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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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Comments (19)

Before I explain f... (Below threshold)
Anon Y. Mous:
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.

I would rephrase that to say "Evangelicals are the true mainline Protestant group in contemporary American society".

Catholics still make up 24% of Americans, and they are in many ways very different from Evangelicals.

So noted. Thanks.... (Below threshold)

So noted. Thanks.

Problem the democrats had/h... (Below threshold)

Problem the democrats had/have is that religious voters wound up seeing that Obama's faith was only for political purposes, not something he truly believes and definitely not something he lives.

Funny that the survey doesn't talk about how he did amongst Jewish elite, Muslims, the various Pagan groups etc.

I think it depends on what ... (Below threshold)
jim m:

I think it depends on what you are talking about when you use the term "Mainline".

I would argue that in his case we are talking about people who take heir faith seriously and apply the tenets of that faith to their daily lives. The vast majority of what are commonly called mainline Christian denominations (Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, United Church of Christ, etc) have pretty much lost the thread as to what Christian doctrine is. A lot of them have adopted a pretty squishy notion of truth and morals and many are big supporters of social justice even though it often is just a code word for socialist redistributionism and avoidance of personal responsibility.

As for the Roman Catholic Church, it may comprise up to 24% of Americans, but how many actually really follow the tenets of the faith? Father Pfleger in Chicago has for years flouted church teachings with no penalty. Many Catholics ignore the church on its moral teachings. Most do not ever go to a Sunday service.

They are not unusual. Most people calling themselves Christian do not go to church. It was the faith of their parents, but it little effects their lives.

I think the biggest clue is whether the church attendance is growing or declining. In evangelical churches the attendance is growing nation wide. The older denominations are all in decline. The public is rejecting their relativistic approach to truth and morals and rejecting the push toward social justice ministries.

As for obama, he holds the same approach to religion that his chosen church has. He believes in social justice not objective moral truth. He sees the church as an organization for social change and not necessarily one to promote person sanctification.

The media ignored the ugly flaws in his church and what they believed. The media covered up the racism and the socialism and the hate. Most Americans don't believe in those things but that was what obama sat and listened to ever Sunday for 20 years. His faith is not what most people would accept. Few would call it Christian.

I visited a church in my ar... (Below threshold)

I visited a church in my area. The pastor spent his time explaining what terrible things will happen to us sinners. It became unbearable and I left with my wife. I do not believe you should bring people to Christ with fear. If you do not feel encouraged, positive, at peace when you leave a church or listen to a TV program, that's not God.

Now contrast that with the hate preaching and victimization of Obama's church and he sat under that teaching for 20+ years. It had to effect him. He had to have agreement with the pastor. ww

Mike, what are you talking ... (Below threshold)
Jay Guevara:

Mike, what are you talking about? Dems have lots of religious voters. How about the global warmists and other eco-fundamentalists? Or the multiculturalists?

We're passing through aperi... (Below threshold)
Woop dee It Is:

We're passing through aperiod where organized religion is on the decline in the United States, in no small part due to people like Michale LaPrarie.

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.

Arrogant, evengelical asses like Michael are one reason why younger Americans are turning away from religion in increasingly larger numbers.

Americans are tired of the "holier than thou" attitude behind the evangelical Christian right, and they ere rejecting religion. Church-going is on the decline in America.

People like Michael LaPrarie are the reason why. The funniest part is, that he doesn't have a clue -- but goes on to insist that we accept his view as gospel.

What an arrogant ass.

whoop- you are dense, dumb ... (Below threshold)

whoop- you are dense, dumb like a rock.
See how that works, I state a fact and submit as fact your every comment.

Tthere is a lot of humbug o... (Below threshold)
Steve Crickmore:

Tthere is a lot of humbug on this topic of religion and politics. With 40% of adult Americans believing that the earth is only ten thousand years old or less, it stands to reason that no politician is going to write off that constituency. Is there one senator of a hundred for example, who is going to admit being a tiny bit agnostic like Jay Tea or atheist like me? None do, and it is not a coincidence. And when you consider that at least 50% of scientists don't believe in God, there is the disconnect, but in a democracy the majority rules and no politician who wants to be elected will lose sight of that. certainly not Obama.

The article is nonsensical ... (Below threshold)
Village Idiot:

The article is nonsensical because it talks as if evangelicals are the only significant religious group. Completely absurd.

OK, you want to say the more liberal groups are declining, fine, but don't pretend evangelicals are the only group that isn't conservative or strict? Come on. Why expound about religion if you are so totally ignorant about it?

I am starting to notice a d... (Below threshold)
Sky Captain:

I am starting to notice a disturbing pattern in Woop's posts.

He barges in on a thread and tosses out moronic personal attacks on the author.
This is not a good thing, and does not bode well for Woop's continued posting rights.

Woop certainly thinks he knows what an "arrogant ass" looks like, but he's just projecting again.

The New Republic is still b... (Below threshold)
Tsar Nicholas II:

The New Republic is still being published??

I am starting to n... (Below threshold)
I am starting to notice a disturbing pattern in Woop's posts.

I suspect that Woop is one of our previously banned trolls who's managed to sneak back in with a new handle and a new IP address.

Aren't "evangelicals" the g... (Below threshold)
Jim Addison:

Aren't "evangelicals" the group that most supported Huckabee in 2008?


The people dumb enough to b... (Below threshold)

The people dumb enough to believe in Sky Chief and other fairy tales are going to be dumb enough to vote Republican -- it's as simple as that. Who else do you think gets the idiotic Creationist vote? Hey Republicans, your savage, sadistic god has been silent for quite some time now -- why don't you ask him/her/it if he/she/it is still around and let us know the answer you get. Don't wait too long waiting for the answer, though.

I suspect that some found i... (Below threshold)

I suspect that some found it refreshing that Democrats had decided speak about faith, but later found it to be mostly fake.

I can understand the aversion some have to organized religion, and I can also understand the aversion some quickly developed to organized religious pandering. And that is what Democrats seemed to be doing in the run up to the '08 election.

And in post #19, Highlander... (Below threshold)
Sky Captain:

And in post #19, Highlander demonstrates to tolerance of the left.

Wow Highlander ... <a href=... (Below threshold)

Wow Highlander ... Sky Chief!

Our family could only afford Fire Chief ... we didn't have the luxury of believing in a premium deity.

your savage, sadistic go... (Below threshold)
Jay Guevara:

your savage, sadistic god has been silent for quite some time now

Leave Allah out of this.






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