TNR – How Democrats gave up on religious voters

An interesting essay on the nexus between religious faith and political ideology at The New Republic:

Between 2004 and 2007, when Obama announced his
candidacy for president, he became possibly the most prominent
Democratic politician who was comfortable speaking about religion–a
liberal who gave the impression that his religiosity was heartfelt,
genuine, and important to his politics. He spoke with ease about his
conversion; of the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King,
Jr.; and, in a key speech before the Call to Renewal conference in
2006, of the importance of “religion in the public square.”
In the 2008 presidential election, Obama’s message seemed to resonate
with religious people who had not, in recent years, gravitated toward
the Democratic Party. He won more churchgoers than any Democratic
presidential candidate since Bill Clinton.

But, in just two short years, the left has become
sluggish in its courtship of religious voters, significantly scaling
back its faith-outreach programs. While many factors–primarily the
economy–doomed the Democrats this fall, the consequences of this
abdication nevertheless seem to be severe. In the recent midterm
elections, House Democrats lost white evangelical voters in greater
numbers than they did in 2004, when “values voters” flocked to George W.
Bush. Reversing their Democratic allegiance from the past two
elections, Catholics–nearly a quarter of all voters–favored the GOP 54
to 44 percent. Compared to
2008, the drop-offs were steep: a 20-point decline with Catholics, a
14-point decline with white evangelicals, and a 10-point decline with
white Protestants. How and why did this happen?

According to the article, in 2005 the Democrats formed the Faith Working Group in response to the shellacking they received in the 2004 elections.  Specifically, there was great concern over the fact that John Kerry, a Catholic, was “markedly uncomfortable” talking about faith, and lost the Catholic vote and “values voters” in general by a significant margin to George W. Bush.

The article credits the Faith Working Group’s efforts with the Democrats’ 2006 and 2008 Congressional gains, and with the election of Barack Obama.  In fact, candidate Obama did better with religious voters than any Democrat in decades:

On Election Day, Obama made modest but definite inroads
among white evangelicals, Protestants, and Catholics. He did eight
points better than Kerry with Catholic voters; and with voters who went
to church more than once a week, he lowered the GOP advantage from 29 to
12 percent. Voters who attended church monthly actually favored Obama over McCain, 53 to 46 percent (Kerry had lost these voters by two points).

But after the 2008 election, the Democrats largely abandoned the Faith Working Group.  Many of its prominent members were transferred to the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, where they were forbidden by Federal law from participating in election-oriented politics.

And we all know what happened on election day two months ago.

Of course the Democrats’ abandonment of the FWG after their sweeping victory in 2008 could lead us to wonder whether or not they were really serious about including religious faith as a major plank in the party platform.  But I think there are several other factors that have contributed to the loss of confidence in the Democratic party recently expressed by religious voters. 

Before I explain further, though, I think we need to accept, or at least seriously consider, the fact that in terms of numbers and cultural influence, Evangelical Protestants are the true “mainline” Christian* group in contemporary American society.  Both of my observations are centered around this assumption.

First, American Evangelicals are not believers in “big government.”  They also understand “social justice” to be more of a secular tool for social engineering, rather than a Biblical principle.  And they tend to be strong believers in personal responsibility, both moral and financial.  But while average Americans are learning to do more with less, and are generally turning away from easy credit and heavy debt (thanks to the teaching of Evangelicals like Dave Ramsey), our government has embarked on the largest borrowing and spending spree in our nation’s history.  It’s not hard to understand how massive deficits, coupled with unprecedented expansions of government power, run counter to the core beliefs of Evangelicals.

Second, Evangelicals have come to realize that Barack Obama’s understanding of the Christian faith is very different from theirs.  I believe that Barack Obama sincerely considers himself to be a Christian, but his Christian worldview, largely shaped by intellectualism and the teachings of Unitarian-Universalists (through attending their churches with his mother as a youth) and the United Church of Christ (through the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, liberally infused with a health dose of black liberation theology) is literally miles apart from the traditional holiness and fundamentalism-influenced teachings that would be familiar to most Evangelicals.  These differences are, frankly, very uncomfortable for Evangelicals, who are generally very serious about their faith, especially on matters of morality and salvation.

I think there is also a strong top-down disconnect within the Democratic party, and among intellectuals and political insiders in general.  One only has to look at the contempt with which intellectuals view Sarah Palin (which is largely based on her self-confessed Apostolic Evangelical faith) or to revisit Barack Obama’s remarks about Americans in flyover country bitterly clinging to guns and religion, to understand the loathing and contempt that our intellectual elites have for the hoi polloi.  The attitudes displayed by elites clearly express their belief that Evangelicals, with their preference for religious fundamentalism over wordy scholarship emanating from Ivy League divinity schools, are  “unteachably ingnorant,” “poorly educated and easily led” and certainly unworthy of holding elected office.

The funny thing is, Evangelicals view the electability of intellectuals and liberal big-government Christians precisely the same way — you don’t vote for candidates who beat you down and step on you on a regular basis.  Unless Democrats can do a lot of smooth talking during the next two years, they will do just as poorly among Evangelical voters in 2012 as they did this past November.


*Commenter Anon Y. Mous noted that 24% of Americans are Catholic, and therefore Evangelicals represent the new Protestant mainline, not the mainline for Christianity as a whole.

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