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The divided soul of the Democratic Party

A choir performs before the start of the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 25, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Segar

PHILADELPHIA (RNS) To judge by public perceptions, and more than a few pundits, the Democratic Party is the default home of secularists and atheists, with practicing believers shunted to a side room only to be trotted out when a political event needs a gloss of godliness.

But walking around the Democratic National Convention taking place this week and talking to delegates and activists reveals a much different picture, with people of faith — almost every faith — eager to testify to their beliefs and how they in fact bolster their political choice for a party some view as inimical to religion.

“I believe Jesus Christ is my Lord and savior. I grew up in a Pentecostal family — and I’m a staunch Democrat,” said delegate and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

“I don’t think the other party has a monopoly on faith,” insisted Diaz, who said his beliefs dovetail with his stands on economic equality and other issues.

Indeed, both faith and diversity were often on display at the Wells Fargo Center, where the convention was called to order every afternoon — and closed every evening — by prayer, and at various events taking place each day around the city.

A case in point: The latest “Nuns on the Bus” tour for social justice ended its three-week, 13-state campaign to combat the nation’s divisions by parking outside the arena. In addition, at special sessions devoted to faith outreach, Muslims, mainline Protestants and others delivered impassioned sermons about marrying faith to public action.

“It is easy to say that what happens in culture and society and business or even in our own homes is not the concern of people of faith like you and me,” Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church told dozens of delegates and activists in a full-throated exhortation that prompted an “Amen!” chorus.

But beyond “saving souls and helping needy individuals,” she insisted, “our faith makes it very clear that our corporate response to the evil in this world is just as important.”

At the same time, the religious enthusiasm that animates so many in the party’s grass roots hasn’t always filtered through to the party elite where concrete policy decisions are made.

Numerous delegates and activists who take their cues from their faith complained that party leaders have effectively dropped faith-based participants from the process of drafting the party platform or helping to shape the campaign message for nominee Hillary Clinton.

READ: Can Hillary Clinton finally close the ‘God gap’?

Privately, many expressed anger at this development, which they say is a departure from the party’s earlier efforts to heed the concerns of religious believers — concerns they say could attract undecided voters and those disillusioned with what they see as the dark and divisive language from Republican nominee Donald Trump.

Previous Democratic efforts to attract faith-based voters began in earnest after the failed 2004 campaign of nominee John Kerry, when the so-called God gap — the gulf between churchgoers who vote for the GOP as opposed to the Democrats — emerged as a glaring problem.

In 2008 and 2012, the Obama campaign was diligent about reaching out to people of faith and including faith-based activists and party regulars in the campaign and, subsequently, in the Obama administration.

Yet those efforts tailed off noticeably this year, which can only fuel the public’s growing impression that Democrats are more hostile to faith than the GOP is.

"More see GOP as religion-friendly than say the same about the Democratic Party." Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

“More see GOP as religion-friendly than say the same about the Democratic Party.” Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

A Pew survey from January was the latest marker in that trend: The polling showed that since 2003 the number of Americans who say the Democratic Party is “friendly toward religion” has fallen from 42 percent to 30 percent. Over the same period, the number who say the Democrats are “unfriendly to religion” has doubled, from 12 percent to 24 percent.

By contrast, 42 percent of Americans say Republicans are faith-friendly and 21 percent say they are unfriendly to faith.

Some delegates in Philadelphia said it’s time for the party to do more to change that dynamic. They said they are viewed too often with suspicion by party officials if they speak about faith or if they talk about hot-button moral issues such as abortion and religious freedom, or on behalf of faith-based programs or school choice.

“If we really are the inclusive party then we should include everyone,” said Paul Vallone, a New York City councilman and practicing Catholic who spoke after a breakfast meeting for the New York state delegation. “Everyone’s got to feel that they can bring their faith to this party and not feel ostracized for it. That still hasn’t happened. We really need to focus on that.”

READ: DNC platform: Plenty for religious progressives to love

“The party needs to understand the relevance of God in today’s world,” agreed New York state Sen. James Sanders, an African-American Protestant who studied for the ministry as a young man.

“The party needs to understand that there are people of faith and we are going to vote based on our faith. Be it the Bible or the Talmud or the Quran or whatever faith brings people here, they should not be chased out of these halls. They should be welcomed, be embraced.”

One factor that may contribute to the perception that Democrats are not especially faith-friendly is that the party is, in fact, so religiously diverse.

The new religious voters and activists coming into the Democratic Party have often felt rejected by the language and policies of Republicans, but also by the dominance of white conservative Christians in the GOP.

