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The God gap

How religion divides the Democrats

THE CULTURE WAR, we tend to think, is being fought between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. Yet culture war issues are retreating in significance between the parties; neither is addressing affirmative action in 2004, and abortion has yet to emerge as a major theme of the campaign. At the same time, however, the culture war is being played out within each party.

Libertarians and social conservatives are locked in a do-or-die battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Despite the influence of the religious right within the party, the vice president's more tolerant stand on gay marriage and the prominence of moderate speakers at the Republican convention suggest that the social conservatives have not won every battle. If Mr. Bush is reelected, conservatism will be triumphant, but no one knows just what kind of conservatism it will be.

Among Democrats, there is a less visible, but no less important, struggle going on. It involves religion itself and the role it ought to play in public life.

On the one side are those who believe that Democrats will never again be capable of winning the hearts and minds of a majority of the American people unless they are seen as a party that takes religion seriously. One can see this new dispensation throughout the party's approach to the 2004 presidential election. Although John Kerry, a Catholic, is clearly uncomfortable with the testimonial style of President Bush's born-again evangelicalism, he has taken to mentioning God in his speeches -- including the rousing line in his convention acceptance speech reminding us that it is more important to pray that we're on God's side than to claim Him for ours -- and has let the media know where and when he would be attending Mass.

Indeed, the convention that nominated Kerry was rife with God-talk, most dramatically in Barack Obama's declaration that "we worship an awesome God in the blue states." And in a sermon delivered at the liberal Riverside Church on Manhattan's Upper West Side the day before the Republican convention began, Bill Clinton told the congregation that when he first heard the portion of the Bible in which God tells Isaiah, "Fear not for I will redeem thee. Call me by thy name. Thou art mine," he did not think that the Lord was inviting him to join one particular political party.

All of these speeches served to remind Democrats that their party, for all its appeal to committed secularists who hold that human beings should not put their faith in a higher power, has also been the party that through much of American history attracted the support of those, largely Southerners, who considered themselves born again in Christ. It was, after all, Jimmy Carter, a born-again Southern Democrat, who brought evangelical Christianity to the White House long before George W. Bush.

Even opinion outlets not widely known for their sympathy toward religion have joined in this effort. "Democrats: Get Right with God," declared a recent cover of The Nation magazine. Inside, contributing writer Eyal Press recounted the efforts by progressive evangelical groups such as Res Publica, FaithfulAmerica.org, Evangelicals for Social Action, and Call to Renewal (which publishes the magazine Sojourners) to challenge the Republican monopoly on Christian involvement in politics, concluding that Democrats needed to find "common ground" with them.

The fact is that at least since William Jennings Bryan, religious believers, including those who affiliate with theologically conservative Protestant denominations, have pursued the goal of social justice out of commitments to Christ's teachings. Furthermore, many members of these denominations who are economically vulnerable ought to be natural Democratic voters but are turned off by what they perceive to be the party's hostility toward religion.

It is not difficult to understand why many religious voters often perceive the Democrats as too secular. However important it may be to reach out to religious voters in general elections, the party's platform and nominees for national office need to appeal to party activists motivated by ideological concerns, many of whom identify religious conservatives as their major antagonists on some issues. For government to prohibit abortion, say, or ban gay marriage, in their view, represents not only misguided public policy but also conforms to what secular people typically view as an old-fashioned morality, rooted in religious traditionalism, that demands of people that they sacrifice their personal liberty for the sake of obedience to the commands of a supernatural authority. Even while appreciating the role that religion played in the civil rights movement -- and recognizing that African Americans remain overwhelmingly people of faith -- many of the Democratic Party's key financial supporters and foot soldiers remain uncomfortable with too much talk about God.

This secularist viewpoint has strong support among intellectuals who shape the ideas that motivate party activists. In her recent book "Freethinkers," Susan Jacoby brings back to life all those people -- Thomas Jefferson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Clarence Darrow -- who both challenged the religious pieties of their day and stood for progressive social change. Jacoby's history is rather selective; there have been conservatives in our tradition, such as the Social Darwinist William Graham Sumner, who were atheists, just as there have been advocates for social justice, like Walter Rauschenbusch, who promoted the concept of the social gospel, who were religious. Still, Jacoby's book has been warmly welcomed among those who believe, as she does, that the religious right exercises enormous power in the United States because its talk of God resonates with too many Americans who, frightened by the modern world, retreat into the realms of superstition and unreason.

. . .

