For more than 40 years, Democrats have been whining about the power of the religious right. During that time, we’ve shrunk back and allowed Republicans to reduce the entire historic Christian faith to a couple of litmus tests. (As long as you’re against abortion and gay rights, you’re guaranteed the votes of a large majority of those who identify with fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches.) We haven’t even put up a fight.
That needs to end in 2018. In this election year, we have to remind voters that while the Bible says nothing about abortion and almost nothing about homosexuality, it says a great deal about feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, and protecting those who are weak and poor. It warns against covetousness and adultery, right there in the Ten Commandments, but we’ve never made that part of the conversation.
A lot of people tell me it’s impossible to get the “Christian” vote back, but I’m not buying it. The “Christian” vote has never been as powerful as we imagined, and now it has begun to splinter as Millennials have asserted themselves. Conditions are ideal for a counter-offensive.
The religious right was born in 1979, but its influence has ebbed and flowed. We actually held the extremists at bay during the Clinton administration, because Bill Clinton, who grew up reading his Bible and knows it better than many ministers, had the courage to talk about faith. He took much of the wind from their sails.
They returned somewhat during the first George W. Bush administration, but they played a smaller role as the neoconservatives took the lead after the 9/11 attacks.
Then came the 2004 election, and attention shifted back to religion for many voters. Once again, Democrats lost ground not on the merits, but because we flinched in the face of God-talk. John Kerry was a devout Catholic who attended Mass regularly, but he ran scared because a Catholic bishop declared that politicians who support choice should not receive communion. This finally led to the ludicrous “wafer watch” in which reporters sought to get a photo of Kerry receiving communion.
Once you show fear, you’re always on the defensive, and that’s the best way I know to lose elections.
This doesn’t mean we should all convert to fundamentalism. I for one have no intention of doing such a thing. Rather, it means we must be bold in saying who we are. Boldness commands respect, whether we are Christians, Jews, Muslims or atheists. No Democrat, from any religious background (or lack thereof), has to be afraid of these conversations.
Stepping up to this conversation allows us to remind voters of other issues that are important to fundamentalists but often forgotten. We get to remind people that democracy works both ways. It allows us to say, “When you force your religion on those of other faiths (or no faith), they will come looking for you when they achieve a majority. The way to protect fundamentalists is through the separation of church and state.”
It lets us point to the perverted logic of school prayer: Insist on a Christian prayer today and you must be willing to accept a secular meditation or Muslim prayer tomorrow.
In short, it knocks the props out from under vague assertions (such as those we heard from Roy Moore) about the United States being a Christian nation. It gives us a basis for turning back efforts to wedge religion back into schools through institutional prayer, religious pseudoscience and “abstinence only” sex education. It gives us a rational platform for keeping the Johnson Amendment, which keeps churches from endorsing candidates.
If Democrats do that, we’ll have much better results in the elections. And we’ll set the stage for more rational policy in Congress and the state legislatures.