The God Gap

Amy Sullivan is the nation editor for “Time Magazine.” She is a liberal (naturally) and also an evangelical Christian (surprisingly). She has written an op-ed piece, based on a forthcoming book, on being an evangelical liberal in the Democratic party. I was especially struck by her description of just how religiously bigoted the Democratic establishment had become over the last decade, though now the party, tired of losing so often and inspired by Barack Obama’s call for inclusion, is trying to change that:

A few months ago, while participating in an early-morning panel discussion in the heart of Manhattan, I was startled fully awake when a man stood up to declare that Democrats who reached out to religious voters, especially evangelicals, were akin to those who collaborated with the Nazis. I put on a sweet smile of Christian charity and counted to 10.

Comments like that explain why so many of us liberals who also happen to be evangelicals have stayed in the closet for so long. . . .

Democrats weren’t just passive nonactors who stood by helplessly while the GOP claimed Christ for itself. Instead of pushing back against conservatives’ insistence that Democrats aren’t religious, the party beat a hasty retreat, ceding the high ground in the competition for religious Christian voters and discussions of morality. The religious divide in U.S. politics that emerged — call it the God gap — represented as much a failure by Democrats as it did an achievement by Republicans.

The first religious bloc that professional Democrats wrote off was the evangelicals, despite the fact that fully 40 percent of born-again Christians describe themselves as politically moderate. Then party officials started to steer clear of Catholic voters, spooked by their opposition to abortion. Michael Dukakis’s 1988 campaign was the first in Democratic history to turn down all invitations to appear at Catholic venues.

Thus isolated, the professionals who run Democratic campaigns fell into a self-reinforcing spiral of misconceptions about the faithful. As being religious became not just declasse but downright dangerous in Democratic circles, religious Democrats silenced themselves.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • kerner

    All this says to me is that the term “evangelical” is meaningless. If someone identifies himself or herself as an “evangelical” Christian, I have no idea what they believe.

    Oh, for the good old days when “evangelical” meant “Lutheran”! Of course, even “Lutheran” doesn’t necessarily mean “Lutheran” anymore.

  • kerner

    All this says to me is that the term “evangelical” is meaningless. If someone identifies himself or herself as an “evangelical” Christian, I have no idea what they believe.

    Oh, for the good old days when “evangelical” meant “Lutheran”! Of course, even “Lutheran” doesn’t necessarily mean “Lutheran” anymore.

  • Don S

    And the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is anything but.

  • Don S

    And the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is anything but.

  • Don S

    Amy Sullivan concludes the article by identifying Obama as a “committed Christian”. I don’t know what that term means, but there is scant evidence that he is an evangelical Christian, which leads me to question whether she really is, as the term is commonly understood. As for evangelical Christians residing in the democrat party, I have three problems with that, BESIDES the abortion issue:

    1. Democrats tend to emphasize the “social action” portions of Scripture, and deny the holiness teachings. Moreover, they attribute the teachings they do accept (feed and clothe the poor, etc.) to society rather than individuals. Somehow, government is responsible for feeding and clothing the poor, so we need more government programs to do that. This doesn’t square with the personal relationship we each actually have with Christ — Christ never called for government to do anything.

    2. So-called “separation of church & state” — Democrats are great promoters of getting God out of the public square because of the so-called doctrine of separation of church & state, while at the same time promoting policies designed to expand government into more and more areas of society, thus expanding the public square. The result is a policy of essentially containing God in churches and homes. How do evangelicals square these policy goals with their own theology, which requires God to be an essential part of our everyday lives?

    3. The Democrat platform and special interest groups firmly entrenched in the party promote anti-biblical policies. Besides abortion, these include premarital sex, non-heterosexual sex/gay marriage, etc. There is a partcular effort to entrench these policies in the teachings of our public schools and universities. How can an evangelical Christian reside in a party having these priorities?

  • Don S

    Amy Sullivan concludes the article by identifying Obama as a “committed Christian”. I don’t know what that term means, but there is scant evidence that he is an evangelical Christian, which leads me to question whether she really is, as the term is commonly understood. As for evangelical Christians residing in the democrat party, I have three problems with that, BESIDES the abortion issue:

    1. Democrats tend to emphasize the “social action” portions of Scripture, and deny the holiness teachings. Moreover, they attribute the teachings they do accept (feed and clothe the poor, etc.) to society rather than individuals. Somehow, government is responsible for feeding and clothing the poor, so we need more government programs to do that. This doesn’t square with the personal relationship we each actually have with Christ — Christ never called for government to do anything.

    2. So-called “separation of church & state” — Democrats are great promoters of getting God out of the public square because of the so-called doctrine of separation of church & state, while at the same time promoting policies designed to expand government into more and more areas of society, thus expanding the public square. The result is a policy of essentially containing God in churches and homes. How do evangelicals square these policy goals with their own theology, which requires God to be an essential part of our everyday lives?

