Straw Men on Parade: Democrats And Religion

Gregory Rodriguez opined in a July 16th Los Angeles Time op-ed that Democrats should listen to Barack Obama’s recent remarks on faith and "tear down the party’s self-imposed wall between religious faith and politics" even though it would most likely offend the small block of secularists whom the party "appease[s]". Neither of these calls are new: a theme of public discourse since the 2004 election has been Democrats’ inability to steal religious voters away from Republicans. According to this narrative, Democrats are beholden to a small but overwhelmingly powerful secularist block that leads them to adopt stances that drive out liberal Christians and shun belief in the public sphere. Yet upon closer examination, both Rodriguez and Obama’s positions are just sermons directed at straw men.

Rodriguez cites a 1972 poll that stated that 24% of Democrat delegates at the McGovern convention were secular as proof of the existence of the atheist block. It is true that in 1972, that amount of delegates was disproportionate, yet delegates always represent the extremes of a party simply because they are the most active of the party’s constituents. They are hardly representative of party’s leadership and overall constituency. And they must be more tolerant than Rodriguez thinks if they approved the nominations of politicians such as Jimmy Carter, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore, who have bent over backwards to demonstrate their faith.

Yet how is a 30-year old poll proof that an organized and vocal group has imposed secularism on the rest of the party? Rodriguez states that "these secular Democrats are much more likely than others to be high-level party activists." Oh really? Then who are these "high-level" secularists? Perhaps Rodriguez does not wish to name them because he is afraid that the atheist mafia will come for him in the middle of the night and hit him up for subscriptions to Skeptic and New Humanist. There is a similar disregard for supporting evidence in Rodriguez’s claims that the Democrats kowtow to this minority. Although he alleges that since the 1970s, the secularists forced the Democrats to "tone down" their appeal to religious voters, he does not provide any specifics except a vague statement that it forced Democrats to "seek a higher wall separating church and state" and support "progressive stances on feminism and homosexuality."

To state that after the 1970s secularists forced the Democrats to "tone down" totally ignored the Democrats’ nomination of Jimmy Carter, arguably the most prominent evangelical President up until the election of George W. Bush. The secular bloc that Rodriguez cites did try to stop his nomination, but were unsuccessful. Yet Carter’s public faith did not sate religious conservatives because it did not translate into public policy that they favored.

Second, what does Rodriguez really mean when he mentions the Democrats’ support for "progressive feminism" and "homosexuality?" Again, he doesn’t give us any specifics or define what he thinks those two things are. Does he mean laws that give women more rights in the home and workplace? Or does he mean feminist activists, who may have had a cultural force, but not a demonstrative influence over everyday policy? Has a radical feminist ever been declared by Time to be "a Democratic power broker?" Has the wife of a Democratic presidential candidate ever burned a bra? Does Rodriguez mean Hillary Clinton, who is declared to by the right to be a radical feminist simply because she has ambitions to be something else besides a shadow of her husband?

As for Democratic support for "homosexuals," is he talking about the same Democratic party whose chairman, Howard Dean, went on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and declared "The Democratic party platform from 2004 says marriage is between a man and a woman." Although Dean mischaracterized the 2004 platform, the gesture itself was significant. And the 2004 party platform itself left the question up to the states. Although a few Democrats, most famously San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, support gay marriage, the Democrat party leadership has been timid, refusing to explicitly endorse and fight for gay marriage for fear of a heartland backlash. A party dominated by secularists would not be so apprehensive. Rodriguez again does not provide any examples of a supposed Democrat bias towards gays, and conflates fringe activists and a few elected officials into an all-powerful gay voting bloc.

Obama himself is not much better than Rodriguez at explaining which Democrats find religion in the public square "inherently irrational or intolerant…[insist] on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical…[and think] that the very word ‘Christian’ describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith." He doesn’t explain which Democrats are in favor of that, or how that is implemented on the grass-roots level. One also wonders how he would be able to deliver such a scathing critique, much less shout his own faith from the rooftops, if Democrats were so hostile towards religion.

Obama’s only examples of anti-religious Democratic rhetoric was the court case triggered by a solitary atheist, Michael Newdow, and what he sees as widespread opposition to voluntary student prayer groups in schools, opposition which he again fails to specify. Perhaps if he did, he’d also need to mention the fact that voluntary student prayer groups are legally allowed in school by a longstanding Supreme Court decision.

Rodriguez and Obama don’t have any real suggestions for Democrats to recapture the support of believers. Rodriguez himself acknowledges that Democrats should not change their positions. He only has a vague exhortation for Democrats to "develop a renewed respect for the faith of the American public." Obama makes similar noises about not "abandon[ing] the field of religious discourse." Yet he also acknowledges that inauthentic presentations of faith will not convince anyone. What should Democrats do? Start talking about God with the same frequency Republicans do? That wouldn’t convince any churchgoer. Besides, as Rodriguez points out, most believers are not monolithic:

"Look closely at surveys on religiously charged issues and you’ll find that all religious voters don’t think alike. According to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, white evangelical Protestants are the only group that considers the issue of same-sex marriage of significant importance, while the vast majority of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics do not. Similarly, most white mainline Protestants and white Catholics do not oppose stem cell research, while most evangelicals do."

Rodriguez and Obama ultimately aren’t describing a real problem, but buying into a conservative myth. No doubt there is a higher proportion of secularists in the Democratic party than the Republican, but to suggest that those tiny group of activists drive the policy of a party that has been, with the exception of a brief period in the late 60’s, aggressively centrist, is to parade straw men. The Democrats look secular in comparison because the Republicans have become so religious that they are abandoning the most classically conservative part of the Constitution: the separation of Church and State.

What has changed in America is the increasing role of religion in public life due to a 30-year boom in mega churches, superstar preachers, and organized religious voting blocs. The Democrats have not changed and suddenly become anti-religious; the problem is that they stayed the same. Meanwhile, the Republicans adapted to this new and important bloc and gained its allegiance while waging a successful media campaign to paint the Democrats as anti-religious. In doing so, the Republicans turned public displays of piety into a necessary ritual for would-be politicians across the political spectrum.

There is no widespread opposition to faith in the Democratic party. There is a diversity of opinion, and the party as a whole is still trying to figure out themselves what the role of faith is in party policy. There is truth when Rodriguez and Obama say that Democrats must find a way to be able to deal with religion in the public sphere. But if Democrats continue to attack each other over this, they will only give ammunition to Republicans who want to ensure that the Democrats remain seen as godless.