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The Politics of Piety

Rick Perlstein is the author of "Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus."

A herd of independent minds has come forth in recent months with a theory. On the Op-Ed pages of newspapers, pixelated across the blogosphere and in prestigious political journals, pundits have decreed that John F. Kerry will lose unless he joins mainstream America and gets more religious. It’s not so surprising that Republicans, like the New York Times’ David Brooks, are raising the holy cry, but lately, liberal Democrats have joined the choir too.

They’re all wrong.

For one thing, the electoral numbers don’t add up. As Ruy Teixeira and John Judis concluded in their statistical study, “The Emerging Democratic Majority”: “Trends among the religious do not favor Republicans over Democrats. If anything, they favor Democrats.” Americans who attend church one or more times a week indeed favored George W. Bush in 2000. But the Americans who don’t -- a clear majority -- favored Al Gore. The vaunted “Christian right” is, demographically speaking, a stagnant pool: 17% of voters in 1996 and shrinking. The really dynamic voting bloc is made up of those who darken a church’s doorstep once a year or less. In 1972, they were 18% of voters; in 1998, 30%. And they don’t like Bush.

Does that make Kerry/Edwards the Ticket of the Damned? Because some less-religious Americans prefer Democrats, does that mean that the Democratic candidate is insufficiently religious? That’s what Republicans would like you to believe. But it’s a fantasy.

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The day in which any major-party presidential nominee is not a professing person of faith is not likely to come in our lifetimes. That’s just a fact of political life. It’s certainly a fact of Kerry’s political life. God-talk peppers his speeches: “We are all God’s children” ... “Our prayers are with their families” ... “All of us fighting under the same flag, praying to the same God.” But apparently Kerry is supposed to be something more: more than a former altar boy who once considered the priesthood, more than a weekly churchgoer (Bush rarely goes to church), more than a man possessed by the deeply Catholic conviction that actively supporting political programs that advance compassion count as much in God’s eyes as the faith one holds in one’s heart.

And that’s a disturbing thought. It’s especially disturbing that some Democratic commentators have bought into the notion. “Kerry’s Democrats” have been acting “like the Party of Secularists,” wrote Beliefnet.com editor and former Clinton staffer Steve Waldman in Slate. “Most folks in national Democratic politics are completely tone-deaf when it comes to religion,” said Amy Sullivan, who writes for the liberal Washington Monthly. Nick Confessore on the website of the even more liberal American Prospect noted “Kerry’s unwillingness to reach out to religious constituencies in a meaningful and respectful way.” What is going on here?

Democrats are letting themselves be hustled. They have become accomplices in a strategic attempt by Republicans to convince the public that the religious experience that liberals tend to favor is not “really” religion, and that the real measure of religiosity is conformity to certain Republican policy positions. That was certainly the approach of New York Times columnist Brooks, whose June 22 piece “A Matter of Faith” defines the “secular left,” in part, not by its lack of religious faith (he relied on a study that counted secular Democrats by the number who expressed displeasure at religious fundamentalists -- something that many deeply religious people do) but by its “strong antipathy to pro-lifers.” What kind of religions, implicitly, don’t count?

Unitarian congregations are one obvious target. Despite a long and rich history of Unitarianism in the United States -- Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams were both Unitarians -- the Republican comptroller of Bush’s Texas recently tried to strip a Unitarian congregation of its tax-exempt status, claiming it “does not have one system of belief.” Some Catholics -- the kind that question aspects of the authoritarian social dictates of the Vatican (that would likely be most American Catholics) -- don’t count. And neither, apparently, do African Americans. Although they are among the most religious ethnic groups and a majority of them are evangelical Christians, they vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Democratic candidates love to join the joyful noise that their congregations make, but still, somehow, the Democratic Party is seen as slighting religion.

Democratic pundits would, of course, insist that they respect these kinds of worship, but they’d also point out that Republicans don’t. Shouldn’t that be the Republicans’ problem? But by getting caught up in a debate about what true religious expression looks like, Democrats are willingly stepping onto a wedge devised and promoted by Republicans. When Confessore writes that Kerry’s failure to connect with religious constituencies in a meaningful way “is one of his biggest strategic errors so far,” he ignores that it is Republican propagandists who have been successful in defining “meaningful” religiosity for much of the public.

In fact, there’s something quite immoral about the whole discussion. Linger on Confessore’s language about “strategic errors.” Note the question Brooks asks in his June 22 column after pointing out that people don’t think Kerry’s all that religious (which is really only to point out that Republican propaganda has been successful): “Can’t the Democratic strategists read the data?” These people seem to seriously believe they honor religion by advising candidates to be exactly as religious as polls say they should.

That’s creepy -- as a presidential candidate named George H.W. Bush once understood. The current president’s father brought dignity to the White House by refusing to make grandstanding displays of piety that didn’t comport with the feelings in his heart.

But such grandstanding is exactly what some Democrats demand of Kerry -- even though it’s not necessarily in his political interests to do so.

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A more morally sound strategy -- and also, quite possibly, a more politically sound strategy -- would be for Kerry to point up the way the president fails to honor the faithful and trifles with them by turning them into cogs in a political machine. Remind Americans that Bush has lectured Catholic cardinals like they were precinct captains -- complaining to one in Vatican City, “Not all the American bishops are with me.” Point out how he has arranged privileged White House briefings on Mideast policy with apocalyptic Christians who are more interested in fulfilling the divisive conditions they say will hasten the Rapture than actual peace in this world. Put on display the way the Bush campaign has walked the razor’s edge of campaign law by instructing conservative churches to send their membership rosters to Bush/Cheney headquarters.

Or, if that’s not what Kerry feels in his heart, he can just keep doing what he’s been doing: rehearsing the same familiar invocations of the Almighty that presidential candidates always have (even if it isn’t really fair to nonbelievers, who hardly deserve the implied second-class citizenship).

Give me that old-time religion: the quiet kind, the respectful kind. It was good enough for our fathers. For November, Democrats, it is good enough for us.


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