For the better part of the decade that followed its bitter loss to George W. Bush in 2000, soul-searching by the Democratic Party led some of its leaders to a natural conclusion: the future of the party lay in the hands of church-going voters, and the party had better win them back. The only problem with that was that it was wrong.
Not only was it a wrong conclusion, but it was one that saw Democrats ignoring a key constituency: the growing numbers of voters with no religious affiliation -- voters whose values tend to fall naturally in line with the party’s professed goals.
Today, a new survey released on Monday by the Public Religion Research Institute confirms just what a mistake that was: Nearly one-fifth -- 19 percent -- of Americans now say they are unaffiliated with any religion, and 63 percent of them lean Democratic. But the survey also shows they’re significantly less likely to turn up at the polls than religious voters. Perhaps that’s because they feel left out of the dialogue, as leaders of the Democratic spent the last eight years trying to show the public that they love Jesus as much as anybody.
In 2007, I attended a breakout session at progressive conference on how to win religious voters. Afterwards, I asked one of the presenters what kind of outreach was being made to the then-14 percent of voters who identified as “unchurched.” He seemed flummoxed by the question. He’d never thought about it, he said.
Around December 2004, Democrats found themselves in a quandary, as Karl Rove and Ralph Reed marshalled the votes of evangelical Christians for George W. Bush, partially through the strategy of getting anti-gay referenda placed on the presidential ballot in battleground states. The strategy was to drive up turnout among the so-called “values voters,” and Rove later claimed that he brought greater numbers of evangelicals to the polls than had voted in previous elections.
Democrats had already been talking among themselves, after 2000, about how to counter the foot soldiers commanded by Rove, and thinking inside the box, began listening to power-mongers like the anti-gay, anti-choice Rev. Jim Wallis and Rev. Sam Rodriguez about the need for religious outreach to build a church-going Democratic base. In 2004, a group of religious leaders came together in Washington, D.C., to lay the foundation for an organization that would address those concerns, which in 2006 was launched as Faith and Public Life.
But the Democrats already had churchgoers among their base: Latino Catholics, African-American evangelicals and white mainline Protestants -- not to mention non-Christian religious people, such as Jews and Muslims -- and were never likely to effectively appeal to a politicized white evangelical population whose values comprised a cultural identity based wholly on patriarchy and an exclusionary idea of what constituted a “real” American. But that didn’t stop them from trying.
In 2007, one of the most humiliating exercises of the Democratic presidential primary was a CNN town-hall meeting at George Washington University in which each of the candidates, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, came before Wallis and anchor Soledad O’Brien to make a confession of faith. (Oh how I would have loved, I wrote at the time, for one of those candidates to respond to O’Brien’s deeply personal questions, “I know the Lord. The Lord is a friend of mine. And you, Soledad O’Brien, are not the Lord.”)
Meanwhile, the numbers of the unchurched, unsynagogued, untempled and unmosqued have only grown, and nobody is talking to them, unless they happen to belong to another part of the Democratic coalition -- say, as a union member or champion of women’s rights.
There are two reasons for this, as I see it:
1. Democrats have been so cowed by the lying right’s characterization of them as the enemies of religion that they feel they mustn’t dare to make an explicit appeal to those who believe in compassion, a social safety net, and justice for those who corrupted the financial system, simply because their own moral compass -- and not a pronouncement from a pulpit or a text -- tells them those are good values.
2. It’s easy to organize the churched because it’s pretty obvious where you find them. (That would be in churches.) But the unchurched? Who are they? Where are they?
To the first concern, it’s long past time the Democrats got over that fear. After all, where did all that outreach get them? Remember the Rick Warren inaugural benediction of President Barack Obama, and how that was supposed to buy him some goodwill among members of the religious right? Ha!
Democrats, in the years that intervened since the Obama inauguration, certainly got the message that all that outreach wasn’t worth a hill of beans. Jim Wallis lost his halo among party leaders, and Samuel Rodriguez has been revealed as a right-wing operative and, as Sarah Posner reported, aligned with anti-Muslim zealots. (See Frederick Clarkson’s report on Rodriguez, here.)
But what Democrats lack is the kind of creative thinking that would help bring more of those religiously unaffiliated to the polls. For, contrary to the way it’s been reported, this is a pretty motivated lot of people.
In the Washington Post report on the PRRI survey, the hook is the contrast in turnout between the unaffiliated and those who belong to an organized religion:
Nearly one-quarter of likely Obama supporters say they have have no particular religion— a group less likely to vote than those affiliated with an organized religion, according to a poll released Monday by the Public Religion Research Institute. Sixty-one percent of unaffiliated Americans said they are certain to cast a ballot, compared with 73 percent of Americans who are religiously affiliated.
Now think about that: at least half, if not more of those church-going voters, are being organized by the Republican right for turnout -- relentlessly bombarded with text messages, phone calls and voter “guides” tucked into their weekly church bulletins, if Ralph Reed, president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, is to be believed. So it’s no wonder that more than three-quarters of religiously-affiliated voters are primed to vote.
And the non-affiliated? Nobody is reaching out to them, at least not on that particular point of their demographic chart, and still 61 percent plan to vote. Imagine how many might vote if a concerted effort were made to find them and ask them for their vote? To speak their language -- a combination of self-help and new-age phrases, together with secular humanist touchstones?
If Democrats were to make a bid for that 12-percent deficit in turnout between the organized-religion adherents and the unchurched, they’d have to find a way to talk to some 17 million people who believe in something, and have an individualized belief system that they cobbled together on their own.
When it’s done well, it works. Think about “women’s rights are human rights.” And that’s just the secular humanist piece of it. No one has yet to dare to speak of our national karma or the yin and yang of things. It’s not as if you have to give up your Bible quotes. (Just don’t cite the chapter and verse.) In polyglot America, the language of compassion and equality is a mansion with many rooms.
The trick is where and how to find them. But it’s probably less difficult than you think. In these days of micro-targeting, campaigns regularly target likely voters based on their purchases. If Ralph Reed is gathering data on everybody who’s bought a Bible in the last two years (he says he is), one would hope the Dems have a bead on everybody who’s bought a Deepak Chopra book, or Eat, Pray, Love, or visited a Lululemon shop (never mind that its owner is a libertarian), or downloaded Springsteen’s latest album. (For all I know, they’re actually doing that, but if they’re not, here’s a genius idea, Dems!)
And even the solitary spiritual types have gathering places: yoga studios, health-food stores, bike-riding clubs. Every election year, much is made of the cliched organizing tactic of working the voters in African-American beauty salons and barber shops; why not the hipster coffee shops?
I suspect that the Democrats’ fear of reaching directly out to the unchurched is not just a fear of being branded as in league with atheists -- atheists comprise only a tiny fraction of the unaffiliated. It’s the fear of being identified with those who have rejected what many see as the ultimate authority: that of the divine’s self-appointed arbiters on earth.
In truth, there’s nothing more American than that. When it comes to inventing religious denominations and spiritual identities, no other nation holds a candle to the Americans. From the Mormons to the transcendentalists, we are a spiritual lot. But the most iconic American among that lot is the self-seeker. The author of the Declaration of Independence described himself as a sect of one. He made his own Bible and rejected the divinity of Jesus. You can’t get much more American than that.