November 3, 2019

The Democrats' Religion Problem

Jesus fish

Here's a quick take on Mark Silk's recent post at Religion News Service, Do the Democrats have a religion problem? Yes, the Democratic Party does have a religion problem. Specifically, they have been far too slow to maintain their tradition of religious pandering in the face of declining religious affiliation. It remains to be seen whether this will cost them in terms of votes, but it is unfortunate either way.

In the minds of many younger voters, religiosity has become associated with bigotry. I do not mean to suggest that most young voters think that all religious believers are bigots. That is not the case. What I am suggesting is that religiosity in the sense of frequency of church attendance, the degree to which religion is a central part of one's life, and other common indicators are beginning to be associated with bigotry. Here's another way to think about it: when younger voters hear someone described as "a devout Christian," the connotations are less positive than they used to be.

Fortunately, younger voters seem to be less accepting of bigotry, even when it is religiously motivated. The notion that same-sex marriage ever would have been legally prohibited strikes many as backwards and few will remember a time when there were no LGBTQ+ characters on television. I'm just guessing here, but I suspect that they might also be less accepting than their parents of something like child rape by Catholic clergy.

We have long heard the argument that the Democrats have to take precautions to avoid appearing too secular. We have seen candidates who probably weren't religious feign belief, and we have heard far too much about presidential campaigns hiring "faith outreach" directors. This might have been necessary in the past. Some of it might even still be necessary today; however, it seems clear that it is far less necessary today than it used to be. We may not be that far from when feigning religious belief, religious pandering, and faith-based outreach alienate too many secular voters to be viable strategies.

Of course, there is a very appealing counter-argument to all of this, and I am sure it is one with which you are familiar. It goes like this:

Democrats should embrace faith and try to appeal to religious voters because there is zero downside to doing so and the upside is that they may pick up some religious voters. There is zero downside because secular voters have nowhere else to go. It is not like these secular progressives are going to start voting Republican because the Democratic candidates seem too religious.
There's probably some truth to this argument, at least for now. But what if the first openly atheistic presidential candidates were Republican? Republican voters have demonstrated that they will gladly stick with a candidate who shares virtually none of their religious values, and such a candidate might be attractive to Democrats who have grown tired of all the religious pandering.

I think the optimal strategy for Democratic politicians and the party, in general, is probably one of gradually reducing the frequency with which they promote religious belief, firing all those faith outreach directors, and connecting with voters around reality-based policies. This will have to be a gradual process, but it is one that should begin soon. I suspect this would be far more effective than trying to "religify" climate change, which is what Silk seems to be suggesting. Climate change is already an important humanist issue, and that should be enough.