How was it that the Democratic Party lost its faith in faith? The most obvious explanation is that conservatives and Republicans have spent thirty years telling us that Democrats aren't religious. Conservative religious leaders have relentlessly promoted the idea that there is a liberal war on people of faith (or Christmas or the Bible), a mantra that Republican politicians have lustily repeated. However, this marriage of convenience between religious and political conservatives has been ably chronicled elsewhere -- and it's only part of the story.
The tale that has remained untold involves the left's response to the rise of the religious right. That story is largely one of fear, ignorance, and political deafness. For while the political, religious, and cultural forces that gave rise to the religious right formed a perfect storm that was bound to have a significant impact on American politics, Democrats and liberals weren't just passive nonactors who stood by helplessly on the sidelines while it all happened. Instead of pushing back, they chose to beat a retreat in the competition for religious voters and the discussion of morality, effectively ceding the ground to conservatives. The emergence of the God gap represents a failure of the left as much as it does an achievement of the right.
As recently as the late 1960s, religion was a decidedly nonpartisan affair in the United States. Presidents of all political stripes sprinkled their speeches with references to the Almighty. Religious Americans led political movements to battle communism and poverty, to promote temperance and civil rights. If anything, the contours of the religious landscape favored Democrats: their voters were evangelical Southerners and ethnic Catholics, while Republicans appealed to wealthier Northeastern WASPs and Catholics who were more private about their faith.
The relationship between religion and politics changed abruptly in the turbulent decade that spanned the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. The twin disappointments of Vietnam and Watergate led to widespread disillusionment with traditional institutions, and the cynicism tainted religious authority as well. The postmodern argument that advanced societies would progress beyond the need for religious practice or belief in a higher power took hold in educated circles and further deepened the divide between secular elites and religious believers that had broken open during the Scopes trial decades earlier. The women's movement and civil rights struggles led to greater opportunities, but in an era marked by assassinations and fear of nuclear annihilation, it seemed to many that the pace of change was out of control.
This country is a better place for the enhanced freedoms and tolerance that the women's and civil rights movements delivered. That Democrats paid a hefty political price for championing these causes was by no means a reason to sit them out. The question is whether the price needed to have been as steep as it turned out to be. I believe that it did not.
It's hard to imagine today, but it was, after all, the Democratic Party that first successfully responded to the disillusionment of religious voters. Jimmy Carter, the party's nominee in 1976, was the first politician to recognize that voters now wanted to know more about a candidate than simply his position on energy policy or taxes; they cared about the moral fiber of their president as well. And those voters increasingly saw religious faith as a proxy, an efficient way to size up a candidate's character. With an evangelist sister and his own background as an organizer for Billy Graham crusades, Carter talked openly about his religious faith, not just in the generic "God bless America" sort of way that politicians had previously favored. When he used the phrase "born-again" to describe himself, Carter connected with millions of evangelicals who had previously stayed away from politics. And his promise "I'll never lie to you" was -- in the wake of Richard Nixon's resignation -- a potent statement for Americans of all faiths and no faith at all.
But while Carter was the right candidate for the new politics of values, his party was rapidly moving in the other direction. Educated elites, particularly on the left, increasingly placed their faith in the tangible power of political action rather than the unfathomable might of a divine being. Carter's own advisers begged him to tone down the God talk. "We're reassuring people Jimmy won't turn the White House into a Billy Graham Bible class," adman Jerry Rafshoon told reporters at one point during the 1976 campaign. But they misread the direction of the country. Far from becoming less religious in a postmodern age, Americans remained strongly devout, with 80 percent or more consistently reporting that religion was an "important" part of their lives.