They are not looking to establish their own dominance in the Democratic Party but instead tend to seek common ground on policies that will protect their rights and the rights of other minorities. It is about promoting diversity rather than championing one group over and against another.

That crossover dynamic was manifested this year, for example, in the strong support that Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who was Clinton’s rival for the nomination, drew from the Muslim community.

Linda Sarsour is a Bernie Sanders delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia who co-founded a Muslim advocacy group, MPower Change. Sarsour spoke to RNS after a breakfast meeting of the New York State delegation. Photo by Ian West/DeSales Media

Linda Sarsour is a Bernie Sanders delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia who co-founded a Muslim advocacy group, MPower Change. Sarsour spoke to RNS after a breakfast meeting of the New York state delegation. Photo by Ian West/DeSales Media

“His values and principles as a Jewish-American really spoke to me as a Muslim-American,” said Linda Sarsour, a die-hard Sanders delegate who co-founded a Muslim advocacy group, MPower Change.

“He’s genuine, he’s authentic, and he really connected with our community in a transformative way,” Sarsour said. That connection was demonstrated when Muslims in Michigan effectively delivered the key state to Sanders during the primaries, slowing Clinton’s growing march to the nomination.

One result of all this diversity is that expressions of faith tend to be cast in generic “golden rule” terms to avoid sectarian or offensive language.

While such language can express admirable goals, it’s not especially memorable or particularly convincing.

READ: Who boos an opening prayer? The Berniacs of 2016, that’s who

Another challenge for Democratic believers is the cold political reality that there are more religiously unaffiliated voters than ever — at 21 percent of the electorate, the so-called nones now constitute a larger voting bloc than any single religious group. And those voters are increasingly leaning Democratic, which means the party can’t afford to ignore or offend them.

Despite these factors, the “God-talk” quotient did seem to grow as the convention went on,  thanks to guest speakers not directly associated with the party: Women from Mothers of the Movement and leaders of Black Lives Matter whose children have died in confrontations with authorities were one moving example.

“Give me two moments to tell you how good God is. Give me a moment to say thank you,” Geneva Reed-Veal, whose 28-year-old daughter, Sandra Bland, died in jail after being pulled over for a traffic stop in Texas in 2015, said in a heart-wrenching moment Tuesday night. “We are not standing here because he’s not good. We are standing here because he’s great.”

Then, on Wednesday night (July 27), the Rev. Jesse Jackson channeled some of his pulpit past with a faith-inflected call and response address while musical performances and cameo appearances focused on themes of faith, hope and love.

But the God-talk really ramped up when U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia introduced the vice presidential nominee, Tim Kaine, with the injunction from the Book of Micah to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

“There are few people,” Scott said, “who live up to the creed as fully as Tim Kaine.”

Kaine then came out and in a well-received speech spoke repeatedly about the centrality of his Catholic faith to his life and mission, and about his Jesuit education to be “a man for others” as the “North Star for orienting my life.”

“Faith, family and work,” he said in the Spanish he learned during a mission year in Honduras, and he repeated the motto in English. “God has created in our country a beautiful and rich tapestry,” he said, and he cited Jesus’ commandment to “love (our) neighbors as ourselves.”

Just as important, Kaine said, his running mate Hillary Clinton is ready to be president “because of her faith.”

It was powerful, persuasive testimony. But many delegates say they want more than just words. “Faith without works is dead” was the New Testament passage some liked to quote, and they will wait to see if the campaign can find a way to include them and their views.

“There are those of us who believe in God and we are in the party. Why don’t we all just relax?” said James Sanders, the New York state senator. “We’re not going away.”

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • The key is neutrality. Neutrality avoids sectarian conflicts and complies with the First Amendment of the Constitution which declares that the government must be neutral with respect to religion.

  • This report smells like something that emanated from Jerry Falwell’s “university” in Virginia. In reality, the Democratic Party is closer to core religious values than the GOP, which now is controlled by Religious Right enablers who do not respect the rights of conscience and religious freedom of women, who seem hellbent on undermining the public schools that serve 90% of our kids, who scorn our constitutional principle of church-state separation, and whose climate change denial threatens the future of our whole planet. Yes, the Democratic Party is more religiously diverse than the GOP, and that is a good thing. — Edd Doerr

  • Ed, the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”A party is not an arm of the U.S. government and can do whatever it wants. I agree, however, that a party should not take sides regarding religion, but it should take stands that involve ethical moral principles, which are always based on religion. The problem with the Dems, is that the leadership’s moral base has eroded, leaving many of the sincere Democrats who are pro-life and pro-marriage without a party.

