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4 December 2004

Dems and religion

I wrote this about a month ago and shopped it around, but I haven’t heard anything back yet.  So I publish it here.

“Don’t panic.”

That’s the first action that the Democrats need to take, in light of
the election returns.  Then they need to get to the business of
addressing the role that religion plays in public life in our society,
as many Democrats have for many years been uncomfortable talking about
religion in public. 

Public professions of religion serve as one sort of shorthand, a signal
for the star of values that guides a candidate through the night of
policy.  Voters are wise enough to know that they will not care
about the arcana of legislation and regulation. They prefer to leave
decision-making to their politicians, as long as the shortcuts that
tell voters how a candidate might make a decision reassure them that he
shares the ways they might make similar decisions.

Eighty-four percent of Americans attend a religious service with some
regularity.  And yet, very few religious believers seem to exist
publicly on the higher levels of the Democratic Party (with notable
exceptions like Mike McCurry).

If the Democrats want to connect on religion, what should they
do?  From a former Christian evangelical turned Anglican and
Harvard academic, here’s my few cents.

1. Don’t use religion, be religion – I grew up as an evangelical
Christian in a conservative part of California.  Although no
longer an evangelical, I still know the language, and I can hear it in
virtually every speech that George W. Bush gives.  And it
resonates with a number of Christians in this country because it tells
them that he’s committed.  In their understanding, to use the
language of life-conversion indicates a wholesale change of heart, of
life, of love.  Anyone who would reveal such an inner personal
transformation in public demonstrates the life-altering effect of that
change, proving that his religion resonates deep down within him. 

Faith has and does play a role in American public life, and many
Democrats need to get used to and accept that fact.  The Democrats
need to begin becoming comfortable talking about the role that faith
plays in their own lives.  Even if they don’t speak an evangelical
language, they need not be shy using the language of their faith,
whatever that may be.
Using religion will have the opposite effect that the Democrats want
right now; being religious will make all the difference. 
Religious Democrats must get used to speaking openly and honestly about
how their faith informs the choices they make.  They must call out
hypocritical uses of religion for political gain, whether by
Republicans or Democrats.  And they must explain how the historic
faiths they hold value openness, honesty, charity, and mercy.

2. Social values versus personal values – If you actually read the
Hebrew Bible, the Qu’ran, and the Christian Scriptures, you note that
God spends lots of time lecturing his people on the care of the
lowliest people.  God lays down rules for the Hebrew nation how to
treat the poor, slaves, and all sorts of vulnerable people.  When
God gets angry in the Hebrew Bible, it’s often because his people have
abused the poor and lowly. Mary, pregnant with Jesus, sings of how God
will “cast down the mighty from their seat and exalt the humble and
meek.”  Jesus promises in the gospels again and again to upset the
social order and take care of those who are forgotten.

These are all the values and morals of a society, and historic Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam have focused the vast majority of their
attention on these matters.  Yes, personal morals are of concern
to each of these religions.  But the greater concern of these
great religions (and to some extent in all the world religions) has
been for how a society treats its weakest and meekest.  Not only
do these have a basis of appeal to religious believers, but also they
can help appeal to non-believers in a language of political ethics.

Religious Democrats (and there are a number of us) know that our
opposition to this war draws heavily on the moral teaching of our
faith.  We believe that we proclaim our moral values most loudly
when we take care of the poor.  We believe that God made a world,
and to treat that world badly, to harm that creation demonstrates a
lack of love and gratefulness to that God and ourselves. We believe
that our Creator has made us all good, unique, and equally valued,
which is why we believe that we must minimize the effects of inequality
and discrimination on racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious
minorities.  Even when we act in ways that seem to discriminate
against some of the religious (opposing prayer in schools, for
example), we do this at least partially out of our religious concern
for the inherent dignity of all God’s human children and the different
understanding of God that a different religion teaches – and even
respect for no belief in God.

