Anton Aguila / Gavel Media

Democratic Candidates Keep Bringing up Religion. And It's Not a Coincidence

Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg has made his faith nearly central to his candidacy. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand gave an impassioned, Bible-thumping sermon at a rural Baptist church, one that linked her progressive platform to her Christian beliefs. Sen. Cory Booker was honest-to-God anointed by his pastor the night before his campaign debut. 

All this and more has prompted some members of the media to question the conventional wisdom on the role of religion in modern American politics.

A recent Politico article claimed that, “Dems get religion in fight to oust Trump.” A commentator from the Pacific Standard cites Buttigieg and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro as figures “pushing back against the four decades of largely conservative dominance of discussions on the role of faith in public life.” And an op-ed from USA Today even described a “countercultural approach to Christianity” as exactly “what America needs right now.”

Is this it then? Is the U.S. witnessing the ascension of the long awaited “religious left?” Will 2020 be the Democratic Party’s Second Great Awakening?

Not so fast.

“When you have a large number of candidates like the Democrats do, it’s probably inevitable that some of them will invoke religious language and themes in their campaigns, and others won’t,” explained Boston College political science Professor David Hopkins.

“I’m not sure that we’re seeing anything more than the natural tendency of candidates in a crowded field to find a niche for themselves.”

Now, to some extent, the relationship between religion and progressive policies has existed since the days of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Recent examples of mainstream Democrats successfully employing religious language include former presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. The Pew Research Center has even found that self-identified Christians still constitute a majority of the Democratic party.

Why then, has so much of the national conversation on the influence of faith in American politics disproportionately emphasized the role of the religious right?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that Democratic voters, while religious, are also far more religiously diverse than their Republican counterparts. This lack of cohesion makes effective political organization based on faith all the more challenging.

“There are two respects in which the parties differ,” said Hopkins. “The first is denominational composition: white evangelical Protestants and Mormons are very likely to be Republicans, white mainline Protestants and Catholics are mostly Republican but with a significant Democratic minority, and members of non-Christian religions (or those with no religious affiliation) are heavily Democratic.”

According to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), 31% of Democratic primary voters in 2016 were white Christians, 22% were nonwhite Christians, and 12% belonged to a non-Christian religious group (Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.) or identified as “something else.” Conversely, an overwhelming 70% of Republican primary voters self-identified as white Christians.

As such, when making faith-based appeals, Democratic candidates are at an inherent disadvantage in that they’re attempting to reach a smaller and more fractured coalition of religious voters. Religious messaging simply becomes more difficult when candidates have to simultaneously consider multiple belief systems.

In contrast, “the leaders of southern evangelical Christianity have openly mobilized on behalf of the Republican Party and in opposition to the Democrats, and there is no comparable ‘religious left’ with a similar amount of political power or visibility,” continued Hopkins.

The second difference in the way that religion is related to partisanship is through self-professed religious intensity.

“Within every religious denomination except the Black church, the more religiously observant a citizen is, the more likely he or she is to vote Republican,” described Hopkins.

Black and Hispanic voters, key constituents of the Democratic coalition, are far more likely to say that religion is important, according to the CCES. However, on the whole, the Pew Research Center found that those who are less religiously engaged are more likely to vote Democrat.

“A lot of the cultural and moral issues that are especially salient in the current era divide the more religious from the less religious, and Christians from non-Christians.”

Take, for example, the issue of abortion, a major cultural flashpoint that has served as a unifying factor for the religious right for decades.

Using frequency of religious attendance as a metric for overall religiosity (such that those who attend religious services weekly are “more” religiously engaged than those who attend nearly weekly/monthly), Gallup polling shows that support for the legality of abortion jumps nearly 20% from the “more” religious to the “less” religious.

The propensity for the majority of more religiously engaged voters to vote Republican, coupled with the presence of a highly organized, highly visible (and oftentimes highly vocal) religious right, has perpetuated the image of a Democratic party that struggles with religious issues.

This lack of denominational unity, and prevailing disagreements regarding the overall importance of religion to Democratic voters are, of course, major obstacles in any significant mobilization of a “religious left.”

But in spite of the diminishing probability that an influential, left-leaning, faith-based voting bloc will emerge out of the Trump Era, experts caution against ignoring the significance of religious voters altogether. For many of them, this involves not so much a tempering of policy positions, but rather an understanding of religious language.

“There’s a religious illiteracy problem in the Democratic Party,” said Michael Wear, the former director of Barack Obama’s 2012 faith-based outreach operations, in an interview with The Atlantic.

And in many respects, more than a few Democratic primary contenders have taken this potential issue to heart. Aside from Booker, Buttigieg, and Gillibrand, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has often recalled her own faith experience on the campaign trail. Nominal frontrunner, former VP Joe Biden, has also been open about his Roman Catholic background in the past.

Nevertheless, for either party, overt displays of religious devotion on the campaign trail are hardly too surprising, whether in the primary or the general.

“Expressions of personal faith are common among Democratic politicians, and are often used to justify support for standard liberal positions on social spending or civil rights,” detailed Hopkins, albeit with a slight caveat. 

“The only risk arises if a candidate leaves the impression that he or she wouldn’t be committed to the party’s positions on ‘culture war’ issues like abortion or gay rights.”

While the apparent embrace of religious rhetoric by Democratic presidential contenders might seem unusual, current candidates aren’t really heralding the advent of a new, progressive religiosity. It’s less a revelation of the new moral majority, and more a return to the same old playbook.