The complicated solution to Democrats’ ‘religion problem’

Yes, you can court voters who disagree with you without sacrificing your values.

CREDIT: AP/Andrew Harnik
CREDIT: AP/Andrew Harnik

As political analysts continue to pore over the innumerable 2016 election postmortems dissecting reasons for Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, a new narrative has emerged: Democrats failed to win the White House because they have a “religion problem.”

In a recent interview with the Atlantic, Michael Wear — former White House aide specializing in religious issues and faith outreach director for Obama’s 2012 presidential bid — offered a scathing account of Democrats’ much-discussed weaknesses regarding issues of faith. Citing the Clinton campaign’s reported hesitancy to reach out to faith groups such as white Catholics in 2016, Wear chastised the Left for ignoring many religious voters.

“It shows not just ineptitude, but the ignorance of Democrats in not even pretending to give these voters a reason to vote for them,” he said.

Wear, an accomplished political operative, makes a number of powerful points, and his analysis immediately sparked a conversation among progressives over what future Democratic faith outreach efforts should look like. Naturally, conservatives such as David French were also quick to jump into the fray.

“As long as the secular progressive elite runs the party, it will continue to struggle with Christian voters,” French wrote in the National Review. “The Democrats won’t fix their ‘religion problem’ so long as their progressive base believes the Christian religion is a problem.”

Democrats don’t, in fact, have a “religion” problem — or, for that matter, a “Christian problem” — in any literal sense.

However, the truth is bit more complex than either writer is willing to admit — and while Democrats would do well to approach the issue of faith outreach seriously, oversimplification could cost them votes.

French and Wear’s conclusions are both overwrought in different ways. Democrats don’t, in fact, have a “religion” problem — or, for that matter, a “Christian problem” — in any literal sense. Using the term “religion” or “Christian” is common among conservative people of faith to refer to believers like themselves, but it’s incomplete: religion and Christianity are both far larger than the group Wear, or especially French, appear to describe.

And while it is true that the party has more nonreligious members than the GOP — 27 percent of Democrats do not cite any religious affiliation according to an August 2016 PRRI survey*— roughly 71 percent still claim a faith tradition. In fact, Hispanic Catholics and Black Protestants — i.e., overwhelmingly Democratic groups — are second only to white evangelical Protestants when it comes to church attendance and prayer frequency, and Jews still support Democrats by a massive margin (70 percent say they are Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, according to Pew). Meanwhile, religious progressives show no signs of hiding their faith in political contexts: commentators described this year’s Democratic National Convention as more overtly religious than its Republican counterpart, and Hillary Clinton — a devout Methodist — was the more openly faithful candidate this year by a mile.

Yes, progressives remain passionate defenders of the separation of church and state, but that’s not the same thing as extricating faith from politics. Consequently, Wear was rightly criticized for oversimplifying the party’s “religious illiteracy problem.”

Still, as mentioned, Wear and French aren’t really talking about “religious” voters in general. They’re primarily talking about two specific groups: white evangelicals and conservative Catholics. And here Democrats do, in fact, have a major problem. For example, roughly 56 percent of white evangelicals are either Republican or lean Republican, compared to only 28 percent who lean or claim a Democratic affiliation according to Pew. When Election Day rolled around this year, an even greater number — 80 percent — pulled the lever for Trump, as did a record number of white Catholics (60 percent).

Taken at surface level, the reasons for this seem pretty obvious, and ostensibly unchangeable.

Although it’s deeply perplexing that conservative “values voters” Christians would support a twice-divorced, theologically challenged candidate who was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault, it’s far from unusual for right-wing faithful to root their votes in two issues: opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. Trump, despite his many religious fumbles, fell in line on those points, and promised to appoint Supreme Court judges who would do the same — a fact cited by several conservative faith leaders who backed him.

It’s hardly surprising that Democrats would be skittish about reaching out to right-wing Christians, as the progressive distrust of white evangelicalism and conservative Catholicism is rooted in a long history of real-world disagreements.

