“If your politics are based on your values, we need to seriously look at your values.” That statement still brings me up short. It was said to me by a dear friend in response to my saying I was a Democrat because of how I understand my faith. The response was made in jest, but it had a stinging edge, and reflected what I knew was the prevailing narrative about religion in politics: Being Christian meant being a Republican and GOP stood for God’s-Own-Party. But that was 2004.
It’s now 2012 and a lot has changed in the state of religion and politics, not to mention in the country in general. In the wake of two wars, Wall St. corruption, the foreclosure crisis and record unemployment, how much does faith really matter? Isn’t the Religious Right dead and don’t we need to be talking about jobs, not values? What’s the point of having a site like Faithful Democrats?
The simple answer: Faith runs deep. Rome is always burning and political crises come and go, but values are the ties that bind. Anyone who has ever sat around a Thanksgiving table with family knows that discussing faith and politics is fraught with peril and Democrats have a historically bad track record with it. We’ve seen how badly faith can be abused and politics distorted when the two are combined and it’s very difficult to understate the influence of the Religious Right on our national politics. But, at the heart of all our debates, from the budget, to healthcare, to the environment and war are central questions about who we are as a people and how we should treat one another. Those questions undeniably touch on the realm of faith and values. And when Democrats retreat from those fundamental conversations, we allow faith to become a partisan issue, we disconnect ourselves from significant segments of the American public, and we lose the moral force of our arguments.
Being a community that identifies as faithful and Democratic is in no way to say that any political structure perfectly reflects the will of God. And it’s not about alienating our sisters and brothers of a different or no faith. It’s about owning the values that guide us, values like being my brothers’ keeper, believing that my neighbor makes me stronger, and respecting the dignity, worth, and rights of all. It’s about saying no party has a monopoly on faith. For me, it’s about trying to bear witness in my public actions to the values of Jesus who came to bring Good News to the poor and lives on the margins offering hope and reconciliation to the least, the last, and the lost.
To delve into this a little more deeply, here’s a brief reminder of where we’ve been. In 2004, the presidential elections were in full swing and George W. Bush was marching Christian soldiers onward to the polls (and war) while John Kerry, a Catholic, famously became the first Democrat in decades to lose the Catholic vote. Weekly church attendance was a greater indicator for whether someone voted for Bush than party affiliation. Starting in 2006 Democrats finally started to “get religion.” That doesn’t mean a great revival of mass conversions happened. The Democratic Party has always been populated by people of faith (when over 80% of the country self-identifies as religious, it would be hard for it not to be). What happened was we started becoming more comfortable in talking about how our faith and values impact our politics, explaining the “why” of our policies and not just the “what.” We ran candidates who were driven to public service because of their faith, and the results were staggering. In areas where Democrats did concerted faith outreach we saw a swing of 20 points among white Protestants, 17 points with white evangelicals, and 7 points with Catholics above the national Democratic average.
This wave continued in 2008 from the bottom of the ticket all the way to the top, where the major Democratic presidential candidates were speaking openly and movingly about their faith. Just these three Time Magazines covers from 2004, 2005, and 2007 tell the story of the transformation. After 2008, as the full extent of the economic crisis hit and it became apparent that recovery would be long and hard, talk of faith and values was replaced by jobs numbers. The Tea Party rose to prominence preaching the Gospel of individualism and by the 2010 “shellacking” faith was most often spoken of by right-wing prophets of profit trying to square atheist Ayn Rand’s anti-Christian philosophy with the teachings of Jesus in order to consolidate the libertarian and social conservative wings of their base. As Democrats, we forgot to talk about the “why,” about the values.
Once again a presidential election is dominating the news cycle and like clock-work, the tired old attacks on Democrats and religion are being trotted out. But they’ll only work if we let them. The Democratic party is a party of values and those of us who identify as the party faithful cannot allow religion to continue to be used as a political tool. Yes, reaching out to religious communities is in our electoral interests, as the brief history above shows. But more importantly, acknowledging the role of faith in our Democratic policies helps us remain true to our values and is an important step in liberating the voice of faith from partisan political captivity. Faith has always been a vibrant part of our public discourse and has made many positive contributions to the shaping of our nation. As Faithful Democrats, that is the legacy we want to claim and continue to build as we wrestle with how our values shape our civic engagement in the years ahead.