Published October 24, 2004
In the final debate, President Bush and Sen. Kerry were asked to describe the role religious faith played in their lives. Many commentators saw this question as highly unusual. But it was not.
Throughout our history, religious values have always been part of the American public debate. The argument has never been whether religious believers ought to be involved in social and political movements. Our spiritual forebears always were. The claim that the faith of religious believers should always be only an intensely private affair between the individual and God would have been surprising news to such diverse persons as John Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards, Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day, the abolitionists of slavery, 15 generations of the African-American church, civil rights leaders and anti-war activists.
The argument among religious believers has always been with what matters we should be most concerned and the most prudent ways to express such concerns and convictions.
But now it is an election year and we are revisiting these questions. I have a colleague who recently said, “It must be an election year because all of the candidates are talking about God and going back to church.”
Why is there so much religious language and rhetoric from our political leaders? Our candidates are keenly aware that America is a highly religious country, full of people with diverse, but deep moral convictions. More Americans attend church on Sunday mornings than attend weekend football games, and that includes high school, college and pro games combined!
But candidates also know that except for race, religious involvement is the most powerful predictor of how someone will vote – more so than income, education, gender, or any other social demographic category.
A July 2003 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that: 87 percent of Americans say religion is important in their life; 70 percent of Americans say they want their president to be “a person of faith”; and 64 percent of registered voters say their “personal beliefs and faith” will help shape their vote for president.
An August 2004 nationwide survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, showed that 52 percent of the voters surveyed see the GOP, and 40 percent view the Democratic Party, as being more friendly toward religion. Among the sample, a majority, 53 percent, were also comfortable with the way Bush’s religious beliefs affect his policymaking. The new poll also pointed out that a substantial majority of voters, 64 percent, say that “moral values” will be an important factor when they cast their ballots in November.
How do we account for these polls that appear to show the Republican Party as more friendly to religion? And why is the Democratic Party deemed to be less so?
The Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg has described secular voters as “the true loyalists” of the Democratic Party, estimating that they make up 15 percent of the party’s base, which is almost the same size of the white evangelical base on the GOP side. And in the social science journal The Public Interest (Fall, 2002) two political scientists from Baruch College, Louis Bolce and Gerald DeMaio, argue in an important essay, “Our Secularist Democratic Party,” that the Democratic Party has become the political home of non-believers.
In their study, secularists are defined as those who reject scriptural authority, have no religious affiliation, never attend religious services or pray, and say religion provides no guidance in their daily life.
As secularists have become more numerous, they have become an important Democratic voting bloc. The authors argue that secularists are as large and loyal a Democratic constituency as organized labor. They point out that in the 2000 election, both “comprised about 16 percent of the white electorate and both backed Democratic nominee Al Gore with two-thirds of their votes.”
Moreover, they highlight the rise of a new type of voter – the “anti-fundamentalist.” They write: “The results indicate that over the past decade persons who intensely dislike fundamentalist Christians have found a partisan home in the Democratic Party.” Clinton captured 80 percent of these voters in his victories over President Bush in 1992; Gore picked up 70 percent of the anti-fundamentalist vote in the 2000 election.
According to these authors, for the Democratic Party “gaining solid support from anti-fundamentalist voters has become crucial to achieving victories at the national level. … Just as Republicans need to win the evangelical-fundamentalist vote without scaring off religious moderates, so too must Democrats mobilize secularists and anti-fundamentalists without becoming too identified in public discourse as the party hostile to religion.”
Many religious people are Democrats. But recent studies and polls indicate that secular elites within the party have worked long and hard to marginalize religion in America and to banish it from the public square. Despite the infusion of religious and theological language into recent speeches by Sen. Kerry, it may be too little, too late.