    3. The Democrat platform and special interest groups firmly entrenched in the party promote anti-biblical policies. Besides abortion, these include premarital sex, non-heterosexual sex/gay marriage, etc. There is a partcular effort to entrench these policies in the teachings of our public schools and universities. How can an evangelical Christian reside in a party having these priorities?

  • organshoes

    I don’t see the connection either, Don S, between a self-described evangelical Christian and the Democrat party.
    Although, there are lots of evangelicals (I hear) who’ve gone incredibly green, making common cause with liberal environmentalists in the name of good stewardship and as a hedge, I imagine, against a man-made environmental apocalypse. The End Times not a nuclear holocaust but a result of environmental abuse.
    I think, too, that some who call themselves evangelicals–and they might just as easily be Joel Osteen followers and The Secret readers these days as Billy Graham crusaders–are driven to an anti-wealth (thus, anti-free market) stand, hearkening to a constant barrage of reporting and just plain yukking-it-up about Two Americas and corporate greed and the wealthiest 1%, etc. It’s not that they think themselves impoverished or at threat, but their neighbors are hurting, they’re constantly told. So American Exceptionalism and Free Enterprise is not only passe, but a dangerous mindset, and, in their minds, not What Jesus Would Do.
    I don’t imagine they have any better understanding of doctrine or the Bible itself, than they have of the Constitution or even American history, let alone what evangelical is supposed to mean and what Jesus actually did.

  • organshoes

    I don’t see the connection either, Don S, between a self-described evangelical Christian and the Democrat party.
    Although, there are lots of evangelicals (I hear) who’ve gone incredibly green, making common cause with liberal environmentalists in the name of good stewardship and as a hedge, I imagine, against a man-made environmental apocalypse. The End Times not a nuclear holocaust but a result of environmental abuse.
    I think, too, that some who call themselves evangelicals–and they might just as easily be Joel Osteen followers and The Secret readers these days as Billy Graham crusaders–are driven to an anti-wealth (thus, anti-free market) stand, hearkening to a constant barrage of reporting and just plain yukking-it-up about Two Americas and corporate greed and the wealthiest 1%, etc. It’s not that they think themselves impoverished or at threat, but their neighbors are hurting, they’re constantly told. So American Exceptionalism and Free Enterprise is not only passe, but a dangerous mindset, and, in their minds, not What Jesus Would Do.
    I don’t imagine they have any better understanding of doctrine or the Bible itself, than they have of the Constitution or even American history, let alone what evangelical is supposed to mean and what Jesus actually did.

  • http://watersblogged.blogspot.com Bob Waters

    Democrats believe in transcendent values when it suits them. They reject the very concept of transcendent values when it doesn’t.

    For me, in order to be able to ever re-join the Democratic party it would be necessary that the party’s answers to the question of whether absolutes are possible in matters of abortion, for example, and whether they’re possible in matters of racism become consistent. If absolute truth exists, it exists across the board. If racism can be simply and objectively wrong, than so can abortion.

  • http://watersblogged.blogspot.com Bob Waters

    Democrats believe in transcendent values when it suits them. They reject the very concept of transcendent values when it doesn’t.

    For me, in order to be able to ever re-join the Democratic party it would be necessary that the party’s answers to the question of whether absolutes are possible in matters of abortion, for example, and whether they’re possible in matters of racism become consistent. If absolute truth exists, it exists across the board. If racism can be simply and objectively wrong, than so can abortion.

  • http://www.rightdemocrat.blogspot.com RD

    The modern Democratic Party leaves much to be desired but the Republicans have milked social traditionalist values to strengthen their electoral base for years. Wall Street gets the results and the faithful get more rhetoric. I choose to work within the Democratic Party to advance a pro-life and pro-family ethic that includes economic justice for working Americans.

  • http://www.rightdemocrat.blogspot.com RD

    The modern Democratic Party leaves much to be desired but the Republicans have milked social traditionalist values to strengthen their electoral base for years. Wall Street gets the results and the faithful get more rhetoric. I choose to work within the Democratic Party to advance a pro-life and pro-family ethic that includes economic justice for working Americans.

  • Don S

    RD, how do you define economic justice for working Americans? How is that achieved? Are you talking about equal opportunity, or equal outcome, and to what extent are you talking about government action, programs, and coercion, as opposed to limited government and increased individual liberty?

  • Don S

    RD, how do you define economic justice for working Americans? How is that achieved? Are you talking about equal opportunity, or equal outcome, and to what extent are you talking about government action, programs, and coercion, as opposed to limited government and increased individual liberty?

  • kerner

    RD, I guess I’m with Don S. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as “economic justice”.

  • kerner

    RD, I guess I’m with Don S. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as “economic justice”.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Don S (@3), I find some conflict in your statements. On the one hand, you don’t believe in the separation of church and state, but on the other hand you decry the Democrats’ using the government to enact Christ’s teachings, in effect calling for a separation of church and state. I just found that interesting.

