When I first read that Amy Sullivan, in honor of her new book, is guest posting at the Washington Monthly, I said to myself, dear Lord, more ‘Democrats need to get religion’ blather. Sadly, I was not disappointed. Already, there’s a book review and a post.
I was going to leave this to Amanda’s excellent post, but there are a couple other points that I think need to be raised. First, the claim that “Democrats have earned lower levels of support from religious constituencies like white evangelicals and Catholics than they otherwise should have because activists and operatives have been indifferent to religion and have operated under misconceptions about who the faithful are” is bogus.
The two most solid demographic Democratic groups are religious groups: Black Protestants and Jews. Granted, one can make compelling arguments that the strong support of both of these groups isn’t explicitly based on religion, but on cultural and historical factors. So why should the disproportionate lack of support among white evangelicals and Catholics result from a Democratic indifference towards religion, and not due to another set of cultural and historical events?
For instance, I wonder if Sullivan will discuss how the event that politically mobilized white evangelicals in the late 1970s wasn’t abortion, but President Carter’s decision to remove the tax exempt status of Christian white schools, known as “segregation academies“, that let whites avoid attending mixed-race schools? I do not mean to tar all or most evangelicals as racists, but I would note that the poor showing among evangelical whites might have very little to do with a lack of religious style: after all, it doesn’t seem to have affected blacks or Jews. As the late Steve Gilliard put it:
White evangelicals are not Democrats because they largely dislike blacks and hispanics. You can pander to them all you want, but the core of their church has a racial undertone. The leading evangelicals were once leading segregationists.
They ignore the religious power which black and hispanics bring to the party and then try to appeal to people who are not Democrats for more than not being reached out to.
Until they realize this isn’t about religion alone, nothing will change.
The second point is summarized by reviewer Paul Baumann, and is one Sullivan has made multiple times:
The simple truth Democrats need to grasp is that for many Americans, religion, as Sullivan rightly notes, is “a proxy for a general moral worldview.” Republicans have long understood this fact of political life, and have tailored their campaigns accordingly. “Talking about faith–or, broadly, about the values that underlie issues,” Sullivan writes, “gives voters insight into what motivates the men and women who ask for their support.” Consequently, it is usually a mistake for Democrats to emphasize what they plan to do, rather than what they believe in.
There is a way to discuss ethical political behavior (not just morality, but ethics) without having to refer to sectarian dogma–FDR did it. Yes, Democrats need to refer to what is right, and not just recite a laundry list of goals, but that language doesn’t have to be explicitly religious. It is possible–and often preferable–to thunder without referring to a particular religion.
But ultimately, I’m confused about what Sullivan wants. If Democrats aren’t going to substantively change their policies, then what exactly does Sullivan want? Empty words? 2.3 God references per ten minutes of political speech? It still appears that she is looking for validation of her religious beliefs by political figures, because it’s just not clear what her goal is.