The liberal phobia of organized religion is well documented. Considering the activist history of the black church and the pious fervor of the Social Gospel movement, it is more than a little surprising that American liberalism today tends to shun religion. Of course, there are theories to spare on this issue. Rather than devote more time to soul searching, Democrats need to accept the realities of American politics as they are, and start recruiting more candidates who can sincerely speak the language and understand the faith of Middle America.
U.S. liberalism, and the Democratic Party in particular, seem to have lost touch with the old fashioned faith of working-class and lower middle-class America. With the notable exceptions of African-Americans and white ethnic, blue-collar union voters, the Democratic mainstream is becoming less and less traditionally religious, regardless of some candidates’ attempts to repackage their politics in a Judeo-Christian wrapper.
In spite of the growing disenchantment with Bush conservatism, millions of Americans yearn for political leadership that affirms traditional religious values. If Democrats don’t heed that fact, especially in this post-9/11 climate, the party will lose credibility with the younger generations raised in the new era of religious awareness and resurgent faith.
In an earlier time, Democratic Presidents never hesitated to invoke their faith in times of hope and crisis. Franklin Roosevelt asked for God’s blessing in his request for a congressional declaration of war in 1941. Catholic social activists played a key role in the development of the New Deal. Many clergymen actively supported the labor rights and industrial union movements. Many Protestant ministers and laypeople, along with Jews, Catholics, and other people of faith, occupied center stage during the civil rights struggle. Religious figures also participated zealously in anti-Vietnam War protests.
Ironically, the party that produced the first evangelical born-again Christian president, Jimmy Carter, rapidly backed away from its time-honored relationship with organized religion. From the Reagan years on through the G. W. Bush administration, the GOP began manipulating both the media and the Democratic Party’s establishment into believing that the Religious Right was the true heart and soul of American Christianity. Mainstream moderate Christians and other religious swing voters are now left up for grabs in political contests.
Many liberal Democrats will argue that the party’s gradual alienation from Middle American religion is a natural consequence of the right wing opposition to abortion, gay rights, and other hot button “family values” issues. This, however, is not necessarily the case.
The heart of the Democratic message, and of traditional liberalism itself, is the concern for economic and social justice. So-called values issues are political devices designed to split traditional Democratic constituencies form their original party and to discourage other working people from hearing the party’s call for equality and opportunity.
In an increasingly divided multicultural society, invoking shared faith principles can help unite diverse religious, racial, and ethnic communities who are more accustomed to hearing the self-serving and xenophobic screeds of conservative demagogues and other dishonest practitioners of racial politics. Conceding the “moral” high ground to the conservative movement is a tragically foolish mistake. The liberal confusion of mainstream religion with mythological superstition and social backwardness has helped cripple the Democratic Party’s ability to connect with the rural and evangelical working classes.
Many liberals have contributed to the unfortunate idea that morality must be divorced from politics and government. Instead of making the case for the morality of their convictions, many secular liberals either recite hollow testimonies of their previously unmentioned faith, or worse yet, deride the importance of religious values to the great majority of Americans. That African-Americans, Latinos, and other minority communities are deeply concerned with moral values as well as political equality is strangely lost on too many Anglo/white liberals who see religion mainly as the political weapon of angry suburban and Southern whites. Liberal Democrats should be seeking common ground with people of faith, while acknowledging legitimate differences of opinion on matters of ethics and morals. Turning the party’s back on religion worsens the cultural divide in America by ceding to the Republicans the banner of religion, allowing them to portray values as the inheritance of certain communities.
In recruiting Democrats of faith and reaching out to moderate white working-class Christians, the Democratic Party will be returning to its traditional liberal roots. Ted Strickland’s election is only the beginning- if we choose to follow up on his success.
Submitted by Kevin Johns