Losing my religion

My mother is a black evangelical Christian -- and a staunch Democrat. The party failed her and millions of other religious folk, and that has to change.

By ZZ Packer
November 21, 2004 1:40AM (UTC)
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In the aftermath of Bush's reelection, Democrats are doing a lot of soul-searching about how to break the Republican lock on the red states. They need to pay attention to a forgotten group: religious Democrats.

My fellow blue-staters may not understand evangelicals, but I do -- I was raised as one. My church's brand of evangelicalism was so strict women couldn't wear pants, makeup or jewelry. My church believed in speaking in tongues; believed that a good Christian went to Wednesday night prayer meeting and Thursday night Bible study, in addition to Sunday school, Sunday worship, Sunday dinner at the church and the two-hour Sunday fellowship that followed.


And I'm the bluest Democrat you ever saw.

Granted, I grew up in the black evangelical tradition, which differs from its white counterpart in one crucial respect: Black evangelicals have historically voted overwhelmingly Democratic because of civil rights, whereas white evangelicals in the South were often segregationists. For that reason, the Democrats will never win over all the white evangelicals -- nor, in the case of those who have remained unreconstructed racists, should they want to. But they should be trying to win over religious moderates, white, black and Latino. In fact, they have to.

Religious Democrats don't run the party. They don't tend to be high-profile strategists or spokespeople. But there are a lot more of them than the party elite realize -- and they are uniquely positioned to roll back the raging red sea. These people know how to talk to the folks in the red states and swing states for a simple reason: More often than not, they live in them.


They also have another major advantage over their conservative counterparts: They have the Bible on their side. Democrats of faith don't have to "cloak" their political message in religious metaphors, the way the right is fond of doing. Promoting peace and brotherhood over needless war and intolerance; understanding that we have an obligation to help poor children and their parents, not merely protecting those parents' rights to have children -- these are deeply Christian values. Any Christian can understand that the parable of the Good Samaritan not only urges us to help our fellow man, but cautions against xenophobia.

Yes, the GOP convinced many Christians that the Democrats were less "moral" than the Republicans, and issues like abortion, gun control and homosexuality played a large role. But people who take hard-line stands on these issues make up only a minority of Christians. Most red-state social conservatives voted the way they did not out of intolerance or bigotry, but simply because they feared change. Their discomfort with gay marriage and a pro-choice platform does not de facto equal homophobia and anti-choice; it is just that: discomfort. Republicans exploited that discomfort and fear the same way they exploited Americans' fears of terrorism. And liberals can fight back on the same moral ground: They can address that discomfort and fear without abandoning their core values.

Moderate religious-minded folk understand that claiming that the Democrats are "for abortion" is like saying every gun owner is "for homicide." By and large, they're for real solutions: Rather than foolhardily trying to legislate all sexual behavior, they advocate sex education, birth control and the morning-after pill to reduce unwanted pregnancies. They understand that when Jesus said, "He who is without sin, cast the first stone," he was explicitly rebuking the sanctimonious moralists not just of his day, but of ours.


Religious Democrats can talk about these issues in ways that moderate Christians, both in the heartland and on the coasts, understand. But if Democrats continue shipping in the Prada and Birkenstock crowd to talk about abortion, gay marriage and Iraq to small-town Main Streeters on their way to Home Depot, they're toast.

The truth is that Democrats face a religious -- and racial/ethnic -- crisis. The GOP successfully convinced many black religious voters that the Democrats are the party of abortion and lax "family values." (Faith-based initiative money helped, too.) Those black evangelicals were largely responsible for Bush's increase of support among blacks from 9 percent to 11 percent. The same tactics worked with Catholic (and increasingly evangelical) Latinos: Bush won an unprecedented 44 percent of the Latino vote.


If the GOP lures away significant numbers of single-issue voters like blacks, Latinos and unions, the Dems will have lost a good portion of their current base. As James Carville recently noted, the party's domination by special-interest groups has resulted in "litanies, not a narrative." Carville highlights a problem the Dems in the upper echelon of the party should have seen coming: the surfeit of groups who are now tied to the Democrats by single issues like civil rights, immigration, the minimum wage and unions. The problem is that a single issue is a single thread, and the Republicans have proved adept at snipping it with the sharp scissors of "values."

The Democrats need to fight the values war with the Republicans on their own religious turf -- and then claim their fair share of that turf. While people like me check into Salon, Slate, Daily Kos and Atrios on a daily basis, few of these sites are going to convince anyone beyond the liberal choir, whereas a site like Sojourners might. Sojourners magazine bills itself as dedicated to faith, politics and culture, and its online edition is likelier to make inroads with the red staters with its admonitory "Confessing Christ in a World of Violence," part of which states:

"Where is the serious debate about what it means to confess Christ in a world of violence? Does Christian 'realism' mean resigning ourselves to an endless future of 'pre-emptive wars'? Does it mean turning a blind eye to torture and massive civilian casualties? Does it mean acting out of fear and resentment rather than intelligence and restraint?"


Sojo.org is peppered with quotes by people like Angelina Grimke, an abolitionist and feminist who once declared, "I have not placed reading before praying because I regard it more important, but because, in order to pray aright, we must understand what we are praying for." Such lines should remind even those who regard religion as the opiate of the masses that there's a difference between peaceful potheads and Christian Coalition crackheads.

I am not advocating a conflation of church and state -- I don't believe in it. What I'm arguing is that progressive believers and secularists alike have always based their political and social decisions on a deep sense of what is morally sound and just. This is why my religious mother votes Democratic. Her view not only supports the separation of church and state in the abstract, but in practice. In contrast, religious fanatics like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell clamor for theocracies, ironically enough, because they are so insecure in their faith that their deepest fear is that the church's dictates are not potent enough, and can only become so by extending the church's reach into the state. Our country's history has shown us that religious progressives act as much better bulwarks against these religious fanatics than secularists, and that's one of the many reasons why the Democratic Party should enlist the aid of its own ecumenicals if it seeks to maintain a healthy separation of church and state.

