Is More “Religion” the Key to a Democratic Victory?

Flag of the United States on Ceiling

During the past few weeks, I’ve seen a number of articles calling on Democrats to “get religion” and pay greater attention to White Evangelical and White Catholic voters. These articles were prompted by recent polls showing that majorities in these two groups of Christians now believe that Donald Trump is not “morally upstanding,” disapprove of his behavior, and disagree with his policies on issues like immigration, taxes, and climate. So the thinking is that if Democrats spoke more openly about religion, they might pick up support from these Trump voters. While I agree that Democrats need more outreach to White voters, I’m not convinced that just “getting religion” is the way to do it.

One clear sign of how this push to see religion as a panacea falls short is that it fails to recognize the deep disconnect between values and voting behavior. This is the only explanation for another finding in these same polls: namely, that significant majorities of these same White Christians who say they have a concern with the President’s behavior, also say that they still believe “he fights for what I believe in” and say that they will vote to reelect him in November?

Most White voters aren’t supporting Trump because of their religion or his “morality.” They vote for him out of the mistaken belief that he cares about them.

It’s also overly simplistic to point to cultural concerns like race, abortion, or gay rights as the reasons why most White voters back President Trump. While some of his supporters are, in fact, racist or single-issue opponents of abortion, it’s important to understand that for many other voters, these issues are symptoms of deeper unrest that has afflicted many Americans.

The real problems are meta-cultural – that is, the result of deeper underlying dislocations in our political and social life that have made some voters so unsettled and insecure that they have become easy prey for exploitation. So when political consultants who urge Democrats urge to talk more about God or to frame issues using religious language to win over these white Christian voters, they are missing the point.

It’s not the first time, that Democrats have made this mistake. I remember after Tim Kaine, a devout Catholic, won his race to be Governor of Virginia, a Democratic Party leader noted that “the Kaine victory demonstrates how important it is for us to talk more about religion.”

Sure enough in interviews over the next few months, this leader spoke about religion, God, etc. Because it was so new to him, it appeared as if he were speaking a foreign language. Finally, at a meeting of Democrats, I confronted this matter, saying “Tim Kaine didn’t win because he spoke about religion. He won because he’s authentic and when he speaks about his faith, it rings true and people believe in him. When other folks speak about religion and aren’t really religious, it’s inauthentic. So be yourself, that’s what counts.”

In 2016, I was struck by how Bernie Sanders made significant inroads with White working-class voters without addressing religion. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, often spoke about her Methodist upbringing and failed to win their trust. Polls showed that the reason was that while Sanders was seen as authentic, Clinton was not.

The problem is deeper than the words we use. It lies at the heart of the multiple crises facing too many voters. For at least six decades now, many White middle-and-working-class Americans (another way to describe the same demographic) feel that their lives are spinning out of control. The values they were taught and hoped their children would embrace have been rejected by the dominant culture (and many of their children). Add to this severe economic and social dislocation brought on by the loss of factory and mining jobs, and you have a real crisis.

Once thriving middle-class neighborhoods are in ruin. Cities across the once-industrial Midwest have been decimated. And the decline of these cities and neighborhoods and the economic downward mobility of the middle-class are accompanied by new pressures that threaten families and communities. To be poetic, the White middle- and working-class feel adrift in a storm-tossed sea.

Many have turned to religious fundamentalism as a way of providing structure and certainty to their lives. Because they feel vulnerable in the face of the economic and social forces that have threatened their way of life, they have become responsive to conservative messages that prey on their fears. Republicans have been especially adept at exploiting insecurity. They blame the benefits received by minorities, the jobs taken by immigrants, and the threat of crime and violence as explanations for their plight. And they point to uncaring “coastal elites” whose only concerns are to advance their social agendas as the reason why the working class who built this country are now ignored. All this GOP pandering is, of course, patently disingenuous since as one Republican strategist told me over a decade ago, “we use these issues like shiny objects just to win their votes.” In-office, they prioritize their own agenda-less taxes, smaller government, deregulation, etc.

Compounding this is the sad fact that many White working-class voters now feel that the party that they once supported and that once championed “the little guy” has abandoned them. In their view, Democrats represent the concerns of everyone else, but not theirs. And so, the tables have turned. The Republicans are perceived as the party of the “little guy,” while Democrats are seen by many White working-class voters as the party of elites who look down their noses at them and have abandoned them.

After the last election, I recall discussing the Democratic Party platform language on abortion with some progressive Catholics who said “we lost because of that platform.” I disagreed because that language had never seen the light of day – as is the case with most party platforms. And so I responded “the platform language wasn’t the reason we lost. It was a symptom of why we lost.”

What Democrats need isn’t more God language, but more empathy for the real hurt felt by those who have been ignored. It’s not just “reaching out to them.” It’s including the concerns of all voters as partners and making them feel respected and at home.

Winning politics isn’t about “either-or,” it’s about “both-and.” It’s vitally important and eminently possible for a Democrat to address issues of race, gender equality, and respect for gay rights, while at the same time, acknowledging and demonstrating a real understanding of the losses, and the fears and aspirations of White middle and working-class voters. Instead of Trump’s use of anger and fear of the “other” and the politics of division, Democrats need to speak to all voters with an all-encompassing vision that can inspire them, include them, and give them hope for the future.