Meanwhile, it’s unsurprising that Democrats would be skittish about reaching out to right-wing Christians, as the progressive distrust of white evangelicalism and conservative Catholicism is rooted in a long history of real-world policy disagreements. The Religious Right created destructive ex-gay therapy, conservative Catholic and evangelical organizations still fire people who voice spiritual support for same-sex marriage, and born-again faithful remain the core group organizing against transgender rights. What’s more, evangelical theology was George W. Bush’s justification for invading Iraq, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops almost derailed efforts to pass the Affordable Care Act, and evangelicals are still the religious group most likely to deny climate change. Never mind that terrorists who bomb or shoot up abortion clinics often claim to be evangelical Christians.

Thus, the debate over how Democrats should respond to this issue — including Wear’s suggestions — stays locked inside a seemingly immutable truism: Democrats either need to find a way to make overtures to “pro-life,” primarily white Christians using rhetoric that “papers over” their concerns about abortion and same-sex marriage, or liberals will never win their votes.

“Even the symbolic olive branches [to those who oppose abortion] have become less acceptable,” Wear told the Atlantic.

But such conclusions are predicated on a false choice. By focusing only on these two issues, both parties effectively allow conservative Catholics and white evangelicals to be defined by them.

Culture doesn’t have to work that way, and neither does politics. Candidates from both parties have won over groups who oppose part of their policy agenda throughout American history, usually by working with a demographic to learn other ways of inspiring them. And while some progressives may bristle at the thought of courting those they disagree with, it’s not as if the Democratic Party is currently kicking out religious groups that don’t jive with every aspect of the platform: As of 2015, only 42 percent of Muslims and 27 percent of black Protestants voiced support for same-sex marriage, according to PRRI. Yet both groups still voted for Clinton in droves. (To be fair, both groups also show higher support for legal abortion than white evangelicals, but you see the point.)

There are a multiplicity of ways to square this theological circle, starting with appeals to points of intersection between conservative Christian proclivities and the Democratic Party agenda. Evangelical Christians and their leadership are generally supportive of immigration reform, for instance, as are Hispanic evangelicals — an increasingly powerful swing demographic that may have cost Clinton significant margins in states such as Florida.

Meanwhile, progressives could continue to lift up the voices of left-leaning people of faith who are working the reclaim religion — and even the term “evangelical” — from Republican Party operatives, many of whom adamantly support a woman’s right to choose on theological grounds. And in the coming Trump administration, they could even find ways to partner (with caveats) with the ever-growing number of anti-Trump evangelical leaders, such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore. Democrats launched similar efforts after Kerry’s crushing defeat in 2004, a move that paid major dividends in the 2006 election cycle.

By lifting up new progressive faith leaders, liberals in the Democratic Party and beyond can support new religious rock stars and — over time — reclaim the politicization of “religion” from the Right.

To his credit, Wear mentions ongoing debates within evangelicalism as things that merit more attention, especially from progressives within the tradition.

“We also need to have a robust conversation about the support or allowance for racism, misogyny, and Islamophobia in the evangelical tradition,” he said.

This isn’t a change that can happen in one election cycle, of course. It would require intentional, sustained engagement over various campaigns — similar to the way that Republicans pulled conservative Christians into their party in the first place, albeit with a very different set of ethics.

But by lifting up new progressive faith leaders, liberals in the Democratic Party and beyond can support new religious rock stars and — over time — reclaim the politicization of “religion” from the Right.

Democrats even have a new, modern template for this kind of faith outreach. To wit, the Clinton campaign did aggressively court at least one conservative faith population this year: Mormons, the most reliably Republican religious group in the country. While it wasn’t enough to flip Mormon-heavy Utah, Clinton did technically outperform Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama’s 2012 run in the state — while a third party candidate helped drag Trump’s margin down to one of the lowest for any Republican in decades. And there was relatively little outcry among progressives over a Democratic candidate actively seeking the votes of these religious voters — people who, like white evangelicals, vocally oppose same-sex marriage and abortion.

Yes, progressives are hedging closer to a day when they could hypothetically win the presidency without the support of theologically conservative white Christians. But that day has not yet come. And that means our democratic politics still rests on the typically painful, often unfulfilling, and always frustrating art of forming coalitions, which is something the Democratic Party — the “big tent” — is especially talented at creating.

If the 2016 presidential election proved anything, it’s that Democrats have some more coalition building to do. But doing it doesn’t mean giving up on the fundamental issues that their party believes in.

*If 27 percent sounds high, it’s worth remembering that 12 percent of Republicans are also religiously unaffiliated, according to PRRI.