A few weeks ago, the New Yorker ran a piece on evangelicals and the Democratic Party. I read just about everything I can get my hands on about religion and politics so it piqued my interest. The article was meant to be an encouraging piece on the religious left, but I couldn’t help but be a little frustrated.
The article covers the activities of the group Vote for Common Good. The group is made up of progressive Christians working to change the ways both the Republican and Democratic parties interact with religion and to promote the religious left. They argue that the Republican Party has been corrupted by religious extremism and that the Democratic Party has not done enough to connect with religious voters. In the New Yorker piece, one of their main arguments is that Democrats have something to learn about religion.
My biggest question, however, after reading the article was: what is it that evangelicals and other Christians need to learn about coexisting in a pluralistic society?
No doubt much of what Vote for Common Good is doing admirable and long overdue. The religious left has existed for years, working tirelessly and faithfully on a range of issues. It’s time the religious right stopped having a monopoly on religion in the United States.
Nonetheless, I found several issues problematic in the article, due in part to ongoing concerns I have about the ways Christians have wielded power in the United States, including the more progressive Christians.
The first red flag was when Doug Pagitt, one of the group’s founders, criticized Hillary Clinton for not speaking more openly about her faith. “I don’t even know what her favorite Bible passage was,” he complained. I wasn’t sure what knowing her favorite verse had to do with her fitness for office or the quality of her campaign.
In another instance, Katie Paris of Vote for Common Good encouraged candidates to speak openly about their values, even if they weren’t religious. But in the next paragraph, Pagitt offered examples of politicians that seemed to contradict what Paris had just described about the group’s acceptance of non-religious politicians. The examples Pagitt gave: Elizabeth Warren mentions hymns and her work as a Sunday School teacher (good!), Bernie Sanders doesn’t mention religion at all (bad!), Cory Booker talks about God in generalizations (bad!). In another instance, Pagitt noted that what Vote for Common Good wanted was for Democrats to “like religious people enough that you can ask for their votes,” implying that Democrats currently dislike religious people or did in previous campaigns.
The examples of the group’s efforts offered in the article struck the wrong chord with me. It’s strange to me that we would require politicians to speak out about their personal religious practices or experiences. Or that we, as religious voters, would be hesitant or refuse to vote for someone unless they valued or practiced religion in the same way we did, which seemed to be the implication in the article. I find it problematic to imply that politicians must have some sort of faith story and must share it as part of their campaigns.
This suggests that the problem isn’t Democrats, but Christians who can’t imagine voting for a non-Christian. Isn’t it Christians who need to work on practicing pluralism, given that we live in a religiously diverse society with a secular democracy?
I single Christians out here because the reality is that Christians still do wield a tremendous amount of power and influence in the United States. Eighty-eight percent of our members of Congress identify as Christian. Even among Democrats in Congress, seventy-eight percent identify as Christian. All this though nearly a quarter of Americans now identify as religiously unaffiliated. So who is really underrepresented here? We Christians would do better to spend more time protecting religious minorities in the United States as well as those who don’t practice or believe in any religion at all.
I don’t say any of this to demean the role religion can have in informing our personal politics. My religious values have been hugely influential in shaping my politics. While I may want my politicians to share my political beliefs, I don’t need them to hold the same religious beliefs as I do. I certainly don’t need them to pander to me as a religious voter. I’m happy to see the religious left getting a bit more publicity but I’m wary of the religious left having the same sort of influence on the Democratic Party as the religious right has had on Republicans.
As Christians who’ve had an outsized share of influence and power, our job is to look out for those religious groups who are marginalized in America. Preserving pluralism and democracy in the United States should be a priority for us. What comes immediately to mind for me are Muslims who face an alarming amount of Islamophobia in our society. And let’s not overlook Jews who are facing increasing anti-Semitism and violence.
Practicing pluralism will require letting go of the power and control we’ve wielded in American politics and lifting up those voices who’ve been marginalized in American life for too long.