Congressional Fellow Column
Faith in Their Future?
by Rebecca Sager, Loyola Marymount University,
and former ASA Congressional Fellow
Members of the Republican Party have a history of publicly displaying their faith and integrating their religious beliefs into social policy to gain support among certain religious audiences. In contrast, the Democratic Party has been reluctant to embrace a similar campaign strategy. According to a June 2006 report by the Pew Research Center, "the Democratic Party is continuing to face a ‘God problem,’ with just 26% (of those polled) saying the party is friendly to religion." Additionally, in the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry infamously refused to discuss his relationship with religion and the role of faith in his policy decisions. His refusal was seen as one reason for his defeat in the election, with conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks arguing (June 24, 2002) that Americans feel that "Their President doesn’t have to be a saint, but he does have to be a pilgrim. He does have to be engaged, as they are, in a personal voyage toward God." When asked about his reluctance to discuss religion in his campaign, Kerry stated "I probably should have."
Kerry’s candidacy will probably be the last where a lack of integrating faith is an issue. On June 6, 2007, the first debate among leading Democratic candidates about religion and the role of faith in their public lives occurred. Sponsored by Sojourners Call for Renewal (a liberal evangelical group headed by Jim Wallis), the forum was live on CNN’s Situation Room and included 15-minute segments with Senators Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, and former Senator John Edwards. This was the first public discussion for Democrats on the role of faith in their lives and political decisions. It was historical for bringing Democratic candidates much closer to their Republican counterparts on their willingness to discuss the issues of God and politics. Candidates were asked tough and often very personal questions, such as "What is the greatest sin you ever committed?" Probably the most pivotal moment of the evening came when Senator Clinton was asked what role faith played in dealing with her husband’s infidelity. She answered, "I’m not sure I would have gotten through it without my faith . . . [I] had a grounding in faith that gave me the courage and the strength to do what I thought was right, regardless of what the world thought." This discussion marked a public announcement of the new direction Democratic candidates will likely take in the future.
The sponsors of the event, while a non-partisan political group, have goals closely aligned with the Democratic Party. Sojourners and Wallis represent a new and intriguing direction for the Party, one that looks at religion and religious believers, not with skepticism, but as an integral part to both the political base and as useful in advancing their policy agenda. This renewed interest in religion has been mounting since 2004.
Bringing Faith into the Picture
In 2004, Nancy Pelosi formed the Democrats "Faith Working Group." Since becoming the majority leadership in 2007, the Democrats have had three meetings of the Faith Working Group, all of which I have attended. At the working group meetings, a new emphasis on the importance of religion and religious voters to the Democratic Party has been present. The focus is on people’s faith and how that can be translated into political success for issues relating to poverty, health care, and education. Groups such as Sojourners have been part of this forum and advocate for a “moral” frame around specific policy measures, such as State Children’s Health Insurance Program, arguing that true Christian goals are not giving tax cuts to the rich but helping "the least of these."
Republicans have found success using a strategy of politics built on religious ideals; whether a similar strategy will have the same impact for Democrats remains to be seen. Evangelical leaders were quick to criticize the forum with some religious conservatives arguing that the "religious left" is a myth. However, according to the Pew Research Center, the religious left consists of about 7% of the public, which is comparable to the 11% who identify themselves as members of the "religious right" (see people-press.org/ reports/display.php3?ReportID=287). The importance of these numbers, and what they can mean for political races, is what the Democratic Party is banking on in 2008.
By having an open discussion of religion, Democratic candidates can re-connect with their mainline and African-American political base, as well as religious conservatives previously unreachable. Unfortunately for the Democratic Party there is still much work to be done. Pew found that only about one in four (26%) voters say that the Democratic Party is friendly to religion, while 42% think it is neutral, and 20% say it is unfriendly. Overall, nearly seven in ten Americans (69%) say liberals have gone too far in trying to keep religion out of the schools and government. By arguing for social policies based on certain religious principles, such as helping the least of these, the Democratic Party can connect with religious voters and their base.
Secularism in Politics
Unlike Republicans, whose base relies on people who are more religiously active, the Democratic Party, at least partially, relies on a base that feels religion and government should be separate. Among Democrats, 45% say religion has a greater impact on government today, but 28% say this is a bad thing rather than a good thing (14%). Additionally, Democrats are overwhelmingly secular, broadly defined as those who attend church seldom (favoring Democrats 60% to 38%) or never (67% to 30%), leaving Republicans with a “secular problem.” Even though Democrats were less favored by regular churchgoers, the secular vote is actually roughly equal to the regular churchgoing vote, and the secularists are even more devoutly Democratic than the religious are Republicans (see www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-scher/the-conservatives-secul_b_42359.html).
This renewed focus on religion, especially in the public square, may lead many to question what role religion should play in politics and public life, as well as where the line between church and state should be drawn. While this has been a continuing debate and feature of American political life since the republic began, this new focus on the religion by the party that once called itself the "immoral minority" leads to renewed questions about religion’s role in government. These questions are especially important when examined in the larger context of global religious and political events currently impacting the world, and not necessarily for the best. We are far from Max Weber’s original prediction that religion and the sublime would be replaced by rationality and secularization. Instead, a new awakening to the power of religion is making a difference, not only in our personal lives, but also in the public square.