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How the Dems lost their faith

July 16, 2006|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

A FEW WEEKS AGO, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama gave a speech to a group of liberal Christians in which he called on his fellow Democrats to tear down the party's self-imposed wall between religious faith and politics.

He criticized liberals who dismiss religion as "inherently irrational or intolerant," and he called the idea that Americans should refrain from injecting their personal morality into the political debate a "practical absurdity." Most important, however, he focused attention on the "prejudices" and "bias" that lie at the center of the alleged split between religious and nonreligious Americans.

One part brilliant and three parts common sense, Obama's speech was the latest salvo in an ongoing debate within the Democratic Party. Stung by their loss in the 2004 presidential election, a growing number of prominent Democrats are, well, finding religion in religion. And with polls saying that 70% of Americans want their president to have "strong religious beliefs," it's not hard to deduce that they just might be on to something.

What Democrats won't say, however, is that the secular posturing Obama is railing against is more a function of the party's desire to appease a powerful, but relatively small, constituency than it is a deeply held, widely shared ideological stance. Just as the Republican Party pays obeisance to the demands of the 37% of its base that is white evangelical Christian, the Democrats feel they must not offend the 22% of their core voters who claim no religious affiliation. Why not? Because although they make up less than one-quarter of the coalition, these secular Democrats are much more likely than others to be high-level party activists.

That was not always the case. Some scholars point to the Democratic National Convention of 1972 as not only the moment Democrats edged toward secularism but the event that created the religious rift in American politics. Before 1972, both major parties were essentially indistinguishable in their approach to religion. The activist cores of both were dominated by members of mainstream religious groups: the GOP by mainline Protestants and the Democratic Party by Catholics and Jews.

But the Democratic delegation that nominated South Dakota Sen. George McGovern for president at the '72 convention represented a profound shift from what had been the cultural consensus in American politics. Whereas only 5% of Americans could be considered secular in 1972, fully 24% of first-time Democratic delegates that year were self-identified agnostics, atheists or people who rarely, if ever, set foot in a house of worship. This new activist base encouraged a growing number of Democratic politicians to tone down their appeal to religious voters and to seek a higher wall separating church and state. With little regard for the traditionalist sensitivities of religious people within or outside of the party, the Democrats also embraced progressive stances on feminism and homosexuality that the public had never openly debated.

Meanwhile, the Republican delegation -- and by extension the party platform -- remained unchanged, and the GOP essentially became the party of tradition and religion by default. "The partisan differences that emerged in 1972," writes University of Maryland political scientist Geoffrey Layman, "were not caused by any sudden increase in the religious and cultural traditionalism of the Republican activists but by the pervasive secularism and cultural liberalism of the Democratic supporters of George McGovern."

Over the next generation, the shift in the Democratic Party pushed many religious voters, including the traditionally Democratic bloc of Southern evangelicals, into the arms of the Republican Party. In the 1980s, a shrewd GOP leadership discovered that the newly politicized evangelical population could be the engine of a remarkable late-century political comeback. By 2004, pollsters found that voters considered the Republican Party "more friendly" toward religion than the Democratic Party.

But does Obama's appeal to religious voters mean that if Democrats want to win they have to adopt the positions of the religious right? Absolutely not. The good news is that the vast majority of Americans are sitting out the culture wars. The real combatants are actually minority constituencies within each respective political party -- the secularists among the Democrats and the evangelicals in the GOP. Look closely at surveys on religiously charged issues and you'll find that all religious voters don't think alike.

According to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, white evangelical Protestants are the only group that considers the issue of same-sex marriage of significant importance, while the vast majority of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics do not. Similarly, most white mainline Protestants and white Catholics do not oppose stem cell research, while most evangelicals do.

It is no doubt too late to win back the religious right. Democrats aren't about to change their positions on issues such as gay or reproductive rights. But they can still woo the moderate religious voters who were turned away by the party's stridently secular rhetoric.

By ceding the language of faith to the GOP, the Democrats have allowed Republicans to treat "religion" and "evangelical" and "conservative" as if all three terms were synonymous. But by developing a renewed respect for the faith of the American public, the Democrats have an opportunity not only to revive their hopes to capture the White House but to demonstrate that the religious landscape in contemporary America is as diverse as it ever was.

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