Democrats face “a serious God problem,” as a new Pew Research Center study kindly reported.
Conducted in July, the survey found that only 26 percent of respondents identified the Democratic Party as “friendly” to religion, down three points from last year.
As bad as that number is, the situation is much worse than it looks. The number is far lower than it was three years ago when 42 percent said the Democrats were friendly to religion.
Democrats have dropped 16 points at the very time that they have been hard at work saying, “We are people of faith, too.”
Democrats appear disconnected from America— America is a nation of faith in which 67 percent say the country is Christian. Some 70 percent of white Americans say the nation is Christian, while 74 percent of those 50 and over say it is. The Pew report said that “overwhelmingly” Americans “favor more, not less, religion in the country.”
What is not working for the Democrats? The answer is not effort. Democrats talk about faith and make faith initiatives.
Before Howard Dean was elected chair of the Democratic National Committee, he said, “People of faith are in the Democratic Party, including me.” The DNC soon added an interfaith page to its Web site under the heading, Faith in Action, which contains articles about Muslims, Buddhists and gay Christians, hardly a way to connect to church-going America.
On the other hand, the House Democratic leadership launched over a year and a half ago a positive initiative called the Democratic Faith Working Group that dialogues with Christian leaders and encourages faith expressions among its members.
Others make a faith connection. CrossLeft, The Center for American Progress’ Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, Faith in Public Life, Faithful America and Faithful Democrats are some of the attempts to persuade Americans that political centrists to progressives are people of faith, too.
Despite these efforts and the explicit faith language of candidates, Democrats are still sliding off the spiritual road.
Blaming the media for the perception of irreligion among Democrats avoids unpleasant answers to why Democrats have a “God problem.”
An obvious part of the answer is that Democrats are way behind the Republicans, who have been ordained repeatedly over 25 years as the party of God, first by the Moral Majority then by the Christian Coalition and now by Focus on the Family. The religious right has successfully defined GOP as God’s Only Party and banished the Democratic Party as an illegitimate house of faith.
However, a much larger part of the painful answer is Democrats’ own message and messengers.
The message “we are people of faith, too” sounds inauthentic and whiny, especially when Democrats come across so wishy-washy with interfaith babble. That doesn’t connect with people who actually go to church and really read the Bible.
It does reinforce the harmful perception of political correctness. Democrats seem more concerned with an all-inclusive interfaith agenda than the exercise of political power to establish justice in a sinful world, what God expects from believers. Unless leading Democrats are willing to define themselves as Christians who pray, attend church and speak comfortably about seeking God’s will, then why should those who define themselves as Christians feel comfortable with the Democratic Party?
But the problem is more than the message. It’s the messenger. Too many so-called faithful Democrats are political consultants without church credentials, politicians without a church attendance record and special-interest advocates who think that claiming to be spiritual validates their faith to those who believe their salvation is in Jesus Christ alone.
The messenger problem is more than politicos pitching themselves as pious.
The Democratic Party simply doesn’t have messengers who are preachers of big-steeple churches. The Republican Party does with its fundamentalist leaders, who push a precooked agenda with biblical proof texts. Democrats don’t have clergy-types with national constituencies to activate as do Republicans with James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, Pat Robertson and Rick Warren.
Democrats are unlikely ever to have such a national countervailing force. That means Democrats must adopt a different, much subtler, long-term strategy that begins with the mantra that “all Christianity is local.” It means engaging mainstream white Protestant pastors, instead of relying on clergy of liberal organizations inside the Beltway.
It means nurturing relationships with church-based clergy in the fly-over country, listening authentically to their moral vision and values, paying them as much attention as Democrats do to big donors and giving them ownership through legislative and policy initiatives.
Change the message. Find new messengers. Reverse the “God problem.”
Robert Parham is executive director of the BaptistCenter for Ethics.