Closing the ‘Religion Gap’

Closing the ‘Religion Gap’

Bringing more churchgoers into the fold poses a complex challenge for Democrats.


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.”

Forty years later, many secular liberals remain as uncomfortable with such talk as Northern liberals often were in the 1950s and ’60s, viewing religion as at best a barrier to enlightenment and progress, at worst a wellspring for bigotry and intolerance. Such attitudes are partly a reflection of the strand of anti-clericalism that has long pervaded liberal thought. They are also a product of the success that figures like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have had in presenting themselves as the public face of religion in this country–despite the fact that they speak for a minority of religious Americans. A recent survey by Religion & Ethics Newsweekly found that evangelical Christians on the whole gave Falwell a marginally unfavorable rating. It also found that many evangelicals (in particular, those who are African-American or Hispanic) care more about jobs and the economy than issues like gay marriage and abortion. Secular liberals may shudder when informed that roughly 40 percent of Americans are born-again Christians; few are aware that, of this total, roughly one-third are “freestyle evangelicals” whose political views are eclectic, and that another 15-20 percent are members of minority groups that tend to vote Democratic. In addition to these groups are millions of mainline Protestants and centrist Catholics whose faith takes more moderate forms. For many in the latter camp, religion serves not only as a source of spiritual fulfillment but as a spur to social action on a range of issues–the death penalty, homelessness, violence against women, global inequality–close to the hearts of secular progressives.

Can such people become vocal and organized enough to counterbalance the religious right? Tom Perriello, one of the founders of Res Publica, a communications firm established recently to help the progressive faith community raise its stature in the media, believes they can. Though Perriello concedes that, to date, no force comparable to the Christian Coalition has emerged on the left, he says that between the war in Iraq and the tax cuts at home, the extremism of the Bush Administration has lit a fire under many people of faith with more moderate views. “These are people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as progressive,” Perriello explains, “but they are unequivocal in their support for most just policies for the neediest, for peacemaking, for protecting the environment, for enhancing the common good.” One such group,, recently aired an advertisement on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya in which a rabbi, a Muslim cleric, a Presbyterian minister and a nun apologize for the abuses at Iraqi prisons. (“We condemn the sinful and systemic abuses committed in our name,” their statement declares.) Modeling itself after, Faithful America has signed up more than 115,000 members for an e-mail list that it plans to use to circulate petitions and turn out people for future events. This summer, it is organizing a “Stonewalk” in which family members of 9/11 victims and religious leaders will drag a 1,400-pound granite monument honoring “Unknown Civilians Killed in War” from Boston to New York, the respective sites of the Democratic and Republican conventions.

A few weeks before the Center for American Progress conference, I attended “Pentecost 2004,” a three-day Christian mobilization designed to rally a broad coalition of religious leaders against poverty. The event was organized by Call to Renewal, a progressive faith-based organization that publishes the magazine Sojourners. The speakers’ list was bipartisan–featuring both Rosa DeLauro, a Democratic Congresswoman from Connecticut, and Alphonso Jackson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Bush Administration–but the mood was decidedly not. After DeLauro delivered her speech, an impassioned broadside against the Bush Administration’s tax and budget policies, she received a standing ovation. But when Jackson told the audience that being poor was merely “a state of mind” and that the best thing government could do was stay out of the way, the reaction was chilly. As his speech drew to a close, few clapped. One man stood up and, shouting across the room before Jackson could reach the exit, asked what the Bush Administration was doing for people like the woman he’d met by chance that morning on the street, a mother who worked as a prostitute at night because she didn’t earn enough to support her family from her daytime job. “Well, I would say to you that you should ask a different question,” Jackson replied. “What are you going to do for her?” Here was “compassionate conservatism” distilled to its essence. The audience responded with a cascade of hisses and boos.

By refocusing the debate about values away from what happens in the bedroom and toward issues like homelessness and poverty, strategists like Perriello believe progressives can reclaim the moral high ground in American politics while mobilizing religious activists to advance concerns they share. At the Call to Renewal conference, Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners, echoed this line, arguing that unlike inherently divisive issues such as gay marriage and abortion, a campaign against poverty could unify Christians “across political and denominational lines.” It’s an inspiring thought, although in reality such a campaign would likely fracture along familiar political lines. For as Jackson’s speech showed, framing poverty as a religious issue can as easily buttress a conservative agenda as a progressive one. The faith community is ultimately no less divided about the causes of poverty than the rest of society is, with some viewing it as a “state of mind” for which individuals have themselves to blame, others as a product of structural inequality that requires a radically different set of policies.

That said, the Call to Renewal conference did underscore the fact that, contrary to some common stereotypes about religious communities, more than just a smattering of ultra-liberal congregations in a handful of blue states are open to the latter view. Between panel discussions one day, I spoke with Ron Sider, a born-again Christian who heads the group Evangelicals for Social Action. Like most evangelicals, Sider opposes gay marriage and is passionately antiabortion. But he also opposes Bush’s tax cuts and is passionate about fighting poverty, arguing that the Bible compels Christians to care about “both the family and the poor.” During a panel discussion suffused with references to biblical passages–Luke 1, Amos 5, Isaiah 58–Sider called for expanding the earned-income tax credit, more generous food stamps, a living wage and “an end to the scandal of 42 million Americans without healthcare.” Said Sider in explaining the basis for his beliefs, “I don’t think God is a Marxist, but frequently the Bible suggests that people get rich by oppression or are rich and don’t share what they have–and in both cases, God is furious.”