When Democrats explain that such policies above are traditionally the
highest Christian values, Jewish values, Muslim values, and religious
values, they will present a coherent philosophy that tells the voters
they can trust Democratic politicians to make decisions.
It has become something of a clich

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6 Responses to “Dems and religion”

  1. david hart Says:


    the main reason behind the democrat and republican religious speech/appeal derives mostly from their respective electorate.

    republicans, for the most part, are a decently homogeneous group–white, weathly, christian. democrats, on the other hand, have a base that is far more diverse–on the race, class and religious levels.

    the general homogeneity of the republican party (and the relative large number of evangelicals) directs their public discourse–to motivate and connect to their “base”. this may also have the (unintended) effect of pushing away other parts of the party or people who would be republicans (ie upper-middle class jews, who, while voting in larger numbers for the republicans, do so mainly based on the fiscal/tax policies advocated by the reps, despite their discomfort with the reps public religious/christian language).

    the democrats, on the other hand, have such a broad base (and are generally more sensitive to the effects of their language choices) that in order not to offend anyone (or in order to appeal to everyone), they choose to use more universal themes and language. in a party that itself is diverse and preaches diversity, people who are themselves religious feel uncomfortable expousing their personal faith in a public arena. (this, perhaps, is even more true for jews who for almost 200 years (since the enlightenment) have pretty closely followed the policy of “a jew at home and a citizen in public”).

    perhaps there lies the basis of the scism–the enlightenment, and the evolving role of the church/state in public/moral discourse, both in europe and in the us…but, while i could go on, that is a topic for further discussion.

  2. Nate Says:

    True, but the Enlightenment is dead and done. It was nice while it lasted, but it fell apart when we made the linguistic turn a la Wittgenstein, discovered modern quantum physics, and realized that politics wasn’t based upon rationality at all times and that that might even be all right.

    Also, the problem with the characterization of the Republican party is that it’s not true. A decent (about 10-15%, I have heard, higher than before) proportion of blacks voted Republican, because they were evangelicals concerned about abortion and gay marriage. Even more surprisingly, large numbers of white lower-class people voted for Bush this time. The Republican party has become an odd coalition of the rich and the poor. Even more so, Democrats have not convinced anyone they know how to handle security in this day and age, and many people of all stripes voted Republican on security.

    Over the weekend, I even read that, weighted for last election’s vote shares, a 10-percent increase in the number of voters who cared about “values” translated to no appreciable gain of votes for Bush, while a 10-percent increase on security and foreign policy translated to a 3-point gain for Bush.

  3. david hart Says:

    my comment about the enlightenment was more about the shift from religious life being the communal bond to a more universal/moral/nationalistic bond…and how that shift has evolved and continues to evolve.

    about the republican party, there is a huge difference between voters and members/activists in the party. while i would assume that everyone at the republican ntnl convention voted for reps, the inverse is NOT true; people who voted for reps were not necessarily represented at the convention.

    the republican party has NOT become an odd coalition of the rich and poor. the party itself is still pretty much rich, white and christian. people who vote for republicans HAVE become a mish-mash of rich-poor, religious-not religious and white-not white.

    while orthodox jews and evangelical blacks may have voted for republicans because of religious/”moral” themes, they are certainly not represented (in any significant numbers) in the republican establishment. despite not specifically courting the votes of these groups, the reps gained their votes due to their efforts to shore their traditional white, christian base. but, i dont expect to see any significant (outside of the token here, token there) representation of orthodox jews or evangelical blacks at any republican convention in the near future…

    why the poor-white votes for the reps? an easy to understand foriegn policy message (good guys vs the bad guys in a “my way or the highway” approach) that plays on fear and feelings of revenge and that dismisses diplomatic nuance. the simplisitc foriegn policy approach combined w/ the personal appeal of w as a “regular guy”, or “one of us” gained him the support of lower-class whites (despite his support for policies that transfer wealth away from this group, ie. gw’s tax breaks and support of free trade). it isnt a “rational” reason they voted for bush, it is an “emotional” one.

    btw, there is a parallel in israeli politics. poor, sephardi people in the periphery vote for the likud (in large percentages), despite the fact that the likud supports policies that hurt this group of people (massive investment in the territories and removal of govt support for industry). “rationally”, this population should support the labor party, but their emotional tie is with the center-right.