The secularist position shaped the reigning orthodoxy that influenced the Democratic Party from the 1960s until the 1990s. During those years, the US Supreme Court established separation of church and state as a reality in American life by ruling school prayers unconstitutional and by denying public financing for Catholic schools. The decisions themselves generally had widespread support; even conservative Christian denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention adhere to church-state separation.

But court decisions nonetheless contributed to the secularization of the Democrats in two important ways. First, court decisions, up to and including Roe v. Wade, were widely interpreted by believers as representing the triumph of a liberal worldview that they in turn associated with the Democrats (despite the fact that Chief Justice Earl Warren, who presided over the Court that often reached these liberal decisions, was himself a Republican). Second, court decisions that rightly established the principle of separation of church and state were often interpreted by secular liberals as suggesting that the secular way of life -- with its commitments to individual freedom and rational deliberation -- was preferable to a religious way of life that accepted some things as unknowable and insisted on the importance of revealed truth.

This secularism achieved the height of its influence within the Democratic Party at its 1996 national convention when Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey was denied a speaking role. There is some dispute about why; many conservatives say it was because his opposition to abortion made him persona non grata within the party, while others point out that he was refused a speaking role because he would not endorse the party's platform. But under either interpretation, the Democratic Party managed to marginalize the Democratic governor of a key swing state because it had made support for abortion a litmus test of party leadership. Believers who might not share the religious right's agenda, but who also worried on religious grounds that the act of abortion really did involve taking away a human life, were told that they ought to look elsewhere for a party to join.

In 2004, Democrats moved toward the center on religious issues just as they did with foreign and domestic policy. The party platform, for example, in direct contrast to the Casey imbroglio, strongly supports Roe v. Wade while also calling for "adoption incentives," a clear concession to those religious believers who prefer adoption to abortion. Additionally, the platform borrows the moderate language first used by Bill Clinton when it states that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare."

The question Democrats will have to face, whether or not they win the election, is whether this effort to reach out to believers constitutes a temporary truce in the interest of defeating George W. Bush or a longer-term effort to rein in the more determined secularists among them.

Nowhere has the secularist view of the world been asserted with stronger conviction than among the liberal judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers most of the Western states. It is difficult to determine which of its two most controversial decisions was more grounded in a secularist worldview: its 1996 ruling striking down a Washington State law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide or its 2002 ruling holding that the phrase "under God" should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Both decisions were widely applauded by many liberals. At the same time, the Washington State case was taken by many religious believers, whether or not they considered themselves members of the religious right, to suggest that the Court was siding with those who believe that life ought to end when it is deemed no longer worth living over those who insist that God decides such matters. And in the Pledge case, the Court was seen as endorsing those who do not want religion to play any role in our public life while rejecting the position of those who do.

On some issues, the more secularist wing of the Democratic Party seems certain to preserve its dominance. One of them is school choice. Although often viewed as a Republican idea, school choice is enormously popular among African Americans, who vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats. Black parents not only feel more empowered by school vouchers, they frequently want to use them to send their children to religious schools where they will be exposed to clearer moral instruction as well as a firmer approach to discipline.

Yet Democratic office holders frequently find themselves grateful for the support of educational associations that detest school choice. Their argument that school choice will weaken public schooling is most likely correct, but in some cases it also masks an underlying hostility to religious-based education. It is difficult to imagine them deciding that their commitments to racial equality ought to include allowing more inner-city kids to use public funds to attend schools where students pray to Jesus or imbibe the teachings of the Nation of Islam.

. . .

The issue of school choice reveals how the politics of religion and class intersect in ways that may present a problem for Democrats. Secularism has its greatest appeal among upper-middle-class liberals and professionals, while poorer Americans tend to be more religious. Democrats simply cannot win elections based on the votes of the former. For one thing, there are not enough of them. For another, significant numbers of upper-middle-class professionals, however strong their identification with the left on cultural issues, are Republicans on economic ones -- and frequently vote that way.

To become a majority party, Democrats have to build stronger ties of support among poor white Protestants in the South and border states, urban Catholics in the Midwestern ones, and Hispanic immigrants in the West. Messages perceived as hostile to religion are not going to reach any of those groups.

In politics demography tends to drive ideas. For this reason alone, the turn toward religion that can be seen in the speeches by Kerry and Obama are more than just a tactical response to the Bush administration's open embrace of conservative religious voters. Although neither Kerry or Obama are from the South, they are in line with the direction established for the party by Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, politicians who had an instinctive feel for both faith and liberal political positions.

The United States, for better or worse, remains a religious country. No party can be a majority party unless it acknowledges that fact.

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, is writing a book on American greatness that will appear next February.

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