On God and Democrats: Will Religion Give Democrats the Usual Fits This Election Year? Maybe. but It Shouldn't Be Forgotten That There Is a "Religious Left" in America-It Just Doesn't Go around Making Lots of Noise

By Parker, Richard | The American Prospect, March 2004 | Go to article overview

On God and Democrats: Will Religion Give Democrats the Usual Fits This Election Year? Maybe. but It Shouldn't Be Forgotten That There Is a "Religious Left" in America-It Just Doesn't Go around Making Lots of Noise


Parker, Richard, The American Prospect


SHORTLY BEFORE THE 2000 PRESIDENTIAL RACE started, Gertrude Himmelfarb, the aging Athena of neoconservatism, found herself struggling to express what she felt were the core values differences between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. What she came up with was that America had become "one nation, two cultures." "One is religious, puritanical, family centered, and somewhat conformist," wrote The Economist in describing her vision. "The other is tolerant, hedonistic, secular, predominantly single, and celebrates multiculturalism. These value judgments are the best predictor of political affiliation, far better than wealth or income."

By the time the 2000 election was over, however--even though Himmelfarb's candidate eventually won, with a little jurisprudential help--her "two cultures" idea looked pretty poor as a description of what divides her friends from ours. True, just as she said, 91 percent of George W. Bush's voters had freely identified themselves as "religious" to pollsters but so had 81 percent of Al Gore's. And while Himmelfarb's reviled "seculars" did make up a fifth of Gore's support, they'd also been one in 10 of Bush's--hardly the signs of a black and white divide. But when it comes to faith-and-politics issues, unfortunately for the talking classes, polarity has always been far too simple a flame.

This year, religion is back in the news, and, not surprisingly, so are a lot of the same tired arguments--on both sides of the political fence. Himmelfarb herself has been missing, but absent her presence, and facing a president who drives liberals insane by invoking the Almighty every chance he gets, many of those same liberals have been worriedly wondering what's going on as the Democratic candidates stumble over themselves and one another in what seems at times a hell-bent rush to assure voters that they've "got religion," too. What, some ask, has come of separation of church and state? Is this the end of tolerance? Is there a spiritual inquisition ahead? Salem witch trials, anyone?

Just what sort of faith, and how much of it--and how good that is for the Democrats and the country--has not been an uncontroversial topic this season. Shortly after Christmas, The New York Times, for example, ran an op-ed by liberal evangelical preacher Jim Wallis, who chided that the Democrats running for president still weren't getting the issue right. He cited Howard Dean's admission, for one, that the former governor had quit being an Episcopalian to become a Congregationalist after the Episcopal diocese of Vermont refused to sell land for a lakeshore bike path. This struck Wallis as just the sort of "faith-lite" story that too many Americans associate with Democrats and God--and a key reason why Democrats come off as so irreligious to many voters.

Wallis' editorial provoked a rash of letters to the Times--and must have prompted a conversation among the editors, because, less than two weeks later, they published an op-ed rejoinder of sorts, headlined "One Nation, Under Secularism." In it, former journalist Susan Jacoby warned darkly that "[i]n Campaign 2004, secularism has become a dirty word." Avoiding mention of Wallis by name, she, too, took aim at Dean--not for his bike path provoked conversion but for telling Iowa voters that he prayed daily. Jacoby called the admission "comically opportunistic." The Democrats, it seems, can't catch a break on this issue from anyone this year.

Bush, of course, shows no confusion of any kind about his God. It's the Democrats who take the beating--from conservatives, naturally, but as the Wallis and Jacoby pieces (and hundred of others in the past several months) indicate, from a surprising array of liberals with very different agendas. In a year when Iraq and the economy top the list of matters most important to voters, type the words "religion and Democratic presidential candidates" into Google; the bounty retrieved seems to run the highway all the way to heaven itself. …

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