Michigan Dem Attempts to Resurrect ‘Democrats Don’t Get Religion’ Trope — The Real Question is: Do Dems Get Nonreligion?

Image: Phil Roeder/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Ah, springtime in America. The flowers! The birds! The… pundits? Although the first primaries for the 2024 presidential election are about nine months away, election season is already being thrust upon us. Like the annual commercial push for Christmas, which, to my great annoyance, seems to come earlier and earlier each year, election cycles bring with them an array of tired tropes that should have been dumped ages ago, including an avalanche of obnoxious public God talk. And I don’t just mean among Republicans.

There is no more pathetic expression of the White American Christian persecution complex than the sad, little Democrat who cries, “Will no Democratic leader think of the Christians?” Who could forget, for example, when “progressive” White evangelical and Sojourners founder Jim Wallis whined about the exclusion of “pro-life feminist groups” from the 2017 Women’s March, even implying that a lack of openness to anti-choice Christians among Democrats may be to blame for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton losing the 2016 election to trashy billionaire Donald Trump?

Earlier this month, The 19th published a softball profile of Rep. Hillary Scholten, the new Democratic representative in Congress for Michigan’s third district, a former immigration attorney, and a devout member of the Christian Reformed Church who “wants to carve out another path for her party of appealing to religious voters who may be traditionally conservative but are disillusioned with the modern Republican Party.” 

Referring to “devout” people of faith, Scholten claims the Democratic Party’s “biggest mistake has been completely giving up that lane of faith.” But this thinking only makes sense if the devout believers one imagines in one’s head are White. The Democrats’ largest faith-based constituency has long been Black Protestants, a fact mentioned in The 19th’s profile multiple times—perhaps to preempt criticism of Scholten, who is conspicuously never quoted as acknowledging this herself, but instead says things like “That’s why I joke so often, ‘Just a reminder, people go to church.’”

With this in mind, Scholten’s comments about Democrats’ supposed dismissal of faith should be considered a massive gaffe, if not outright disqualifying. But unfortunately, such lazy and casually (if unintentionally) racist broad-brushing about the “godless” Democratic Party—the same party whose very Catholic president remarked at the 2023 National Prayer Breakfast “that joy comes when we apply the commandments of Scripture” and referred to America’s racial, religious and gender diversity as a sign of “the infinite creativity of God”—is just standard fare for American political discourse. 

Pundits and Democratic operatives alike have long argued for—and attempted—“faith outreach” to White conservative Christians, despite the fact that, apart from individual local cases where peeling off a tiny number of voters at the margins can make the difference in a race, such outreach is counterproductive since it alienates the Democratic base and wastes resources on an unwinnable demographic. Meanwhile, formal Democratic acknowledgment of a heavily Democratic constituency that makes up a significantly larger share of the U.S. population than even African Americans—the religiously unaffiliated—has been halting and minimal.

Like Biden, Scholten speaks fondly of the National Prayer Breakfast with seemingly no regard for the role it has played in undermining American democracy and the many scandalous revelations about the annual event that have made headlines in recent years. She even expresses her appreciation for “compassionate conservatism,” as though it were an accurate description of a political ideology and not a wildly misleading slogan. And if that’s not offensive enough, she also claims that “faith and freedom are inextricably linked.”

Such rhetoric makes Scholten sound more like Republican former senator and attorney general Jeff Sessions, who has on multiple occasions questioned the fitness of nonbelievers for public service, than like a member of a party that is supposed to represent me, an American atheist.

Over many years now, I have established a consistent record of advocacy for the embrace of pluralism as good citizenship, and for the importance of shared values over shared beliefs in the building of coalitions devoted to working for democracy, human rights, and the common good. I am far from anti-Christian, but I have enough dignity to demand respect for my choice to be nonreligious in return for my respect for a colleague’s choice to be a Christian. 

I am also convinced that to achieve a more equitable America it’s necessary to work toward dismantling not only White, male, and straight privilege, but also the Christian privilege that lets absurd comments like Scholten’s regarding the supposed rejection of faith by the Democratic Party pass for serious political discourse.

White Christians like Scholten seem unable to stop centering themselves long enough to see that not only faith, but specifically Christianity, shapes the Democratic Party in profound ways, some of which go far beyond what I would consider appropriate for an organization that is supposed to be inclusive toward people of all religious identities and none—to say nothing of its inappropriateness for a secular government that’s theoretically meant to represent all Americans. 

Even White conservative Christians who overwhelmingly vote Republican—the ones Scholten quixotically believes Democrats should be courting—do in fact already receive far more attention from Democrats than they should. In short, Scholten’s rhetoric is wildly divorced from reality, and if Democratic leaders want to build a more inclusive, functional party, they should stop coddling White Christians, reject Scholten’s offensive and counterproductive messaging, and learn to speak the language of pluralism and inclusion.