    In fact, I’ve noticed that there’s a tendency for those who decry the use of “social gospel”, or government-driven gospel, to simultaneously call for what I’ll call “social Law”, or government-driven Law (in a Lutheran Law and Gospel sense) — that is, many Republicans want our laws to reflect Biblical teachings vis-a-vis punishments. They just don’t want our laws to reflect Biblical teachings about acting in love.

    Organshoes (@4), are you saying you think it’s silly to think of the End Times as environmental catastrophe, but logical to think of them as nuclear warfare? I think God will bring about the end however he wants, whether he chooses to use the effects of human sinfulness or not. That said, Revelation certainly does talk a lot about the effects in nature.

    I’m also puzzled by your bit against “anti-wealth” Christians. First of all, nothing I’ve seen of Joel Osteen has an anti-wealth component — and I just drove by his church this weekend (it used to be the Summit, where the Houston Rockets played!). Moreover, while it has little to say about wealth qua wealth, the Bible has so very much to say about greed and the love of wealth. I find it odd that you would not find common cause with those decrying greed. I was also struck by your line that “their neighbors are hurting, they’re constantly told” (emphasis mine). What, you think our neighbors aren’t hurting? Is there really no need out there? Jesus said we’d always have the poor with us. I believe him — come take a walk through my city if yours doesn’t have any needy neighbors.

    It’s critical to know what Jesus did for us, of course. But let’s not forget all that he said about money in the process. I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t sound anything like what a Republican would say.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Don S (@3), I find some conflict in your statements. On the one hand, you don’t believe in the separation of church and state, but on the other hand you decry the Democrats’ using the government to enact Christ’s teachings, in effect calling for a separation of church and state. I just found that interesting.

    In fact, I’ve noticed that there’s a tendency for those who decry the use of “social gospel”, or government-driven gospel, to simultaneously call for what I’ll call “social Law”, or government-driven Law (in a Lutheran Law and Gospel sense) — that is, many Republicans want our laws to reflect Biblical teachings vis-a-vis punishments. They just don’t want our laws to reflect Biblical teachings about acting in love.

    Organshoes (@4), are you saying you think it’s silly to think of the End Times as environmental catastrophe, but logical to think of them as nuclear warfare? I think God will bring about the end however he wants, whether he chooses to use the effects of human sinfulness or not. That said, Revelation certainly does talk a lot about the effects in nature.

    I’m also puzzled by your bit against “anti-wealth” Christians. First of all, nothing I’ve seen of Joel Osteen has an anti-wealth component — and I just drove by his church this weekend (it used to be the Summit, where the Houston Rockets played!). Moreover, while it has little to say about wealth qua wealth, the Bible has so very much to say about greed and the love of wealth. I find it odd that you would not find common cause with those decrying greed. I was also struck by your line that “their neighbors are hurting, they’re constantly told” (emphasis mine). What, you think our neighbors aren’t hurting? Is there really no need out there? Jesus said we’d always have the poor with us. I believe him — come take a walk through my city if yours doesn’t have any needy neighbors.

    It’s critical to know what Jesus did for us, of course. But let’s not forget all that he said about money in the process. I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t sound anything like what a Republican would say.

  • Don S

    tODD, I don’t believe in the separation of church and state as it is defined today, which is to say that God must be effectively excluded from any area, function, activity which has any governmental sponsorship whatsoever. I think this interpretation denies citizens their constitutional freedom to exercise their religion. On the other hand, I firmly believe in the constitutional prohibition against the federal government establishing a state religion.

    As for the democrats using the government to enact Christ’s teachings, this is not the function of government, particularly the limited federal government. Forcibly taking money from one citizen or group of citizens to give it to another citizen or group of citizens is not what Christ taught anyway. Christ’s teachings were directed to his adherents, individually and as a church. Using the government to relieve our personal obligations to our God and fellow man does not cut it scripturally. Essentially, what we are saying is “God told me to take care of the poor, but I’m really strapped. How about if we enact some legislation to take some of all of that excess that Pete has and give it to John, who has a need right now. Then, I can feel better about having obeyed God without actually having to give John my own money”.

    I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.

  • Don S

    tODD, I don’t believe in the separation of church and state as it is defined today, which is to say that God must be effectively excluded from any area, function, activity which has any governmental sponsorship whatsoever. I think this interpretation denies citizens their constitutional freedom to exercise their religion. On the other hand, I firmly believe in the constitutional prohibition against the federal government establishing a state religion.

    As for the democrats using the government to enact Christ’s teachings, this is not the function of government, particularly the limited federal government. Forcibly taking money from one citizen or group of citizens to give it to another citizen or group of citizens is not what Christ taught anyway. Christ’s teachings were directed to his adherents, individually and as a church. Using the government to relieve our personal obligations to our God and fellow man does not cut it scripturally. Essentially, what we are saying is “God told me to take care of the poor, but I’m really strapped. How about if we enact some legislation to take some of all of that excess that Pete has and give it to John, who has a need right now. Then, I can feel better about having obeyed God without actually having to give John my own money”.

    I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.


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