The more progressive believers also want to uphold the separation of church and state because they understand that in the real world, absolutes rarely apply. Even Bush, who professes to believe in moral absolutes, finds himself on a slippery slope of his own making when it comes to gay marriage. If Bush really believed in the "sanctity" of marriage in the true evangelical sense, he would come out and state unequivocally that a marriage is not valid unless it was sanctified by Christ, for that is what his religion teaches him. He would thus be forced to admit that he considered invalid all Jewish marriages, all interfaith marriages, all marriages between atheists ... the list goes on. When moral absolutism meets political expediency, moral absolutism loses.


Yet red staters don't hold Bush accountable for this hypocrisy, because he offers a moral vision -- a romantic, traditionalist vision of society as it once supposedly was. Despite all his talk of living in a post-9/11 America, what he really offered was a vision of a pre-1960s, pre-sexual revolution, pre-civil rights era America. And that appealed to people afraid of the radical changes they see all around them.

Democrats, however, offer no moral vision -- or at least they don't tell a moral story. This is why, even though they act in the interests of ordinary Americans far more than the Republicans do, they don't appeal to them.

The last time the Democratic Party had a clear vision was LBJ's war on poverty, which appealed to the Good Samaritan principle and trounced Goldwater while doing so. But the Republicans learned from Goldwater, developing a powerful strategic machine and coming up with a vision of their own. Democrats haven't had a sellable vision or a winnable strategy since LBJ. The Clinton campaign saw this, and had to script one on its own. The Dems' 2004 "vision," despite all the campaign slogans to the contrary, was Anything But Bush. And our strategy wasn't, "It's the economy, stupid" or even, "It's Iraq, stupid," but rather, "Isn't Bush stupid?" That was our "vision."

The Democrats' biggest foe isn't conservatives, or the religious right, but their deep, ingrained assumption that human rationality will win the day over human nature. Black Democratic leaders know better: They've always galvanized support by appealing to their largely religious black base, recognizing that you can't use a rational message to convert the masses without first appealing to their guts and heart. White operatives in the party never have a problem with winning black constituencies this way come election time, and yet, when it comes to the rest of the electorate, somehow different rules apply. Segregation at its liberal best. Everyone patted Barack Obama on the back for delivering a great speech at the DNC, but no one congratulated him for doing the near impossible: Expressing the emotional, moral and -- yes -- spiritual heart of the Democratic Party.


In so many ways, the Democrats did a great job this year. We were out there, we got people registered, we canvassed swing states and we canvassed some more. The foot soldiers did a great job. Hell, Kerry did a good -- not great -- job. But in the end, we still left religious Democrats like my mother in a bind. She saw that the Democrats were losing the battle to the religious right, but felt she had no support in combating their rhetoric. The grass-roots Republicans were equipped with talking points from the GOP, but all she had was a do-it-yourself message. The GOP had its church arm put out 12,000 copies of "Inner Strength," a hagiographic documentary about Bush and his religious faith, with distribution centered in Ohio and Pennsylvania. You might counter that we had "Fahrenheit 9/11," but that's not the sort of movie my mother is going to take her Sunday school class to see, whereas I bet plenty of Sunday school classes in Ohio were corralled into church basements to watch "Inner Strength."

Despite my mother's personal beliefs about abortion or gay marriage, she remains a Democrat, and, being newly retired, she did as much for the cause as she could. Yet she was frustrated at every turn by the lack of support and infrastructure for religious lefties to engage in community outreach -- a practice that not only might have swung the election to Kerry, but that saves both religion and politics from fanaticism.

My husband, an avid fisherman who occasionally hunts, suffers from a similar dilemma. When he goes fishing, he's often the only Democrat on the boat, and he tries to appeal to his fellow fisherman by telling them that the Democrats are actually better for the health of the oceans, but many of them are already convinced that the Sierra Club and PETA want to restrict a sportsman's ability to harvest fish or hunt. By the time he gets on a boat, his fellow fishermen already fear the Sierra Club more than Exxon because the GOP has effectively driven a wedge between the environmentalists and the conservationists, with the Dems doing little to stop them. People like my mother and my husband are in regular contact with the voters we need, and yet they feel like outsiders in their own party. They are the ones who get laughed at when Kerry goes on a last-minute goose hunting expedition or attends four church services in one day.

What we Democrats need is our own political brand of evangelism. The conservatives have a well-wrought message, but no works. We have the substantive works, but no message, and certainly no overarching vision. We are the ones with the easier task before us, but we can't rely on the elite activists in the party to do the job of conversion; these people simply don't speak the language. Religious Democrats do. But we shouldn't use them in a Democratic-Republican game of keeping up with the Joneses; we should embrace them for a much better reason -- because they, ironically enough, are the only ones in the Democratic universe who won't simply preach to the choir. But they need a vision to preach, and they need support from the party they believe in, despite mounting evidence that their party doesn't believe in them. We can't leave them out there, alone and alienated in the red states we're now so fond of bashing, or else we'll lose them as well.


When my mother talks of winning over the hearts and minds of others, she always refers to the "fish and loaves" approach -- alluding to how Jesus fed the masses fish and bread before delivering his sermon. For the rest of us secular folks, I'll employ another metaphor. Give the dog a bone. Then maybe he'll join you the next time you go a-huntin'.

ZZ Packer


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Democratic Party Religion