  4. Nate Says:

    Well, I’d expect Israeli politics to look similar. I’ve read enough
    sociology of religion to expect that religion figures prominently in
    politics wherever it is found (or even where it is not — witness
    contemporary Europe).

    This is one area where sociologically inclined people are doing
    better than the economically inclined explanation. People have reasons
    for their inclusion of religion in their politics, and although
    reasoned, they are not “rational” — at least as many social scientists
    understand rational, i.e., instrumental.

    I don’t think that voters in the US were entirely duped.
    This election was decided on foreign policy and national security; John
    Kerry never offered a compelling alternative vision. At least in this
    respect, GWB inspires. We’re gonna bring democracy to the greater
    Middle East, he says. And that sounds great. Kerry — typically wonky
    Democrat — only offered alternative policy, not an alternative vision.
    (And that alternative policy was pretty shady too:”We’ll get the allies
    to help.” Nothing more than that.) Just like religion as a pole star,
    voters want a vision, so that they can leave the details up to the
    electeds and the technocrats, assured that the basic beliefs are enough
    to send the political and policy world generally in the right way.There’s a Tocqueville quote on this I read yesterday, but I can’t find it now. Hmm.

  5. david hart Says:

    i agree w/ you, and ill go farther–the voters were not duped at all, they made their decisions with full information (more or less) on what to expect, etc. karl rove did a great job marketing gw. he marketed gw to the religious right on policy issues that are abominable to them (gay marriage, abortion, and along the way picked up the orthodox jews and evangelical blacks). he mkted gw to the working-class america as a reflection of how they see themselves: under attack/pressure from international forces and fighting back/struggling valiantly against those invisible hands.

    here is an analogy. i would expect that if you went into a working-class bar in ohio or michigan and punched someone in the nose, he would immediately break a beer bottle over your head and an all-out brawl would commence. if you did the same thing in an upscale bar in manhattan or san fransisco, the person would look at you incredulously and ask “what did i do to you”, there would be an attempt at dialogue, maybe they would call the police/bouncer, but the brawl would likely not ensue).

    gw marketed himself in the foreign policy/national security realm as the brawler. hit me, and ill hit you back. that reflects the gut-reaction of a lot of working-class white people, who would like to see (in their eyes) a “strong” us in the international arena. to take the analogy further, the brawlers will likely end up in the er, and maybe in the local jail (ie it will cost them in the long run, while in the short run lets say they won the fist-fight), while the urban guy gets punched in the nose, sues the attacker and ends up owning the attacker’s house (short-run costs vs long-run benefits). i obviously am referring to kerry’s proclaimation to use diplomatic (as apposed to military) means as the foriegn policy approach. and, on the other hand, gw’s proclivity to use force. there are short-term and long-term effects of gw’s and kerry’s “visions”.

    in the end, much of america (certainly middle america) sees themselves as the brawler and they perceive that as “strength” and want a “strong” america and saw that reflected in gw (thanks a bit to karl rove).

    it comes down to marketing–what the voters perceive and how they identify with the candidate. which, brings us back to the original post–how can the dems market themselves to attract a faith-based vote. and/or can they attract that vote, and/or should they even try to attract that vote. if the democrat’s public discourse takes a religious/faith-based turn, that would signal a right-ward shift in american political life, and would cause an alternative VISION to become extinct…but, that, again is a topic for further discussion.

  6. Tami Says:

    Glad you became a Democrat.
    Remember our heated debates in Butler’s class?