The Lost Soul of the Democratic Party
A few weeks after the election of Donald Trump, I was sitting in a conference room in Washington, D.C. with some of the nation’s leading faith-based political organizers and advisors to the Democratic National Convention. The tone in the room was somber and serious. We had come together to ask the crucial question that the majority of our nation was asking after the election: “How could this happen?”
We had gathered precisely because we believed that we already had a sense of what had happened in the election. As people of faith who were also committed to the Democratic Party, most of us had spent the past few years urging the DNC and each of the Democratic Presidential Campaigns to embrace and reach out to people of faith, without much of success. As each advisor went around the room, sharing our perspectives and experiences throughout the election, it became clear that at the highest levels, the DNC had made an intentional choice to ignore the nearly 87% of Americans who identify as religious, believing the false narrative that far too many urban progressives have embraced that religion is dying and should be divorced from our social policies and positions. This progressive myth has proven to be just that, a myth, and the numbers are stacked against the idea that progressives are not religious.
Of course, even though the DNC itself was clearly reluctant to embrace faith which resulted in the campaign of its nominee being largely religonless, other progressive candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley actually engaged in extensive faith outreach during their campaigns. Sanders hired the Rev. Dr. Aurello Givens who coordinated outreach to various faith communities around the country that were primed to receive Sanders message. Martin O’Malley has never been afraid of leaning heavily on his Catholic faith, and during an interview with me revealed that he often had to help his staff understand why it was important to use theological language in his speeches.
On the other hand, once Clinton was named the nominee of the Democratic Party, any extensive faith outreach efforts in her campaign seemed to fall by the wayside. In our meeting in DC, it was revealed that the Clinton Campaign had only had one staff member responsible for doing faith outreach, which was only one of three groups the staff member was responsible for outreach to. We also discovered that the campaign had been given numerous opportunities to reach moderates, such as being offered a monthly column in one of the leading Christian news outlets to discuss the intersections of her Methodist faith and political positions. Throughout the campaign, it was said, Clinton was directed to only use faith language sparsely, and the first time the American people really saw her authentic, deep-rooted faith was during her concession speech.
Avoiding faith has not always been the strategy of the Democratic Party. In 2008, Senator Barack Obama leaned heavily on his faith and the faith community to help him ground his policies in deep-seated values and the real lives of average Americans who happen to be people of faith. Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also ran campaigns that leaned into and relied heavily on their Christian faith, and created robust faith councils to help guide policies and craft the message of their Administrations. But something seems to have shifted in the consciousness of the DNC in 2016 that caused it to reject faith altogether.
It seems that the Democratic party has lost its soul. In a period of our nation’s history where have never been more polarized and divided between left and right, the shared language of religious faith provides an opportunity for Democrats to cast their vision in a deeply rooted, deeply moral, traditional light that so many faithful moderates long to hear. However, throughout the 2016 election it became clear that the DNC made a decision that engaging religion in any serious manner was not worth it’s time and energy. They gave into the narrative of the Religious Right that only conservatives could claim a faith-based moral high ground, and that progressives must be secular if their agenda is to succeed.
Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Remember, almost 90% of Americans identify as religious. Almost 85% percent of progressives adhere to a spiritual tradition. And while progressives may express their faith differently (i.e. may not go to church every Sunday), to address them as a primarily secular group whose values and morals do not have a spiritual grounding is clearly a grave error. In fact, nearly every major progressive social movement that has risen up in the past five years has been strongly grounded by people of faith- whether the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, or the Moral Monday Movement- and it has largely been communities of faith that have formed the centers of organizing for justice on the local level.
If Democrats are going to be effective in not only winning elections but recrafting a platform that reflects the needs, values, and lives of the majority of American, then they must work hard to engage the moderate to progressive people of faith in rural and suburban areas across this nation. Religion does not belong to Republicans, and the progressive values of the Democratic party have deep roots in Judeo-Christian (as well as many other) religious traditions. Not all progressives are religious, it’s true, but a majority are. And if we are to become a party that transforms our nation for the common good once again, we must rediscover our soul.