When Democratic Party leaders “found God in the 2004 exit polls,” as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. likes to say, no one expected instant results. Many of the party’s early efforts to attract religious voters, after all, were scattershot and not a little awkward. No one knew quite what the “faith staffer”—a new breed of legislative aide—was supposed to do, and random-seeming insertions of Bible verses into floor speeches came off as Tourette’s syndrome for Democrats. In the longer run, though, the new focus on forming relationships with religious communities and voters has been the right move for a party that had essentially limited its religious outreach to black churches. Democratic campaign trainings now smartly include tips for communicating with Catholic voters. Candidates are starting to appear on religious radio outlets. And Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has even stopped saying things to intentionally antagonize evangelicals.
Which is why it is startling that in the two years since this Democratic revival began, the party’s faith-friendly image has dimmed rather than improved. The Pew Research Center’s annual poll on religion and politics, released last week, shows that while 85 percent of voters say religion is important to them, only 26 percent of Americans think the Democratic Party is “friendly” to religion. That’s down from 40 percent in the summer of 2004 and 42 percent the year before that—in other words, a 16-point plunge over three years. The decline is especially troubling because it cuts across the political and religious spectra, encompassing liberals and conservatives, white and black evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. The Republican Party also experienced a drop in the percentage of Americans who say it is friendly to religion—eight points over the past year. But that decrease occurred mostly among white evangelicals and Catholics and the reasons for it seem obvious: Two years of broken promises by the GOP.
In contrast, the Democrats’ crumbling credibility on religion wasn’t caused by one thing. And that may be the problem. All at once, the party needs to counter conservative attacks, change the conventional wisdom that Democrats just aren’t religious, and expand the party’s reach to moderate religious voters. To do that, the party will need a little more faith and a whole lot more work.
In the past year, stunts by the right have taken a toll on the Democrats. There are the repeated Justice Sunday events, in which Republican congressional leaders bravely defend America from the onslaught of liberal activist judges, and the War on Christmas hysteria, in which Bill O’Reilly defends baby Jesus from secular tyrants at Target. If you say anything enough times on Fox (see: Saddam Hussein, role in 9/11 attacks), you can get some people to believe it. It’s not a surprise that all of this affects conservatives’ views of the Democratic Party’s faith-friendliness. Of more concern to Democrats is the effect such tactics have on moderate voters. The percentage of self-identified political moderates and independents who believe Democrats are friendly to religion each dropped by 18 points over the past two years, according to Pew. These respondents may not exactly believe the rhetoric of Justice Sunday, but it seems to have planted a seed of doubt in their minds.
And that doubt is fed by media coverage that reinforces images of who is and is not religious. Conservatives complain about media bias all the time, but when it comes to religion, journalistic paradigms help Republicans and hurt Democrats. When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer introduced a discussion of Pope John Paul II’s funeral with Robert Novak and Paul Begala in the spring of 2005, he tossed off the comment, “I’m sure Bob is a good Catholic, I’m not so sure about Paul Begala.” It was an absurd remark—Begala is a devout pro-life Catholic who named his oldest son John Paul—but also a revealing one, because it demonstrated how accepted it is to assume that Republicans are religious and Democrats are not.
When Democratic irreligion is the premise, it can be easy to conclude that a liberal politician who talks about religion is insincere or positioning themselves for higher office. (The way the press covers Hillary Clinton, lifelong Methodist and longtime Baptist Sunday School teacher, comes to mind.) Even the party’s own may see talk of faith as pandering. Two years ago, half of Democrats thought that their party was friendly to religion. Now that number has dropped to 39.6 percent, with a 12-point decline among respondents who aren’t affiliated with a religious tradition. These Democrats view the party’s interest in talking to religious voters as a sure betrayal of the party’s principles. Rarely is there an acknowledgment that Democratic politicians—and Democratic voters—hold liberal political views precisely because of their religious beliefs, that caring for the most vulnerable in society and protecting God’s creation are imperatives, too.
Another big drop—14 points in two years—surfaced in the percentage of black Protestants who see Democrats as religion-friendly. That’s a sure sign that despite their outreach efforts in black churches, Democrats aren’t necessarily listening to the folks in the pews. African-Americans may still be the most reliably Democratic constituency, but they are far more socially and theologically conservative than gauzy references to the bygone civil rights era reveal. And they’re still not finding a lot of room to talk about those views in the party.
Finally, Catholic voters are increasingly skeptical. Support for Democrats’ approach to religion dropped by 10 points among Catholic Democrats, 16 points among Catholic Independents, and 25 points among Catholic Republicans, including a 9-point decline just in the last year. As the party hemorrhages Catholic support at the polls, it’s past time to hire a national party staffer to focus on Catholic outreach and strategy. Alas, the Democratic National Committee has been looking for a year to fill such a position, with no results.
The DNC should ramp up that search. But the party’s leaders also should remain calm. The Democrats’ most productive activities on the religion front have taken place at the state level and in local campaigns. This work may not bear fruit nationally for a few years, but it’s important to hang in there and keep funding it. Democrats also need to avoid the temptation to play preacher: One cringe-inducing “Praise Jeeeeezus!” from Howard Dean spoils the quiet faith of Democrats like Tim Kaine and Jennifer Granholm and Barack Obama. And they should shout from the mountaintops about Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid’s plan to reduce abortion rates, talk to every evangelical who will listen about tackling global warming, and re-embrace the concept of the common good that once united religious and political progressives. Democrats, take those lights out from under your bushels.