Democrats' religion conundrum
Do the Democrats have a religion problem?
The question may seem peculiar. According to a Pew survey of religious affiliation by party, there are plenty of Democratic voters who are religious. While the majority of religiously unaffiliated voters (54 percent) do identify as Democrats, so do a plurality of self-identified Catholic voters (44 percent versus 37 percent for the GOP), and Orthodox Christian voters (44 percent vs. 34 percent). Democrats also claim an overwhelming majority of historically black Protestant denominations, as well as 40 percent of mainline Protestants, and a majority of voters from non-Christian religious traditions like Buddhism (69 percent), Islam (62 percent) and Hinduism (61 percent). Republicans dominate only amongst Evangelical Protestants (56 percent) and Mormons (70 percent).
Moreover, plenty of Democrats live lives marked by serious commitment to religion. Fifty-five percent profess absolute certainty in their belief in God; 47 percent say religion is very important to their life; 50 percent pray at least daily. Even such Protestant-oriented practices as regular reading of scripture are far from uncommon among Democrats: Twenty-nine percent read scripture at least weekly vs. 43 percent of Republicans. And religious commitment doesn't necessarily translate into endorsement of traditional views on sexuality and gender, the most hot-button subjects around which our verbal and legal wars of religion are being fought. For example, among the 54 percent of Christians who believe that homosexuality should be accepted rather than discouraged, nearly 60 percent pray daily and 35 percent attend religious services at least once a week.
Democrats, in other words, seem to be reasonably successful at winning the support of a substantial minority of Christian voters, while winning large majorities among unaffiliated and non-Christian religious voters, which are growing rapidly as a percentage of the electorate. Republicans, by contrast, are increasingly identified with a particular strain within American religion — a phenomenon that has been accentuated by the Trump administration's bond with white evangelical voters — and to be repelling those who dissent from this identity. Who's got the problem here?
But look below the surface and some problems are indeed evident — and those problems are manifesting themselves on the campaign trail already.
While Democrats still win plenty of Christian votes, religiously committed white Christians are a steadily shrinking portion of their coalition, with correspondingly less clout. And that's a practical problem because the Democrats' advantage with unaffiliated and non-Christian voters has a greater impact in some states than others. In California, unaffiliated and non-Christian voters are 36 percent of the electorate vs. Evangelical Protestants at 20 percent. But in Ohio, they are only 26 percent of the electorate vs. 29 percent Evangelical Protestants — and if the Democrats want to win the Electoral College, to say nothing of the Senate, they need to win in places that look more like Ohio than California. As so often, a demographic advantage turns out to also be a geographic disadvantage.
And religious polarization, like the racial polarization among working-class voters with which it substantially overlaps, frustrates some central Democratic ambitions. Historically, the core mission of the Democratic Party was advancing broad-based economic solidarity, enacting government programs and fostering non-governmental organizations that spread the benefits of prosperity widely and gave ordinary people more power over their own lives and over the country's direction. That mission is much harder to achieve when cultural division gets in the way of solidarity.
But cultural division may indeed be getting in the way. Why did Beto O'Rourke, for example, feel the impulse to call for revoking the tax-exempt status of religiously-affiliated organizations that oppose same-sex marriage? There are not a few such organizations that play important roles in civil society — running schools, health-care facilities, adoption agencies, and so forth — that do oppose same-sex marriage. They want to be able to continue to play their historic role while being faithful to their traditional view of human sexuality. But as same-sex marriage gets more and more unexceptionable, this determination on their part gets more and more counter-cultural, and their call for protection are perceived, rightly, as a demand for a religious license fo discriminate.
That's why an increasingly vocal portion of the Democratic coalition responds positively to rhetoric of O'Rourke's sort, framed as anti-discrimination. But from the perspective of those on the other side of the ideological divide, what's being called for is an attack on religion. After all, these institutions largely just want to be able to continue to operate as they have done historically. Why are people who don't profess to adhere to their religion's beliefs allowed to force them to change, either by abandoning their beliefs or withdrawing from society?
This is a genuinely difficult conundrum for those aware of the problem. One often-proposed way to square the circle is to hold fast to liberal views but to use more religious language to defend them — to speak, in other words, from the religious left. Plenty of Democrats do this, in fact — Pete Buttigieg did so eloquently at the same town hall where O'Rourke took his controversial stand, talking about how marriage to his husband brought him to a deeper understanding of Christian service, subordinating the self to the needs of another. Is that the model that other Democrats should follow, as commentators like Frank Bruni have suggested?
Perhaps, but I'm not so sure it will help. It's not obviously a big improvement to move from "religion is benighted and wrong," to "actually, I'm religious and so I can tell you that your particular religious views are benighted and wrong." Inasmuch as we share a spiritual vocabulary, religious language can be used to call us to live up to our professed ideals. It's much harder to use such language against churches themselves as institutions.
What's required is not just the language of faith but the language of respect, even of profound differences, differences which, from the liberal as well as the conservative perspective, are fundamental and basically moral. It means, ultimately, seeking a truce on at least some fronts in the culture war. Unfortunately, it's neither easy nor obvious how to do that without devaluing causes that liberals take very seriously indeed.
On the other hand, one doesn't have to seek a truce on the other side's terms — and if a truce is viewed as sincere, it can change political perceptions even if it is rejected. The political goal, after all, is to get a hearing from voters who may view Democrats as culturally hostile even as they might be receptive to other parts of the Democratic agenda, without making any other members of the Democratic coalition feel like second-class citizens. That goal might be achieved even without a truce in the culture war, if those voters come to conclude that it is conservatives who are prolonging a fight unnecessarily.
And religious institutions have changed before under the pressure of political necessity — including in America. The LDS church, for example, officially renounced plural marriage in 1890 because they knew Utah would not be granted statehood unless they did. Their acceptance of black Mormons into the priesthood in 1978 took place against the backdrop of rapidly changing attitudes toward race in America. Five years later, Bob Jones University vs. United States established that the IRS could discriminate against religiously-affiliated institutions that themselves discriminated on the basis of race — and today Bob Jones University permits the inter-racial relationships that it previously banned.
Conservatives may believe that today's religious conflicts are of a different character, but that question will be answered in the fullness of time. If Democrats truly believe that time is on their side, that should make extending an olive branch easier rather than harder.
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