God Help the Democrats

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John H. Bunzel is a past president of San Jose State University, a former member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a senior research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

Millions of Americans do not believe in God. They do not invest moral authority in a transcendent source such as the Bible, or deal in absolutes of right and wrong, or divide the world into simplistic categories of good and evil.

Such people, and I include myself among them, have tended to find themselves more comfortable in the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party, where a marked strain of Christian fundamentalism runs strong.

I sometimes wonder, though, whether we nonbelievers are good for the party.

As political analyst Michael Barone has noted, Americans “increasingly vote as they pray, or don’t pray.” By a wide margin (87% in a 2002 survey), U.S. voters say religion is important to them.


The Democrats, therefore, cannot afford to be perceived as the party of irreligion or as inhospitable to committed persons of faith. We should remember that the only Democrats who became president in the last 35 years were Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both of whom spoke openly about their strong religious beliefs without compromising the principle of church-state separation.

A 2001 study by political scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio confirmed a significant religious division in the electorate, with secularists and religious modernists attracted to the Democratic Party and religious traditionalists more likely to be Republican. Among their other findings:

* In 2000, for the first time, white Catholics gave a larger share of their votes to a Republican presidential candidate than did white mainline Protestants.

* A deep cultural and religious divide among Americans has its roots in “the increased prominence of secularists within the Democratic Party, and the party’s resulting antagonism toward traditional values.” Secularists first appeared as a political force within the party at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, when the party was captured by a faction whose cultural reform agenda was resoundingly rejected by an electorate that preferred Richard Nixon to George McGovern.

* Since the election in 1992, secularists and traditionalists have voiced “mirror-opposite ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ ” about the stances of both major parties toward religious people, the Christian right, abortion, gay rights, school prayer and other cultural concerns.

* Democratic opposition to Christian fundamentalism appears disproportionately among secularists, liberal-left party activists and college graduates. This hostility is not shared by rank-and-file Democrats or the broader segment of the voting public. Furthermore, twice as many voters expressed unfavorable feelings toward “nonbelievers” than they did toward the Christian conservative movement.


Secularist Democrats and even many religious voters are particularly hot and bothered by President Bush’s regular religious references. But presidents have always talked about God. In speaking about the interrelatedness of all humans, President Clinton said in 1997: “It is not enough to say we are all equal in the eyes of God. We are also all connected in the eyes of God.” Secularist Democrats are much more annoyed by Bush’s invocation of the Almighty (with its undertone of “America has God on its side”) because they feel his religious convictions do not influence his policies on such issues as health care, the needs of the poor and the environment. But they attack his religious views at their peril.

Fully aware that the Republicans have become the party of religious conservatives and seeking to put Democrats on the defensive, the president understands that if religion becomes a wedge issue in the U.S., it’s the Republicans who will benefit. He has brought issues to the fore that will accentuate the rift, as when he declared his opposition to gay marriage. “Marriage is between a man and a woman,” he told a White House press conference in July, “and we ought to codify that” in law.

Although not an issue likely to determine the outcome of the 2004 election, Democrats would be foolish to think the issue is unimportant. Gay marriage has become a controversial metaphor for a range of other politically sensitive questions. Any Democrat hoping to be president must be prepared to provide answers that will satisfy a majority of the voters, beginning with firm support for the “sanctity of marriage” between a man and a woman, which most Americans believe is the best family structure in which to raise children.

Democrats have many good reasons to oppose Bush in 2004. But they must be careful not to lose touch with the majority of voters. Yes, they must energize the party’s liberal base. But at a time when Republicans are attracting an increasing number of voters, Democrats must also recognize that this effort will not be enough to win the presidency.

Just because Bush seems obligated “to campaign with Jesus,” Democrats should not feel precluded from reaching out to Catholic and other religious moderates whose loyalties are neither fixed nor certain and who are motivated by politics as well as faith. As author Amy Sullivan observed in the Washington Monthly, “They’re not looking for a tent revival” at next year’s Democratic convention. “They’re just looking for a little respect.”

Traditionally, Democrats have been a coalition party of many groups. In their efforts to become once again the country’s majority party, they should speak to voters of all faiths -- believers, half-believers and nonbelievers -- in a language that lets them know they have a home in a party that values diverse opinions, prefers a government that allows people choices in their private lives and, above all, prizes its long record of looking forward for solutions to our most difficult problems.