In the aftermath of the Republican victory on Nov. 2, Democrats are debating how the party should respond to the increasing political power of conservative Christians. Two alternative strategies have emerged: One is the “If you can’t beat them, then join them” position, which contends that Democrats should assert their own religiosity. The other is “retool the message,” which argues that Democrats lost because they weren’t clear, in general, on what they stand for—other than not wanting Bush to be president—and that, in specific, they did not offer a clear alternative to the Republican rant on “family values.”
There can be no doubt that the Protestant religious right played a major role in the Bush victory. In the 2000 election, 14 percent of the electorate identified themselves as white Christian conservatives; of these 80 percent voted for Bush. Between the presidential elections, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg surveyed voters and found that this religious segment had grown to 17 percent. 2004 exit polls found that 23 percent of voters identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians; 78 percent voted for Bush.
The ranks of conservative Christians were swelled by the defection of Roman Catholics, who have traditionally voted Democratic. Despite the fact that Kerry is one of them, the majority of Catholics voted for Bush. Conservative Protestants and Catholics shared a commitment to strengthen “moral values,” prohibit abortion and gay marriage, and appoint socially conservative judges.
Democrats are struggling to respond to this onslaught. Some centrist party leaders argue that the most effective reaction would be for Democratic candidates to assert their own religious convictions, to become more overtly Christian. This, in effect, was the position of successful Colorado Democratic Senatorial candidate Ken Salazar, who “out-Christianed” his Republican opponent, Pete Coors.
A logical extension of this line of reasoning would be for Democrats, en masse, to accept Jesus; to wade into the Potomac and undergo group baptism where they repudiate their sinful liberal past and are born again.
As a left wing Christian, a Quaker, I do appreciate the sincerity of many Christians who publicly proclaim that they have taken Jesus into their hearts. My concern is not the truly faithful, however much I may disagree with their theology, but rather politicians who assume the mantle of piety to further their careers. I believe that many Republican office-holders are hypocrites who pose as devout Christians while they are actually dedicated to serving their own ambition rather than “duh Lord.” I don’t want to see Democrats lose what little integrity they retain by pursuing the same self-serving tactic.
The best Democratic strategy is to retool their core message and make a case that unique, Democratic values offer the best hope for America and democracy. (I believe these are, in essence, classic liberal values.)
George Bush hurled the label, “liberal,” at John Kerry as if it was an epithet and Kerry failed to respond with a positive defense of Democratic values. But this is far from an impossible task. In his keynote address at the Democratic Convention Barack Obama expressed the cornerstone Democratic beliefs, “We are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child… It’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. ‘E pluribus unum.’ Out of many, one.”
The concept that, “I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper” is one of the moral tenets that distinguishes Republicans and Democrats.
The GOP has historically been the party of rugged individualism, the party that suggested that if you were poor or sick or otherwise disadvantaged, you only had yourself to blame and the state had little or no responsibility to help you. Republicans subscribe to an ethical paradox: we should all be patriots but we shouldn’t help one another. Their core moral concern is “What’s in it for me?”
Democrats assume that we are connected and that no one of us is truly free until all of us are free. It is this perspective that motivates our continuing struggle for peace, justice, and a healthy planetary environment.
The Democratic Party needs to reassert these values, a morality that supports healthy families and communities, and a vital democracy.
Democrats should also remember that while there are conservative Christians who obsess over moral purity, conversion of the heathen, and the final judgment, there are also millions of other Christians who share Democratic values. These Christians agree that “we are connected as one people” and “I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.” These non-conservative Christians are natural allies. They understand that the outcome of Nov. 2 signals the beginning of an epic struggle that will determine whether America remains a democracy or falls into theocracy.
Bob Burnett is working on a book about the Christian right.