The Democrats’ efforts to prove that they don’t hate religion (even though they don’t and never did) and engage in strenuous religious outreach are being hailed as a success in election post-mortems. Some of the Democrats’ chief cheerleaders in this effort, like the non-profit Faith in Public Life and Steven Waldman, editor of the web site Beliefnet, highlight polling data to claim that they were right: by shedding their supposedly anti-religionist past, Democrats have made gains (in some cases, quite marginal ones) with religious voters.
There’s no proof that the Democrats’ faith outreach — as opposed to the wildly unpopular Republican Party and the Democrats’ superior message on the economy, the war, and a host of other issues — is what turned voters’ heads. Given the vociferousness of the faith-outreach advocates, though, such efforts are likely to be sustained and replicated in future campaigns, and that’s not a good thing.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard many faith advocates say that they just want their voices heard in the public square. Who’s stopping them, though? It’s a myth that Democrats have somehow shut religious folks out of the political process. Religious voices have been behind some of the nation’s great reform movements (and, sadly, as in the passage of gay marriage bans, behind some of the most retrograde movements as well). Political engagement by faith-based groups is one thing; political candidates straining to prove their religious credibility, however, is another matter entirely.
Advocates for the heightened Democratic faith talk, like the journalist Amy Sullivan, author of the book The Party Faithful, have argued that religious voters want to hear how candidates’ faith shapes their values. The compulsion to prove one’s faithfulness has been limited, so far, to proving candidates’ Christianity, and even there, the proof has trended toward evangelical language, to the chagrin of mainline Christians. And what of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and others, whose outspokenness about their beliefs could be a liability? Could they ever prove they are up to the task of having the values to be President of the United States?
If voters want to know about the candidates’ values, they should take a look at their political positions. If voters believe that Jesus calls them to care for the least of these, for example, a comparison of the Democratic and Republican tax policies would be far more revealing than campaign-speak peppered with passages from Matthew.
The faith advocates claim that Obama’s new religious icons, like Rick Warren, who hosted the forum at which a pained Obama attempted to appeal to a conservative evangelical audience, represent a new broader agenda for evangelicals, with a focus on poverty and the environment rather than just abortion and gay marriage. But with Warren’s midnight hour appeal to his followers to vote for California’s Proposition 8, he seemed just as committed to the old religious right as ever.
Obama won not because conservative white evangelicals or weekly churchgoers voted for him in slightly larger numbers than they voted for John Kerry. He won because he appealed to a broad audience, the faithful and the godless. That’s the revelation of the exit polls — not the narrowing of the “God gap.”
Sarah Posner writes The FundamentaList, a weekly roundup of news about the religious right for The American Prospect Online and has covered religion and politics for the Prospect, The Nation, Salon, The Huffington Post, and other publications. She is author of “Word of Faith movement, God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.”