Are Democrats not religious?

CaseyPin 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?

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  • Quaker Deb

    I know Dennis Kucinich is a Roman Catholic but he does not wear his religion on his sleeve as do some of the other candidates. His Lord is where He should be, in Dennis’ heart.

  • Quaker Deb

    Dennis Kucinich is a Roman Catholic. He does not wear his religion on his sleeve. The Lord is within Dennis’ heart. A fine place to be.

  • Chris

    Great questions. Yes, by asking religious questions only of Republican caucus-goers, coverage of the the political/religious landscape is immediately skewed. And let us not forget, the vocally religious element in the GOP may have gone for Huckabee, whereas I imagine that there are plenty of “secular” Republicans, too. Who did they vote for?

    Another good question to ask of voters is the relationship of their faith to their political preferences. Do people of faith generally want to see people who share their faith in office? Is it like voting for like, or is there something different going on?

  • Paul Barnes

    The problem with much of the religious coverage is that much of religion, oddly enough, reflects their politics. For example, if one would ask whether abortion is a sin, the answer would reflect in the abortion policy of the candidate.

    One of the things that none of the candidates have been able to really tap into (from what I can see) is American Christianity. This combines nationalism, exceptionalism, and liberalism into some kind of package that really “gets” the American religious experience. Similarly, the press has not been all that great at getting it either.

  • Tracy

    Actually PBS did a more balanced job of this, though they didn’t go in depth.

  • Paul Barnes

    On a further note: the media love fest with Obama needs to end. He is just as much of a divider as Bush has been.

    Generally speaking, his policies reflect the progressive, liberal side of American politics, which are inherently divisive. I mean, I am sure that Obama believes that he can listen to every side, and that he can go beyond left/right or whatever. Fair enough. The problem is that in the upper circles of Democrats, Huckabee is considered a right-wing conservative candidate (at least in his thinking). The Democratic Party just does not understand their opposition, especially the more radical elements of it (think Alasdair MacIntyre here).

  • Jerry

    Tracy, thanks for the reference. It is the only comment I’ve seen about Democrats and religion for the Iowa results. The media is still reporting the two parties as if they come from different planets. Obama says

    “Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to “the judgments of the Lord.” Or King’s I Have a Dream speech without references to “all of God’s children.” Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.” –

    and finds his statement little commented on.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “What percentage of Democrats are secular (agnostics and atheists)?”

    Is that what “secular” means when you write it? That could be awfully confusing for secular people of faith.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Everyone knows that both Evangelical and Catholic Conservatives feel they have been driven from the Democratic Party through its aggressive take-no-prisoners leftist social morality.
    Yet try to find any in-depth analysis of this movement. It is almost as if the MSM is convinced the situation will become worse for Democrats and drive more conservatively religious people from the Party if there are full-scale looks at how contemptuously and derogatively liberals both inside and outside the Democratic Party treat religion and religious people (unless they abandon all vestigages of traditional Judeo-Christian moral beliefs.)
    More stories like the example given in Gov. Casey’s autobiography here by Mark and no self-respecting Catholic would ever vote Democrat again. And as a baptized Catholic-Democrat (now Independent) from a long line of activist Democrats I know there are many, many more such uncovered stories of anti-Catholic bigotry directed against Catholics and Evangelicals by liberals and Democrats.

  • tmatt


    Discuss the coverage and take screaming political notes elsewhere.

    And, yes, I discriminate against posts in ALL CAPS. Sue me.

  • Jerry

    sue me

    Terry, given the nature of this blog, we’ll pray for you instead:-)

    If I can be forgiven the editorial: Given the level of interest and emotion surrounding religion especially the intersection of religion and politics, I appreciate all of the contributors efforts in keeping the yelling down to a dull roar. The diversity of voices and the amount of useful information that is present here is a testament to the success of your efforts. The role of religion and spirituality in the public sphere is one of the critical issues that we’re currently dealing with as a nation and the more light that gets cast on the subject the better off we’ll all be.

  • Sinner

    I know Dennis Kucinich is a Roman Catholic

    Sorry, he’s not. He may claim to be but he’s not. He is pro-choice, and that makes him formally an Heretic. If he were to be selected as the presidential candidate, no Catholic priest would give him communion, and the Catholic bishops would actively work against his election.

  • dido

    Good one, sinner. And it appears Kucinich flip-flopped on this in order to have a chance at the nomination. Yeuch.

  • Jay

    Mark, I don’t share your world view, but I enjoyed your post about the lack of coverage. I was with you until the very end:

    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 is it the responsibility of the MSM to make sure that Ann Coulter cannot attack the Democrats? I thought it was the responsibility of the MSM to find the “truth” (however they choose to define it). Perhaps this is a story not reported because it’s dog-bites-man. You already suggest that the answer has been known for 30+ years:

    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.

    Or are you expecting to find a gap between the party faithful and the party leaders in their attitudes towards religion?

    Finally, there have been suggestions by conservative (in both senses) Christians that the claims of faith by liberal Democrats are insincere, e.g. Dennis Kucinich or John Kerry claiming to be both Catholic and pro-choice despite church doctrine that denies such a possibility. Perhaps the reporters are recognizing that the leading candidates of a secular-dominated party are reaching out to religious believers, but their loyalties are to the bulk of the party.

  • thad jones

    Conservatives are from Mars. Liberals are from Venus. The oligarchy wants to maintain this manic/depressive bipolarity in order to keep “We the People” from coming together, dusting off the lawbooks concerning “treason” and taking them to task for their crimes, like genocide against an entire class of Americans: the unwanted unborn of sexual immorality. I cite Scooter Libby as a meaningless sacrifice to pointless bipolar squabbling induced to divert the attention of the political discourse from the cancerous expansion of the socio-economic-political-cultural hyper-State. Don’t pay any attention to Big Brother behind that curtain, I am America, the homeland of the free and the playground of the enslaved.

  • Mark Stricherz

    To Jason Pitzl-Waters: Applied to people, yes, I use the term secular to refer to agnostics and atheists.

    To Jay: The MSM has NOT reported about the secularization of the national Democratic Party. Are there any stories about this trend you are aware of?

  • shocked

    What’s “faith”, what’s “religion”?

    I find the entire column and the comments to be meaningless.

    Do Democrats favor political/social/economic policies helping the poor and middle class?

    Do Republicans favor political/social/economic policies favoring the very rich?

    Which one will avoid the robbed traveler or the beggar on the street?

  • steve wintermute

    To get back to the article in question. Which came first: public belief that a Democrat and/or political liberal cannot be religious and therefore the media assumes it is so – or media belief that a Democrat and/or political liberal cannot be religious and therefore the public assumes it is so – or it is a mixture of both – or it is a primarily a problem of public and media defining what politicians and individuals must say to be considered “religious”?

  • Palladio

    To answer steve wintermute, I, for one, would say that since mainstream religion in the U. S. is indistinct from the media, the public square, town hall, HBO, or the Playboy Channel, all of which are left of center to militant left, the question is moot. In the one and the others, all is permitted, or soon will be.

  • Jacob Larson

    Democrats are smart. They’ve figured it out. People still believe in God and they are a majority. So if they want to win elections they better walk the walk and talk the talk, but that is all it is. The Democrat party IS a secular party. That’s a no brainer. Regardless of how they dress, talk, or how many Sundays they spend in church. They don’t believe in God and it’s obvious in their intent. Look at what they do, look at what they stand for. Higher taxes, bigger government, social liberalism….um, hello!!!!! We will see more and more of wolves in sheeps clothing. To confuse, control and destroy…….and it will work.