Closing the 'Religion Gap'
At last month's Democratic convention, few words were uttered more frequently than the one that seems to roll most easily off the tongue of George W. Bush: faith. "Let me say it plainly," announced John Kerry in his acceptance speech. "In this campaign, we welcome people of faith." John Edwards thanked his parents, Wallace and Bobbie, for instilling in him an appreciation of "faith" from an early age. Barack Obama declared that Kerry "understands the ideals of community, faith and service," and added, to those who think only Republicans turn to religion for inspiration, "We worship an awesome God in the blue states."
That Democrats are eager to propagate this message is not surprising. The United States is, after all, an astoundingly religious country. And in recent decades, Americans who take their religion seriously have been flocking to the GOP in numbers that have left Democratic strategists alarmed. Back in 1992, voters who told exit pollsters they attend prayer services on a frequent basis supported George H.W. Bush over Bill Clinton by a margin of 14 percent. Eight years later, in 2000, those same voters backed George W. Bush over Al Gore by 20 percent. In the 2002 Congressional elections, the religiously devout also favored Republicans by 20 percent, prompting Trinity College religion professor Mark Silk to observe, "Never before in American history have churches been tied so directly to one political party."
Democrats are determined to narrow this so-called "religion gap," if not to close it, in the coming election. Yet they are well aware that the challenge they face is at once daunting and complex. When several hundred religious leaders, scholars and advocates gathered in a chandelier-lit ballroom in the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, DC, in early June, the consensus was that the Democrats have an image problem. "Today, there is a growing misperception, fostered by right-wing political and religious leaders, that those who espouse progressive views are inherently antireligious," said John Podesta of the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank that organized the event. "The purpose of our effort is to remind Americans that there are historic ties between the religious community and progressives."
Part of the reason for the image problem, however, is that Democrats have generally opposed efforts by social conservatives to impose their religious beliefs on other Americans, a stance that often leaves them open to attack as "antireligious," yet is crucial to preserving pluralism and tolerance. This is no small matter at a time when President Bush laces his speeches with biblical language, allows faith-based groups to compete for federal funding regardless of whether they proselytize, and enlists churches to register voters and actively assist his campaign. We are living, as Philip Roth has wryly noted, "in the fourth year of the ministry of George W. Bush." It was thus welcome that, in his introductory speech at the Center for American Progress forum, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, affirmed the importance of maintaining the wall of separation between church and state, reminding the audience that, far from inhibiting religion, this division "has allowed religion to flourish" by keeping government out of the pews. Saperstein took to task the Catholic bishops who announced they would refuse to let John Kerry take Communion because he is prochoice, arguing that while Americans have a right to know how a politician's religious beliefs influence his or her policies, it's wrong to demand that decisions be made solely on the basis of faith.
These are important principles--principles that, as it happens, the vast majority of Americans share. A recent Time magazine poll found that 70 percent of Catholics believe the Catholic Church should not try to influence the positions Catholic politicians take. On the other hand, if the emphasis on separating faith and politics alienates religious progressives and dampens their social activism, the left stands to lose a lot--both at the ballot box and in terms of social progress. For as the historian Taylor Branch pointed out in a speech following Rabbi Saperstein's, many progressive social movements--most conspicuously, the civil rights movement--have had a spiritual foundation. In his recent book A Stone of Hope, the historian David Chappell convincingly likens the civil rights movement to a religious revival, showing how black Southerners inspired by the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament spearheaded the drive to abolish "the sin of segregation." "Don't talk to me about atheism," Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer told the students who came down South to participate in the movement. "Our religion is very important to us."