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20 September 2004

Democrats and the Devil

Over the weekend, the Boston Globe ran an article, written by BC professor Alan Wolfe, on the religion gap in American politics right now

But God’s not dead as a partisan player in American politics.  At least not in Minnesota
Or in many other fora.  I was brought up in a church where I was
told that you can’t be a Christian and be a Democrat, because all the
things that the Democratic party believe are contrary to the
Bible.  Well, that mindset may seem simplistic, but much of the
Republican campaigning this year has attempted to appeal to religious
believers and the fearful on just such a basis.  Dick Cheney’s
comment that voting for Kerry will increase the terror attacks (or at
least their chances) on the country is simply par for this
course.  But many of the believers in the church to which I belong
now almost seem to believe the opposite, that you can’t be a Republican
and be a Christian.

I’m willing to bet that God wouldn’t be more or less happy or upset
with either party, but with both in equal measure.  Just a hunch.

As to Wolfe’s article, I think that one of the strengths of it is that
it points out the religious war being played out in the Republican
party, even if he didn’t discuss that at length.  If the
socio-religious conservatives continue to hold sway in the party, I
think that the fragmentation of the party is a likely outcome; not in
the sense that the party will split up formally but that it will become
a rickety coalition, much like the Democrats present at the current
time. (All RNC speakers aside, the platform and the nominees are highly
conservative, and it’s in those two sites that the signal of power and
the power itself lie.)

The Democrats are working to acknowledge their religious roots, to show
“people of faith” that they are necessary to the party’s and
liberalism’s future.  Now sure, the Right dominates religious
discourse in this country right now, but that has seemed to me more a
matter of tactic and personality than of theological support for either
party’s particular positions.  But the religious believers provide
the party one of the appeals that it probably needs to win in electoral

Americans seem much more worried — at least in some political arenas
— about the place of morality in their politics.  That is,
Americans want certain moral appeals made by their politicians before
the voters will reward them with office.  (Whether or not that
action itself is a moral one is a good and, I think, highly contended
matter.)  Candidates who can convincingly speak a language of
ethics — even if it is one that the voter may not agree with — will
probably speak more convincingly to voters.  But to be convincing,
the candidate will have to have an actual grounding in some sort of
moral and ethical system.  Religious affiliation and profession
provide a signal, a cue, to the voters that the candidate may have such
a grounding. 

Somehow, for Democrats, this hasn’t worked out.  All the
successful Democrats of the last 30 years (all two of them) were men
steeped in being Southern Baptists.  But Clinton’s Christianity
was not perceived to have made a difference, and the same has proven
the case with John Kerry, so far.  Kerry, in fact, has suffered
somewhat for being seen not to be in lockstep with every one of the
teachings of his church (i.e., he doesn’t share the abortion position
with the bishops, but most of his others line up), while the same has
not proven true with Bush.  Bush has agreed with almost none of
the major social teachings of his church, the United Methodist Church,
but he hasn’t suffered for it.  I imagine it’s because he
professes the sort of militant 19th-century triumphal Christianity that
proves continuingly popular among evangelicals today.

In the end, however, the Democrats have a difficulty to overcome that
the Republicans do not.  Since 90 percent of American believe in a
deity of some sort, there’s only a few who don’t align with a religion,
and I’d wager that most of them are Democrats.  (If you’re an
atheist who votes Republican, there’s a good bet that — like gay
Republicans — you’ve had to make some sort of peace with the fact that
you are an oddly fitting minority in your choice of political
associates.)  The Democrats have a more diverse religious
underpinning than the Republicans (as I’d also wager that you’ll find a
wider range among the stances of religious believers in the Democratic
party), and so their median religious belief is likely more to the
middle, where the Republicans’ is further right.  As such, they
can make fewer pronouncements from the point of view of faith. 
Combined with a more uneasy stance toward authority, this all makes it
harder for the Democrats to make convincing an argument that when they
argue from faith that they really are doing so.  But some of the
most significant social changes in the history of this country have
come as a result of religion — as well as some of the most significant
opposition to those changes.

But, as I have noted earlier,
they are trying in this cycle.  And I think that whether Kerry
wins or not, the Democrats can continue to lay a foundation among faith
communities, reclaiming the idea that the Deity belongs to any of us or
all uf us.

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