It would be a fine thing if Democrats took the advice of TNR’s Tiffany Stanley and spent more energy trying to win religious voters away from the GOP. But she misunderstands why their recent efforts to do so have mostly failed. One of the glories of religion in the United States is that, since the early nineteenth century, it has been a ferociously democratic enterprise: Pious Americans are free to join any of the dozens of faiths on offer, none of which is beholden to secular authorities for either financing or legitimacy. We have no national church or even one to which most national politicians belong. Before the 1960s, Americans took for granted that, like it or not, they lived in a Protestant country. But increasingly, millions of regular church-goers simply call themselves “Christians” and belong to several denominations—and non-denominations—over the course of their lives.
The problem for liberal Democrats is that pious Americans are also free to choose a place of worship in which the political slant is conservative or progressive, or where secular issues have little or no place. And, since the waning of the civil rights movement some four decades ago, the liberal churches have been losing both members and a dynamic sense of worldly mission. One traditional stronghold of liberal Christianity, the United Church of Christ, has only half as many members as it did when it was formed in the late 1950s. The other one-time citadel—the Episcopalians—are undergoing a nasty schism that may leave the conservative fragment as large as the parent body it has departed. According to American Grace, the marvelous new study of religion by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, “liberal churchgoers who attend politically active congregations” comprise just 2 percent of the overall population.
Religious conservatives are having their own problems attracting young people who don’t want to be preached to about the sinfulness of their sex lives or anyone else’s. But the Christian Right remains a potent force in the Republican Party and in the larger political culture—as witnessed by the huge audiences Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin attract. Its acolytes are passionate, united, and mobilized by two political issues that nearly everyone in the country has an opinion about: opposition to abortion and to gay marriage. What similarly kindles the fervor of religious liberals? Fighting poverty, establishing a living wage, stopping capital punishment, ending the war in Afghanistan? Each of these issues appeals to a cluster of pious activists, but none stirs the sense of mission that would attract masses of new people to give up their leisure time for the cause and draw the attention of major media and leading politicians.
So it should not be a surprise that Obama and the Democrats have failed to organize a major effort to attract religious voters. If the president did “articulate the moral-religious values that permeate his policies,” as Stanley advocates, who would echo his words and what would they do about them? Alas, until there is a movement of religious Americans willing to act on the injunction in Matthew 25 (“whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”), liberals will mostly be singing to the same, diminished choir.