Politics

Last Night’s Democratic Debate Went Theological. Here’s Why That Matters.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stand on stage before a Democratic presidential primary debate at the University of Michigan-Flint.

Even for an election season filled with bizarre religious disputes, Sunday’s Democratic debate on CNN was surprisingly theological.

First, Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked by a voter named Denise whether or not God is relevant (he thinks God is), and by the moderator how he understands his Jewish faith (it’s important to him). Then the same voter asked former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — who apparently has worshipped with Denise — who she prayed for, to which the former Secretary of State thoughtfully replied that she regularly lifts up orisons for a wide swath of people. The questions were, in short, interesting for their unashamedly religious nature, a form of inquiry far more common in Republican debates than primetime Democratic discussions.

But as the candidates worked their way through their heartfelt answers, the back-to-back faith questions set off a firestorm of chatter in the progressive Twittersphere, with a number of liberal pundits, thinkers, and activists panning the inquiries as awkward at best, downright inappropriate at worst. Some argued that asking Sanders about his Jewish faith amounted to a “religious test,” which is forbidden by the U.S. Constitution, and others sneered at the discussion of Clinton’s prayer life, saying it should be replaced with a more “substantive” policy inquiry.

But the social media hullabaloo over the debate questions belied their obvious relevancy to millions of Democrats. The debate over Bernie’s faith, for instance, is inspired at least partly by his historic candidacy — if elected, he’d be the first Jewish U.S. president ever — and because members of the Jewish community have publicly called for him to be more vocal about his Judaism (this is also why so many Jews reacted positively to his answer). Meanwhile, Clinton has repeatedly described her faith as an important part of her political vision throughout her campaign, even going so far as to quote scripture and cite faith-rooted axioms in her victory speeches. Amidst the admittedly unusual zeitgeist of this election season — not to mention the undeniable role religion plays in America’s public sphere — the questions had clear political import.

So why the minor outrage? The source can be at least partially traced to the influence of a growing bloc of the Democratic Party known as the “religiously unaffiliated,” or people who don’t list any specific religious affiliation when asked by pollsters. It’s now the largest single “religious” group in leftist circles, and unaffiliated Americans are just beginning to flex their political muscles. Some in this group — which generally skews young and deeply liberal — self-identify as atheists and agnostics, while others believe in God but are wary of claiming a singular faith label. But according to Pew, at least half agree on one specific point: candidates talk too much about their religious beliefs, and should probably keep it to themselves.

But the religiously unaffiliated only represent roughly a quarter of the Democratic Party, whereas the other 72 percent still confess a belief in a higher power. More importantly, the overwhelming majority of Democrats don’t conflate the separation of church and state — a legal concept designed to prohibit the establishment of a state religion and guarantee Americans the right to worship freely without government intervention — with the wholesale extradition of faith from politics. On the contrary, only 37 percent of Democrats overall think that candidates talk “too much” about their faith in 2016, down from 48 percent in 2012 according to Pew. And the numbers shift dramatically depending on which core Democratic constituency you ask: a full 64 percent of African Americans, for instance, think political candidates say too little about their faith.

And despite excitement over the slow uptick in religiously unaffiliated leftists, Democratic candidates have a practical reason for prioritizing the concerns of believers: according to recent polling data, nonreligious people are far less likely than other constituencies to vote, with turnout rates hovering at a low 12 percent. The opposite is true for religious Democrats, as CNN exit polls from the South Carolina primary found that more than 57 percent of Democratic voters in the Palmetto state said they attended worship weekly. That is higher than the average South Carolinian overall, as 42 percent said they show up to worship with the same frequency in a February Gallup poll.

Perhaps this is why some progressive voices lauded CNN’s choice to make faith a focus of last night’s debate, even as they acknowledged that time could have also been spent on other issues such as immigration or abortion.

What’s more, it’s easy to forget how painfully “relevant” religion is to the citizens of Flint, Michigan, where the debate was set: as the city struggles to overcome its horrific water crisis, it’s worth noting — as Sanders did in his debate answer — that it wasn’t secular government that initially swooped in to provide direct assistance and much-needed water to the thousands of residents poisoned by lead. Rather, most of the first responders to the tragedy turned out to be faith groups of all stripes and creeds, with Unitarians, Catholics, Muslims, and other religious institutions working together to distribute precious water elected officials failed to provide. These kinds of faith-based efforts are a common but often underplayed component of the progressive coalition, with religious leaders playing a key role in organizing for liberal causes such as immigration reform, same-sex marriage, and even reproductive justice.

But last night, the Democrats took a moment to make one thing clear: like it or not, God is alive and well within the hearts and minds of millions of Democrats, and it will probably stay that way for some time to come.