Magazine article The Progressive

The Democrats Get Religion

Magazine article The Progressive

The Democrats Get Religion

Article excerpt

Just when we'd gotten used to the idea that e Democrats were the party of the Wall Street boom, out come Miracle Joe Lieberman and What-Would-Jesus-Do? Al Gore with their revival tour of a campaign. So thick has the religious talk become that the web site Beliefnet has set up a God-o-Meter to track the two campaigns' invocations of the deity. (Recently, Gore and Lieberman were ahead, scoring eight points out of ten, with Bush and Cheney trailing at 7.2 points.)

Who, you might wonder, is the audience for this fervent appeal?

Here's a clue: Earlier this year, Democratic pollster and Gore adviser Stanley Greenberg pointed out in The American Prospect that "Democrats trail Republicans an alarming twenty-five points among married, white voters" on the question "which party shares your values?" In an article co-authored with his daughter, Anna, Greenberg argued that the Democrats must "recapture" the "values" vote. "Americans are the most religiously observant people in the Western industrialized world," the Greenbergs wrote, noting that two-thirds belong to a congregation of some kind. This is the kind of analysis that has prompted the hallelujah chorus on the campaign trail.

Whether or not it's a smash with married, white voters, secular Democrats have been taken aback by all the Bible-thumping. "When Lieberman said in his speech [at Detroit's Fellowship Chapel on August 27] that `freedom of religion is not freedom from religion,' that's absurd," says Edd Doerr, Washington editor of The Humanist and president of Americans for Religious Liberty. "My freedom of religion is freedom from religion."

Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation concurs. "It's very dismaying to see the Democrats trying to outproselytize or outreligion the Republicans," she says. Gaylor's group sent a letter to Lieberman. "Your remarks imply that our country does not permit the freedom to reject religion, that nonbelievers are second-class citizens," the group wrote.

"I think it's really turning off the secular voters out there," Gaylor says of the religious talk. "One out of nine is unreligious, and more than that are unaffiliated. We're not all the religious right."

The Democrats may be more than willing to offend the atheists of America, but is it possible that they can count on the support of a religious left?

Demographer Albert Menendez, author of Religion at the Polls (Westminster, 1977), suggests that the Democrats have a good shot at the much-touted Catholic swing vote. Analyzing reams of election data up through 1996, Menendez recently reported in USA Today that Catholics are still consistently more liberal than white Protestants on social justice issues and programs that help the poor.

E.J. Dionne, co-editor of the book What's God Got to Do with the American Experiment? (Brookings Institution, 2000), also says there is a substantial historical precedent for a progressive religious appeal. "People's views on public expressions of piety are conditioned by what religious groups are doing at any given time," says Dionne. "You don't hear complaints from the left about churches' involvement in the civil rights movement, for example."

Dionne points out that Jerry Falwell, once a vociferous opponent of ministers' involvement in politics during the civil rights era, reversed himself in the era of the anti-abortion movement and the Christian Coalition. "Lieberman, as an Orthodox Jew, is forcing us to turn the crystal another way, and that's good," says Dionne.

But if there is a sizable group of religious people out there concerned about social justice and the poor, it's hard to imagine them getting excited to go to the polls in droves for Lieberman and Gore. Both men celebrate the demise of welfare and embrace the Clinton-era boom that has produced such enormous inequality. (After-tax income went from $273,600 in 1986 to $518,700, on average, for the top 1 percent of Americans. …

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