Christianity for the Rest of Us

Christianity for the Rest of Us

“Lost” Democrats and Religious Pluralism

With most of the online world buzzing about Lost, another tale of loss caught my
attention in this morning’s Washington
Post.  It began by posing the
question:  “If 2008 was the year Democrats finally got religion,
will 2010 be the year the party loses it again?”

The story tracked Democratic successes with faith outreach
in 2005, 2006, and 2008 noting that President Obama received more votes from
“churchgoing voters” than any other presidential candidate in recent
elections.  However, in the current
election cycle, the DNC’s “faith staff of more than a half-dozen has dwindled
to one part-time slot.”  No one is
tending the flock.


Those quoted in the article cited no specific reason for the
change, opting instead for general explanations of economic worries.  Although some will interpret to mean
that the Democratic Party is fundamentally secular and that “faith-based”
outreach was always a sort of political window-dressing, I suspect that something
else is happening.  That
“something” may well be an early indicator of a reordering of American religion
and politics.

In 2004, a political science study from East Carolina
University found that voters could be divided into three categories based
solely on their beliefs about the Bible. 
Fundamentalists believed that
the Bible was God’s inerrant word; Moderates
believed that although the Bible was God’s Word that it wasn’t to be taken
literally; and biblical minimalists believed
that the Bible was a human document.  


The researchers discovered that voters’ views of the Bible predicted
their opinions about every issue from abortion and gay marriage to the size of
government and taxes. 
Fundamentalists aligned with Republican politics;
Biblical Minimalists
aligned with the Democratic Party. 
This led the lead researcher, Dr. Peter Francia to conclude, “It is not
a culture war between red states and blue states, but rather a war between
Fundamentalists and biblical minimalists within both the red and the blue
states.”   The moderates,
apparently, shift their alliances but tend to cluster in blue states.  The research further suggests that
division doesn’t come from elites in politics and the media who “may be
responding to the polarization that exists with the electorate rather than the
other way around.”


Francia’s analysis helps to explain why the Democrats are
drawing back on faith outreach this year–they
are responding to a change within the electorate rather than ignoring religious
  The change is,
quite simply, stunning.  In the
last decade, American attitudes toward religion, belief, attending church, and
practicing faith are markedly moving away from fundamentalism and conventional
religions.  In every category,
Americans are now less religious than any time in the fifty years with nearly
every major denomination (including most conservative denominations) posting
numerical declines.  Americans now
express lower confidence that God exists, that there is an actual heaven and
hell, and that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.  And, conversely, large numbers of Americans are migrating
toward atheism, agnosticism, post-theism, non-western religions, and being


Using the East Carolina categories, it appears that many
Moderates are now becoming biblical minimalists–that the territory of theological
contention is shrinking and that more people are moving toward the classically
liberal position that the Bible is a largely human document, one that may be
inspiring or beautiful or meaningful, but is not the inerrant word of God.

Therefore, the growing “religious” edge of the Democratic Party
is not–and will not be–the traditional evangelicals whom they once hoped to
woo.  Rather, the most significant
grassroots pressure on Democratic candidates will come from those who hold
liberal views of scripture.  Some
of those people will, no doubt, be progressive churchgoers (and not a few will
be progressive evangelicals) but others–and probably many others–will be in the
category of spiritual-but-not-religious and still others will be adherents of
non-western religions, secular humanists, agnostics, and atheists. 


In short, the DNC has a very tough road ahead with faith
outreach.  To which faith should
you be reaching?  Whose language do
you speak?  How do you shape
political issues in a moral framework when there is so little shared ethical

The Democrats may be less Lost and more Star Trek–having
to go where no political party has really gone before.  Their problem is not that they are
a-religious; their problem is that they are so diverse when it comes to
religion that there is no single faith or moral frame that encapsulates this
remarkable and unprecedented pluralism. 


Democrats might be tempted to ignore religion because the
issues are too hard–and too ripe with possibilities to split their own
party.   That may well be
their tacit approach this year. 
But those of us who care deeply about the moral dimensions of our common
life, and who fear that only those who believe in an inerrant Christian
scripture will offer an ethical vision for America, that would be a
disaster.  Part of the Democratic
imperative is to respond to this grassroots transformation of American life and
frame a truly inclusive vision of spirituality and public faith. 

