Hand to God, every mainstream commentator on religion and politics has a liturgy—a catechism—they must learn before they are allowed to publish in a big-ticket outlet. It goes like this:
Q: Who promulgated Rerum Novarum?
A: Pope Leo XIII promulgated Rerum Novarum, placing the Catholic church on the side of labor.
Q: Who wrote The Social Gospel?
A: Walter Rauschenbusch wrote the Social Gospel, paving the way for Christian involvement in liberal social reform.
Q: Who twice appeared on the cover of Time magazine?
A: Reinhold Niebuhr twice appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Why doesn’t anyone talk about Reinhold Niebuhr anymore?
Q: Who is the great and only prophet of black liberation in America?
A: Martin Luther King is the great and only prophet.
Q: Who marched with King?
A: Abraham Heschel marched with King.
Q: Who was the evangelical president?
A: Jimmy Carter (blessed be his name) was the evangelical president.
Q: Have Democrats lost their way?
A: Since the 1980’s Democrats no longer speak the language of faith.
Q: Who are the Real Americans?
A: Real Americans are the religious.
Q: Do Democrats have a religion problem?
A: Democrats must learn to speak the language of faith.
Q: Are Democrats too secular?
A: Democrats must create a big tent for pro-life voters and those who believe in traditional marriage.
Q: Are Democrats hostile to faith?
A: Jim Wallis says so, so it must be true.
Q: Do Democrats lose elections because they do not speak the language of faith?
A: Democrats must connect to moderate voters by speaking the language of faith.
Q: Does race have anything to do with it?
A: Race has nothing to do with it.
Q: Does class have anything to do with it?
A: Class has nothing to do with it.
Q: Does partisan affiliation have anything to do with it?
A: Partisan affiliation has nothing to do with it.
Q: Does gerrymandering have anything to do with it?
A: Gerrymandering has nothing to do with it.
Q: Does political polarization have anything to do with it?
A: Political polarization has nothing to do with it. Democrats must learn to speak the language of faith.
Q: Does social sorting have anything to do with it?
A: Social sorting has nothing to do with it.
Q: What is the only hope for Democrats in life and in death?
A: Democrats must learn to speak the language of faith to win swing districts.
This exaggerates for comedic effect, of course, but perhaps not as much as is comfortable. Op-ed after op-ed repeats more or less the same lines: after a long and storied history of melding faith and politics, Democrats have forgotten how to bridge cultural differences by grounding their positions in religious thought. Only by reclaiming this perspective will they be able to lay claim to the broad, disenchanted middle of the country hungry to hear alternatives to partisan bickering and embrace the Democrats’ positive agenda.
In a New York Times article linking Jon Ossoff’s loss in the special election for a House of Representatives seat in suburban Georgia, Daniel K. Williams at least has the decency to note that both Pres. Obama and Hillary Clinton are forthrightly Christian. Other than that, his piece mostly regurgitates the catechism. Williams, a historian at the University of West Georgia, makes no mention of the heavy partisan lean in the district (Tom Price won it by 23 percentage points). He offers no analysis of the national dynamics at play in this race. He doesn’t talk about how the district is significantly whiter than Georgia at large, or the role white flight played in building suburban Atlanta and its politics. Nor does he mention the interesting and probably more salient fact that wealthy, highly-educated suburban districts like this one or WI-05, which includes most of Waukesha County, form motivated, partisan counterweights to Democrats’ urban turf. (To be fair, that might be changing.)
Williams doesn’t even manage to posit a causal mechanism for how Ossoff lost on the religious question, or a specific idea of what Ossoff might have done differently. One might be forgiven for thinking the article is basically cut-and-paste “Democrats have a religion problem” with Ossoff the lucky CTRL+V text. Spoiler: that’s pretty much exactly what it is.
Well, Williams does make time for this howler:
What can Democrats do to bridge the divide between young, secular party activists and the rest of voters? Oddly, last year’s presidential run by Senator Bernie Sanders, a secular Jew, may suggest a way forward.
Mr. Sanders’s non-Christian background may have hurt him in the South; he did poorly among African-American voters, despite his consistent civil rights record. But he did what few other secular candidates have done: He won a sympathetic hearing from conservative evangelicals with a speech that gave a religious grounding for his economic views, complete with biblical citations. When Mr. Sanders spoke at Liberty University, he did not pretend to share evangelical Christians’ faith, but he showed respect for his audience’s religious tradition.
And then, two days after that audience gave him a polite but cursory hearing, Sanders’ outreach was completely forgotten, and conservative evangelicals went on to vote for Trump by 80%. The mention of African-American voters is curious, since Sanders—like Clinton—did spend time speaking at black churches, but it cut no ice. African-Americans and particularly black women, decided that by policy and personality, Clinton was their woman, and they stuck with her.
When a race is as close as Ossoff’s, it’s tempting to argue that eating into the opponent’s base on religious or any other grounds could make all the difference. That’s particularly true given what we know about the correlation of religious practice and voting behavior. But even setting aside obvious caveats such as the peculiarity of special elections and that Ossoff and allies made little attempt to link his opponent to an unpopular president, this line of thinking fundamentally misunderstands how faith functions in our politics.
Religious belief and practice in the United States do not exist in an abstract moral system that can be activated by a rehearsal of history. Voters don’t give a damn that Rauschenbusch was a pioneering progressive thinker, or that Niebuhr was highly influential. To be honest, even King’s religious liberalism motivates fewer and fewer these days. It’s not enough for Democrats to “acknowledge their debt to the religious traditions that have shaped their progressive ideology,” because as copious research demonstrates, religion serves as the moral guide for in-group thinking, and these days, particularly in regards to how voters distinguish themselves from other races and religions. Christianity has always been a tribal thing in the U.S., in short, and in 2017, there are an awful lot of white Christians who use that identity to justify their rejection of Muslims, immigrants, and other undesirables.
Do Democrats have a religion problem? Yes, but not the one Daniel K. Williams and others think. It’s not that “young, secular” Democrats don’t speak the language of faith; it’s that faith—or the lack thereof—reflects coherent, competing worldviews. Should America be a racially, religiously, and sexually pluralistic society? Or should it be run by and for the benefit of white Christians with “traditional” sexual mores? The battle lines of American politics are increasingly drawn in our bodies and our social associations, with faith as the thin veneer of moral justification. In the face of these deeply-held cultural divisions, the received dogma of “Democrats must learn to speak the language of faith” is a shocking and wholly inadequate simplification.