There is no question that for Democrats, finding common ground with evangelicals like Sider is important. The last two Democratic Presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both fared well among “freestyle evangelicals,” with Clinton winning 55 percent of their vote in 1992 and 1996. Al Gore, by contrast, lost this group by ten percentage points, a factor that possibly cost him the election. Using John Edwards, a Southern Protestant, as a bridge to this constituency is, for the Kerry campaign, clearly advisable. Were Kerry to reach out to such voters by waffling on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, however–issues that people like Jim Wallis believe should not be made a litmus test in the Democratic Party–he would risk alienating the growing number of secular and moderately religious Americans who lean overwhelmingly to the left and care deeply about these issues, notes John Green, a leading authority on religion and politics who teaches at the University of Akron. The pollster Stanley Greenberg has described secular voters as “the true loyalists” of the Democratic Party, estimating that they now make up 15 percent of the party’s base–roughly the size of the white evangelical base on the Republican side. In 2000, voters who never attended church vastly outnumbered voters from the Christian right. “The Democrats would be in trouble if they tried to be a purely secular party,” says Green, “but they would also be wasting their time trying to woo the most traditional religious voters, because they are firmly Republican, and they would have to give up a lot to go for them.”

Viewed in this light, the religion gap appears less like a noose slowly tightening around the necks of the nation’s progressives–which is the way the media have at times taken to portraying it–than yet another reflection of the fundamental cultural division in American life. The central rift in the religious landscape is no longer between members of competing denominations–Catholics versus Protestants versus Jews–but between traditionalists in all of these faiths, on the one hand, and Americans who are less pious on the other. The problem for Democrats is not that traditionalists vastly outnumber their moderate (and secular) counterparts but that, until recently, the former have tended to be far more politically mobilized. In the 2002 Southern midterm elections, for example, the turnout rate among evangelicals who attend church less frequently was 32 percent lower than among frequent-church-attending traditionalists, a factor that may well have tipped the balance to Republicans in numerous close races. The disparity in their participation rates between elections–lobbying, attending school-board meetings, making their presence felt in Washington and on the airwaves–is even more pronounced.

For this reason, secular leftists (and progressive politicians) ought to do everything in their power to make people like Christa Mazzone feel welcome in their ranks. A bright, attractive 24-year-old Washingtonian, Mazzone works as field organizer for Call to Renewal. She is progressive in just about every sense of the term–opposed to the war in Iraq, deeply concerned about homelessness and poverty, accepting of gay marriage, prochoice (although she personally does not like the idea of abortion). Mazzone also happens to have attended an evangelical college and, though no longer traditionalist in her faith, considers religion extremely important in her life. As a result, she told me, she often feels like a “freak” among her politically like-minded friends. It’s a sentiment I heard frequently from audience members at both the Call to Renewal and Center for American Progress events, including from people who told me they were regular readers of this magazine. “The tradition of the political left seems to be to only listen to people of faith if they are African-American” and to dismiss everyone else, complained Brenda Peterson, who was recently named director of religious outreach for the Democratic Party, a newly created post. A similar view was expressed by Amy Sullivan, a former aide to Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, in the Democratic Leadership Council’s magazine Blueprint. Talking about faith and values only in front of minorities is “not only a condescending strategy, but a foolish one,” she wrote.

It’s a fair point. But it would also be condescending–and quite possibly foolish–for John Kerry to counteract this perception by peppering his speeches with biblical references and talking effusively about his faith on the stump. Kerry is, by all accounts, a sincerely religious person, a former altar boy who briefly considered a career in the priesthood and who regularly attends Sunday mass. But he is also someone who prefers to keep his religious beliefs close to the vest, regarding faith as a personal matter that deeply marks his character but does not predetermine how he makes his decisions in office. “I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve,” Kerry said in his speech at the Democratic convention, “but faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday. I don’t want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God’s side.” It was one of the most compelling moments of his speech, a welcome contrast to the moralizing rhetoric of George W. Bush and a reminder that politicians whose religion takes less vocal forms are often the ones who most honor the tenets of their faith.

For Kerry, as for most Democrats, the more effective way to close the religion gap isn’t by pandering to churchgoers with quotes from the Bible; it’s by addressing issues–poverty, social justice, the environment–that many people of faith care about, while pointing out that Republicans do not, in fact, have a monopoly on values. In this respect, Kerry might take a page from Senator Dick Durbin, a Catholic Democrat from Illinois who, like Kerry, came under criticism from a priest for being prochoice. Durbin examined the voting records of his colleagues on an array of moral issues of concern to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops–not only abortion but the death penalty, the minimum wage, the concentration of media ownership. On the whole, he discovered, Democrats in the Senate ranked better than Republicans. The highest ranking of all went to the candidate some conservatives have been tarring as antireligious: John Kerry.

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