The Democrats are wrong to restrict religion to private space. And the Republicans are wrong to narrow religion to only individual moral choices and sexual ethics. Right now, the Religious Right is poised to hijack both morality and God in this important election. That would be both a moral and political tragedy. But the answer to bad religion is not secularism, but better religion. Applying the biblical imperatives for social justice to the public issues at stake in this election year would open up a much better debate about the relevance of religion to politics. And that would be good for all of us.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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