For three years, reporters told us that the Democratic Party had gotten religion; that Democratic leaders were seeking to “level the praying field” and embracing the religious left; that Democratic presidential candidates felt comfortable discussing their faith.
On the night of the Iowa caucus, religious left leader Jim Wallis wrote that the Democratic candidates broke with the party’s secular past:
On the Democratic side, I hear great appreciation for John Edwards’ passionate and persistent commitment to make poor people a political priority and his challenging the control of the wealthy and powerful over our political process. I hear great attraction, especially among a younger generation, to Barack Obama’s call for change to a new kind of politics, beyond left and right, which actually finds solutions to our most pressing problems; and for the first African American President. And I see a real appeal, especially among women, for Hillary Clinton’s persistent commitment to issues like children and health care, along with her experience and readiness that says a woman could be the president of the U.S. for the very first time. All three have been willing to challenge the secular rejection of religion and values talk which still exists in their party, and, in the general election, whoever secures the Democratic nomination will be watched carefully by the religious community to see if they will also take on other party orthodoxies on issues like abortion.
After the caucus results came in, it was natural to assume that reporters would tell us about the Democratic Party’s commitment to religion. So what did reporters tell us? Well, the major papers told us … nothing.
Consider the major poll of those who attended the Iowa caucuses; it was done at the behest of the four major television networks plus CNN and the AP. Republicans were asked two questions: whether it mattered that the candidate shared his or her religious beliefs and whether the voter would describe himself or herself as a “born-again or evangelical Christian.” Democrats were asked — well, they were not asked anything about their religious beliefs or lack thereof.
The Washington Post and The New York Times, two rivals to the media behemoths that commissioned the Edison/Mitofsy poll, might have been expected to note the absence of religious questions to Democratic caucus-goers. Did any reporter at either paper do so? I didn’t see anything.
Perhaps reporters are skeptical of the notion that Democrats are secular. When I covered Congress for States News Service, I remember being wary of putting either party into a religious box. After all, weren’t millions of black and Catholic Democrats religious?
But I later found it hard to deny that a significant percentage of Democrats were in fact secular. As early as 1972, a third of Democratic delegates identified themselves as “nonbelievers.” I then did research into the fact that secular and religiously liberal Democrats in the late 1960s and early 1970s toppled the party’s Catholic bosses in what amounted to a coup d’ etat. I read in the autobiography of former governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania that at the 1992 Democratic convention, members of his delegation handed out pins of him dressed up as the Pope to ridicule him for his opposition to legal abortion.
Here are several questions I think reporters must pose. What percentage of Democrats are secular (agnostics and atheists)? What share of Democrats are traditionally religious? What percentage consider themselves spiritual progressives?
The absence of coverage about the Democratic Party’s faith is a major oversight, tantamount to not covering the religious faith of Republicans. By not following up on the Democrats-have-gotten-religion story, reporters further the idea that Democrats are basically a secular party. Conservatives like Ann Coulter can claim that Democrats are godless.
So what’s the deal?