Why Faithful Democrats?

Why Faithful Democrats? August 21, 2012

“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.

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  • Bob Wiley

    “We’ve seen how badly faith can be abused and politics distorted when the two are combined . . .” Looks like “Faithful Dems” is a textbook case of this. The only radio I listen to is NPR. I’ve noticed that it is getting sillier and sillier over the years, at times becoming a self-parody. The same thing is true of Sojourners. I’ll be checking in on Faithful Dems from time to time, but probably more for amusement than information.

  • “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.”

    Values? Seriously? Shall we speak of abortion on demand? At what point is making the selfish decision to kill an unborn human considered as a value? You scream for social justice, yet refuse to acknowledge that social justice begins in the womb.

    Hypocrites and liars. Innocent blood even now condemns you.

  • Bobby B.

    This article appears to be written by a seminary student who has spent a year as an intern with Rev. Wright and is now taking a year off to help the Obama re-election efforts. This will look really good on the resume.

    • Bobby R.,
      I can see it now:
      –Human Resource Interviewer: “So, I see you have worked with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Hmm. What qualifies you to work for our liberal organization?”
      –Rachel Johnson: “God Damn America!”
      –HR Interviewer: “Congratulations, you’re hired! You’re just who we are looking for!”
      I would LOL this if it wasn’t true.

  • Rachel Johnson

    I think it’s extremely difficult to read the Bible and come away with the belief that Christians are allowed to be single issue voters. The sanctity of life alone challenges us to look at the number of people who die each year domestically, and globally, because of lack of access to basic healthcare; changing climates are contributing to a global food crisis – in the Horn of Africa famine that looked like one child dying every six minutes; more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers and 12,793 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan. Furthermore, some of the harshest condemnation in the Bible is reserved for those who oppress and abuse the poor. Using one issue as a litmus test may make decisions in the voting booth easier, but I believe it fails our responsibility to proclaim the full Gospel.

    • Bobby B.

      Whoever calls themselves “Faithful Dems” might assume that folks like me don’t care the list of issues you raise. Once an activist liberal, I now have shifted my energy from talking about problems to doing something. Rather than trying to find another way of getting the government to create a taxpayer-funded program, I prefer getting personally involved with my own time and money. It turns out that the people I help are actually better off.

      A point of curiosity: Why an estimate for U.S. fatalities and such a precise number for Afghan deaths? The number of American fatalities is fairly knowable; the number of Afghan civilians will always be, at best, an educated guess.

    • @Rachel,

      You said:
      “Furthermore, some of the harshest condemnation in the Bible is reserved for those who oppress and abuse the poor.”

      But social justice, true and real social concern, begins in the womb, Rachel. Take that away and all the talk of feeding the hungry, advocating for minorities, supporting homosexuality, etc, etc, means nothing. How can I believe the Democrat agenda that wants to equalize all of us, when they so readily kill innocent babies, both male/female and of all races, for the sake of convenience?

      Hypocrites and liars, indeed.

  • Rachel Johnson

    Bobby, I actually wasn’t making that assumption at all. My point was simply that as Christians we have to take a wide spectrum of issues into account when casting our vote. Being good stewards of our vote is one way to live out the Gospel. Private charity and acts of compassion is another. I would argue that it’s not an either/or though. I believe we are called to have our faith impact every aspect of our lives, public and private. I’ll refer you to the Guide to Scripture, Politics, & the Budget that’s been posted here, specifically Part 2: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithfuldemocrats/2012/08/scripture-guide-part-2-the-responsibility-of-the-nation-and-its-government-to-the-least-of-these/

    I meant both more than 2,000 and more than 12,793 in the numbers I was citing. The exact number of U.S. fatalities is 2,003 as of Tuesday according to the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/08/22/us/2003-deaths-in-afghanistan.html

    The civilian number is much more of an estimate based on UN numbers: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/aug/10/afghanistan-civilian-casualties-statistics

  • Mike

    I love this blog! Keep bringing these important discussions to the forefront. We’re so tired of the same old “left/right” conversations.!!!!

  • Dems faithful? O, yeah. So are Publicans too. So are the evil-doers.
    But seriously, faithful to what and to whom?
    Let’s get serious and wake up. Political arena is the Satan’s playing field under DEMokracy (not in authoritarian states) for his entertainment – now think of the entire human arena – education, entertainment, ecology and energy, economy, ethics – all are just encircled by evil – the very E of d’Evil.
    How we can ever ask God to bless America? Only to keep His wrath from us.

  • John Worden

    In citing ‘faith-based’ we still get the same tired slogans. Republicans hate the poor. Republicans follow the ‘atheist’ Ayn Rand, etc. ad nauseam. Democrats and Republicans have different philosophies and there is really no need to continue with the name calling when discussing them. Faith or not, neither party ‘hates’ the poor nor feels that they’ve received what they deserve. Generally, Republicans give more to charities than Democrats but, again, this is more of a philosophical difference. Democrats believe the government can and should ‘care’ for the poor with little being required on their part while Republicans feel that the poor should be required to actively better their situation while receiving assistance from the government. It’s when we can talk about our differences that more can be accomplished. Name-calling never achieved anything worthwhile – although it can win votes, unfortunately.

  • JimQ

    The Democrats remove themselves from serious ethical consideration when they allow the mother to kill her child for her convenience. Murder is number six in God’s list, ahead of those for the poor and greed. The five ahead of that Dem policies don’t even try to honor.

    I agree that we are stewards and should care for others. But empowering the government to do what should be our personal, voluntary activities, is not the way to go.

    I once was a faithful Democrat until friends showed me the foundational importance of “life.”