The Democratic Party is Not a Religion

Against the better judgment of the wise editors here at RD, I’d like to answer some of those critics who wrote in taking me to task for my very serious, though admittedly snarky, analysis of Republicanity—a portmanteau that emphasizes the overt religious quality of today’s Republican Party. In particular, I’d like to go out on an academic limb and state, without hesitation, that the Democratic Party is not a religion. The reason for that may prove to be what we in the endangered but dangerous business of education call: “a teachable moment.”

There is, I suggested, a strong and unified religious culture dominating the Republican Party’s political positions, community identity, moral boundaries, and theological sensibilities. Yes, this culture includes evangelical Christians, but it also includes Mormons, Catholics, and even Jews whose economic and social priorities are being shaped by those elements I refer to in the earlier piece: myth, ritual, ethics, and theology. Most importantly, in public politics today, the moderates and dissenting voices in the Republican party are absent or utterly impotent in challenging Republicanity.

In other words, the dominant voices in the Republican Party have a shared vision of what is sacred, and what is profane; which of course, as all of you Durkheim experts know, establishes “a unified system of beliefs and practices.” It’s in the context of this kind of uniformity—the common sacred investment in myth, ritual, etc.—that a “church” or “moral community” is established. Voila, the current GOP, or, Republicanity.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are not dominated by any particular unified religious culture that shuts out dissent from within, coheres around a single set of sacred stories, subscribes to a closed and absolutist ethical system, or relies so heavily on a vision of God wielded as a patriotic weapon to destroy those who do not fit into a narrow understanding of what it means to be an American. 

This doesn’t mean they don’t have principles (no, I do not believe that one of the core principles of the Democratic Party is “big government”), or that they don’t demonize Republicans (one blogger reminded me about what was directed at ‘W’), or that they don’t have public rituals (the party is sorely lacking in anything resembling charisma to stir the troops—yes, even Obama has lost his star power), or that they don’t invoke God in speeches and political rhetoric.

But, it’s a bit more complicated than that (sorry, egghead in me). Here’s where it gets sticky, so stick with me. The Democratic Party has not become a religion like the GOP, but it does have religious elements. For example, as many letter writers pointed out, “civil religion” has long been a part of American politics, evoked in the speeches of both Democratic and Republican presidents and leaders, aroused by the sight of the flag in all its symbolic glory for Americans of many stripes, and memorialized in the monuments to the dead—including military martyrs, victims of disasters, and political heroes.

Additionally, Dems have been whipped into religious frenzies here and there in recent memory; recall the fomenting religious mythology surrounding the nomination and presidential campaign of Obama (seems like decades ago…), which transposed his rise to political fame and his political message into sacred stories about hope and change (“we can believe in”) and the fulfillment of America’s destiny. Recall artist Shepard Fairey’s iconic image of a beatific Barack, will.i.am’s myth-creating Yes We Can video, or the numerous discussions as to whether Obama’s candidacy and election were the “Promised Land” referred to by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech—the last before his assassination. 

Beyond that, and an earlier ripple of same during Bill Clinton’s pre-Monica heyday, let me think… As you can tell, I’m grasping for other examples of religiously magnetic leaders on the Democratic side but keep getting stuck on Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry. Truth is, there’s simply been no one on the Democratic side like the glorified icon Ronald Reagan, whose life and presidency is held up more than ever as a sacred source of myths, rituals, ethics, and theology for the faithful.

Finally, another more obvious religious element in the Democratic Party is the presence of moral values, though these do not serve quite the same function as the monolithic and narrowly-defined values that operate in Republicanity as a litmus test to distinguish a true American (and Republican) from the enemy, perceived to be a grave threat to the integrity of the nation.

Indeed, the moral sensibilities circulating in Democratic circles seem to be broader and more open-ended than those chiseled in stone in Republicanity around family, flag, and God the Father. The moral language in Democratic rhetoric is anchored in rights, human and individual; questions around justice for those without power or money; and how government can be a positive asset in American society (I anticipate getting slammed on this one).

Yet by the very fact that the Democrats don’t discipline their members and require that they conform to one exclusive set of moral values (for example: “pro-life”—you’re either for life or against it; or “family values”—only heterosexual marriage is acceptable), the force of the party’s ethical positions are greatly diminished in the political arena.

Taken all together, these elements within the Democratic Party simply don’t add up to a religion or a religious movement. Some political ideas, symbols, and actions may be sacred for Democrats, but there are none strong enough to shape a unified religious identity and tightly-bound moral community that signals a clear and unequivocal new religion. Much to the Democrats’ chagrin, this is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to come up with an alternative brand to the kicking jackass.

gladerm@emory.edu'

Gary Laderman is Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Religion at Emory University. His most recent book is Sacred Matters