Comments read comments(7)
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posted May 24, 2010 at 2:52 pm

“The Democrats may be less Lost and more Star Trek–having to go where no political party has really gone before. Their problem is not that they are a-religious; their problem is that they are so diverse when it comes to religion that there is no single faith or moral frame that encapsulates this remarkable and unprecedented pluralism.”
Perhaps they ought to look to the colored glass window (not actually stained in the traditional sense) that was part of the final Lost episode. It had the iconography for most of the world’s religions. At the top was the icon for Zoroastrian, the religion from which came the imagry of Light that the others so rest upon. If they look at this as the possibility of religious pluralism ratehr than appealing to only one or two groups, they may recover some of the energy that has dissipated in the last 2 years. I think using the Light motif will work well for the next chapter of the Obama administration.

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posted May 24, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Thanks for this post. I have been longing for a place to hang my ideology hat. I am an evangelical Christian, who believes in the inerrant word of the bible, yet have run like Hell, from the right-wing group which tutored me for so many years. I voted Democrat for the first time this year. I see hope in the message of the cross. I am grateful for President Obama’s own reference to the cross in his book and to his own public assertion of his Christian heritage. Where do I find my home? I believe the Democratic voice best embodies the message Christ came to give. Would I partner with those who would mock my faith, or find common ground? Do I proceed as an interloper or an invited guest, or an observer? Where do I get to roll up my sleeves and join with like-minded believers to be salt and light? How do I hold my fellow believers accountable for less than loving, and less than Jesus-like attitudes when the mere mention of liberal leanings closes off ears. I would like to live unapologetically for my faith and for what I believe is best for my country.

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Nixon is Lord

posted May 24, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Yeah, it must be tough to combine the conservative storefront black and hispanic churches with Tikkun liberal Jews and gradschool professor Unitarians, but doubtless they’ll hand out enough tidbits to keep most people happy-or at least voting

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Taylor Burton-Edwards

posted May 25, 2010 at 1:15 am

I’m not sure the data from Pew et al actually add up to the notion that religious affiliation has dropped quite as precipitously in 4 years as seems to be claimed here.
What Pew overall shows is the “non-affiliated” are now at 16% or so, and 23% among “Millennials.” Pew’s “Religion and Millennials” report also shows an increase in dis-affiliation over time– across the board– and over the past three “generations” the rates have increased geometrically rather than linearly (12% to 16% to 23% for 80s, 90s, and 2000s, respectively). It also shows that actually no efforts to “win back” those who had become disaffiliated since the late 1940s has generally done any better than about 4%.
So yes, there is an escalation in the percentage (and number) of people who are not connected to Christianity or Judaism in this country– but I don’t see how that accounts for the staff reductions by the White House since this presidency began.
Unless they are being driven by the trends in the reports– or the fact they came out– rather than by the actual data about current realities– which show we still have 67% even of Millennials religiously affiliated and 86% of Americans overall. How deep that affiliation goes is another question– but it’s at least enough to make some kind of difference for the vast majority of American citizens.
For that reason, the current facts on the ground, despite future trend data, no political party is wise to ignore religious connection as a significant value for potential voters.
Yes, the atheists, non-affiliators and “merely spiritual” are getting more of the press (and media time) these days than before, but they’re still massively in the minority. That doesn’t mean they’re unimportant– but it does mean if you’re counting votes, and not just “memes,” your party is much wiser to be in touch with those who are religiously affiliated.

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posted May 25, 2010 at 9:00 am

I also question the validity of surveys such as this, but from a different angle. Many non-theists such as myself attend weekly “church” meetings (in my case at a Unitarian-Universalist fellowship). So, depending on how the survey is worded, I might be counted among the non-affiliated (based on my expressed lack of belief in deity) or among the more strongly affiliated (based upon the frequency of my participation in meetings).

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posted May 30, 2010 at 5:24 pm

are youm people nuts just because you attend church does not make you anything….you should be praying for obam and his lies . what is wrong with you people got your head in the sand……i am disgusted with all this!!!!!!

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