Why Being “Faith Friendly” Isn’t Worth It For Democrats

Eleven years.

That’s how long I’ve been on this same roll. Early in 2005, one commentator came out with a rather hare-brained lamentation. If only John Kerry had shown more love to social conservatives, the writer said, he would be president… It was the beginning of a mantra I’ve heard many times since.

I did the math. This was actually a dubious proposition with little or no evidence to support it. Other, higher-profile writers agreed with my assessment. Well, that’s that, I thought. We won’t hear this nonsense again.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the same line came right back in 2006. Democrats retook the House of Representatives that year. But—some commentators argued—they could have won even more seats. If only they’d reached out more to conservative Christians!

So I pointed out again that no, the evidence was still thin at best.

Then came the 2008 presidential primary. Certain activists and constituencies proclaimed Dems must “speak the language of faith.” That meant someone willing to soft-sell Democratic support for social rights. Otherwise, the White House would be out of reach.

And I pointed out that the evidence hadn’t really changed.

I pointed it out when Pres. Obama’s 2008 primary victory was credited to his welcoming faith talk. Actually, I said, he didn’t downplay liberal social values at all. Besides, Republicans were already accusing him of being a secret Muslim. Obama, the most visible Christian Democrat since Jimmy Carter!

And I said it again when people said Obama would have won even more of a landslide in the general election, if only

And I said it during the 2010 Congressional elections. And the 2012 presidential. And in the governor’s races. Oh, and in off years, too.

For eleven stupid years, I have been pointing out time and again the same response. The modern GOP has been able to leverage social resentment to activate authoritarian voters. Under George W. Bush, they did it with fears of global Islamic terror. With Donald Trump, they added attacks on Hispanic immigrants and feminism.

In fact, a quick analysis of voting trends in America reveals a plain truth. Religion and the social issues it stands in for are about the last things anybody votes on. People vote their race, then their pocketbook, then their need for national security. That much is clear.

But every election cycle, sure as the rains, comes the revival of the same argument. If only Democrats were more friendly to People of Faith! White conservative Christians would totally engage Dems’ economic ideas! Progressivism would be an unstoppable political force! Social liberals wouldn’t even have to give up on abortion rights or marriage equality! Just welcome people who disagree on those issues! Just let them be part of the party! Just don’t be so arrogant or dismissive of Real American values! Just don’t be such coastal elites!

After eleven years, I’ve literally lost count of how many variations on the same basic theme I’ve heard from how many people. You can tell I have little patience left for it. Indeed, I long ago decided it was nonsense. I haven’t changed my mind.

Yet here we are again.

The latest iteration comes from former Obama White House staffer Michael Wear. He has a new book on Democrats’ supposed religion problem making the rounds. (He’s featured in the Atlantic and World Magazine, among other places.) I haven’t read the book, so I’ll try not to prejudge. I just hope he has more compelling evidence than what I’ve heard in previous versions.

I’m looking for two things in specific. First, a convincing reason to think religion outweighs race in driving white voting patterns. Likewise, a convincing cost-benefit analysis. Do Democrats have more to gain with white social conservatives? Or do they stand to lose more with other members of their coalition? The vast majority of Democrats are social liberals, after all. Then there are the seculars, racial and religious minorities. There are even religious white voters who aren’t social conservatives.

This gets at the real stakes. It would be easy to wind up selling the existing Democratic coalition for a mess of pottage. There’s no good reason to think trying to attract an elusive, thin slice of the voting public would work. Meanwhile, solid evidence suggests other, more secular, means might be more effective.

Jack Jenkins of Think Progress at least has the good sense to say this issue is complicated. Even so, he suggests outreach to conservative religious whites is worth a shot. But even his critical analysis leaves questions unanswered.

Again, let’s look at two specific examples. Many young people leaving Christianity do so because they see it as politicized. Paradoxically, they direct that sentiment at right-wing Christians, but liberal Christians are more actually more likely to be active in politics. They hold voter registration drives and letter-writing campaigns. They also talk more about politics in the pulpit. (They don’t generally make partisan suggestions in worship, though.) What risk is there to the faith of Democratic voters by engaging religion in partisan battle? Is that risk worth it?

Second: why, for the love of God or not, are we always talking about building a Religious Left? This all too often translates into a socially-conservative-friendly Christian Left. (Tom Perriello is running for governor of Virginia.)

Let’s try a “left left,” why not. Democrats have Christians, seculars, and almost every religious minority in America working together already. They’re just not organized under the banner of religion, but they’re there. And despite the real difficulties of a diverse coalition, it seems to be working pretty well. Dems have the popular agenda and they won the popular vote for President and Senate. Without gerrymandering, they’d be much further along in the House and states. So why the rush to fix what ain’t broke?

It is possible to reach white Christian voters, but not by “lifting up religious rock stars.” “Speaking the language of faith” won’t help much, either. William Barber moved exactly no needles on the swing-voter dial by his appearance at the DNC. Voters didn’t exactly clamor for correct scripture citations in exit polls, either. No, to attract white Christians will require long, hard, patient, one-on-one organizing, the kind of old-fashioned secular outreach unions and local parties used to do. It’s about conversion of hearts on race as much as political persuasion. That doesn’t happen easily, or overnight.

For eleven long years I’ve been saying the same thing. I will say it again. There’s no evidence beyond anecdotes that emphasizing religious outreach is worth the potential risk. Nor is there good evidence it would be more effective than working on race and economics. Show me some numbers that say otherwise, and we’ll talk.

Otherwise, I’ll see you in two years for a repeat of this column, if not before.

[Edit]: I changed a bit of the third-to-last paragraph to clarify the contrast I was trying to make. Thanks to Jack Jenkins for spotting the muddied waters.