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Christianity for the Rest of Us



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
communities.
  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
“spiritual-but-not-religious.”

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
vision? 

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. 


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