  • Yes, you got the Ist Amendment right and it’s the Dems who live by it to a far greater extent than the Repubs. In supporting abortion rights are supporting the Ist Amendment.Those who do not approve pf abortion are not obliged to have one. The Dems’ moral base is a lot stronger than that of the GOP.

  • “One factor that may contribute to the perception that Democrats are not especially faith-friendly is that the party is, in fact, so religiously diverse.”

    I think this is the key issue. Republicans are connected with a specific, narrow strip of Christians, and reject all others. In addition, Republicans have served that sliver of religionists in some areas, and offered lip service and fear-mongering to extract votes from them in other areas. That’s gone on for decades.

    Democrats offer space to a wide diversity of believers precisely because they do not favor any particular belief system. That’s the definition of a Big Political Tent.

  • The article makes abundantly clear that the values held by the Democrats at the bottom — such as the black Christian choir in the photograph — are absolutely NOT the values held by the Democrats at the top. Not even close. Hillary ain’t having it.

    Otherwise the national evil of legalized gay marriage, plus willy-nilly abortion-on-demand, would not have free and disastrous reign in the Democratic National Platform, and that Christian choir surely knows it.

    You’re welcome to stand there in your lovely church robes, sing, clap and get happy, but you won’t be allowed to stand there at the Democrat mike and call for additional common-sense regulations on abortion, nor call for a repeal of legalized gay marriage. YOUR religion-informed position on those major issues, which deserve a national platform as much as any other religion-informed (or “Nones”-informed) position, is being totally quarantined and ignored by Hillary and her Elites. It’s time to leave Hillary’s plantation.

  • The vast majority of Democrats (Black, White, Latino) are Christians. The Democrats’ values are closer to core religious ethical values than those of today’s GOP. The Dems have more respect than the Repubs for the public schools that serve 90% of our kids, for the rights of conscience and health of women, for the rights of LGBT men and women, for the religious liberty of all Americans, for the constitutional principle of church-state separation that stands behind that liberty, and for the planet that is endangered by the climate change that the Repubs deny. The alternative to the Dems is Trump, the oafish narcissist who is dragging the GOP through the mud.

  • “but it should take stands that involve ethical moral principles, which are always based on religion”

    That is completely untrue. Religion always muddies ethical and moral principles with sectarian concerns. People have a nasty habit of confusing arbitrary authority from religion with morals.

    “The problem with the Dems, is that the leadership’s moral base has eroded, leaving many of the sincere Democrats who are pro-life and pro-marriage without a party.”

    Neither the anti-abortion, nor the anti-marriage equality position are moral ones. Both involve attacking the rights of people in service of one’s faith. Neither has a place in the Democrat Party.

  • Let me take a position between Jhawk and Spuddie (below). Individuals’ moral positions may be grounded in religious or secular values. The problem with Jhawk’s argument is that it assumes there is only one religiously moral position on complex issues. In fact, just to take the abortion question, there are many ways that people from the same religious tradition or different traditions approach this problem. You can look at it from the concept of “ensoulment” or emphasize the integrity of the person who will bear and care for the child after birth. You could also argue that the decision about whether the embryo should go to full term falls within the scope of the mother’s free will (as the Southern Baptist Convention believed for decades). Our religious traditions promote certain values but there is no one-to-one correspondence between those values and a particular secular position on many contested issues. Quite apart from the legal questions raised by the first Amendment (or Article VI), it’s important not to assert that somebody else’s moral reasoning is by definition invalid.

  • The Democratic party does not promote abortion, gay life style, same sex marriage, Christian religion, other religions. It does support the rights of the individual to make his/her own decisions, a position supported by many religious sects. Associated with child birth are health risks, economic consequences, discomfort and pain. The decision of whether or not to bear a child is not a decision that politicians or men have a right with which to interfere.
    The lack of health insurance results in living sicker and dying prematurely. The Democratic party supports universal health coverage (a core right in the UN Human Rights Declaration and in European countries) because it is morally repugnant to allow persons to suffer, become disabled and die from treatable conditions. The Democratic party supports equal rights for all citizens.

  • The Democratic approach to all problems is to ‘Divide and Conquer’. I know because I was once a Democrat. Dear Christians you are being divided and conquered. It is best that you understand the real purpose for this method. It is ‘Total Control’. Read George Orwell.

  • The only god that either party worships at the feet of is mammon. Both the NY Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer noted the quick return of “big money” now that the Clinton’s are once again in the ascendancy (not that it was ever completely absent).

  • “Democrats offer space to a wide diversity of believers precisely because they do not favor any particular belief system. That’s the definition of a Big Political Tent.”

    And, not coincidentally, the U.S. Constitution.