Must Democrats Get Religion?

Do Democrats need religion in order to compete with Republicans?

In the aftermath of the 2004 election, Democrats are being enjoined to get religion.  Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, deplores the liberal disdain of spirituality, and says that Democrats should foster a “religious/spiritual left.”[1]  Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times suggests that Democrats “rebrand” themselves as faith-friendly, otherwise the party will never reclaim its majority status.[2]   

What so tempts Democrats to don the mantle of religion, of course, is the steady slide to the political right over the last 30 years.  Progressive stands on social, economic, and criminal justice, environmental protection, tax policy, health care, housing, social security, and women’s and minority rights have been increasingly marginalized.   

Taking their place is a narrow, prohibitionist moral agenda, concerned to deny or limit such things as abortion, gay rights, assisted dying, stem cell research, sex education, contraception, and gun control, to name a few of the right’s favorite targets.  Since this agenda is driven by religious conservatives, the thinking goes, a religious left could lead the progressive counter-revolution. 

But it’s not clear that liberal politics needs to claim religion to recapture middle America and reverse the nation’s moral priorities, or that this would be a wise tactic.

First, we should acknowledge the obvious fact that religious belief is no guarantor of progressive values. True, some notable progressives have been devout, such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, and religious denominations have played important roles in battles against slavery and apartheid.  But it is equally the case that some conservative religionists have, in all eras, strenuously resisted social change, and that some fundamentalist groups are working to roll back hard-won liberties and protections, and to block further progress on human rights. 

Faith, therefore, cuts both ways, and can be cited in support of virtually any moral agenda.  If liberals decide to present themselves as true believers, conservatives will simply ask:  OK, you’ve proved yourself religious, but what about your values?  On that score nothing will have changed.  Two moral agendas, one more or less progressive and altruistic, the other more or less conservative and moralistic, will stand opposed, competing for the nation’s allegiance.   

Second, we must acknowledge the equally obvious fact that faith isn’t a necessary prerequisite for morality.  Atheists, agnostics, and all manner of naturalists manage to live ethical lives without supernatural guidance. The European Union, whose population is considerably less religious than the US, is by no means ethically adrift.  So those of little or no faith have nothing to apologize for when it comes to their moral bona fides.   

Such considerations suggest that a progressive moral agenda, along with its political and policy implications, should be defended on its merits, independent of one’s stance on matters of faith.  Liberal values are intrinsically worth promoting, and although consistent with many religious teachings, they don’t need god’s imprimatur.

Non-religious liberals should of course not denigrate or demonize those who are supernaturally inclined, since after all, freedom of conscience is a pillar of a progressive, pluralist society.  But equally, liberals, whether religious or not, shouldn’t shrink from pointing out the connection that sometimes obtains between religious fundamentalism and threats to our central values.  When a particular conception of sin drives repressive morality, we can legitimately call such sin into question, along with its theological or scriptural basis. 

Crucially, this is not to malign religion per se, but the dehumanizing content of certain faith-based world views.  And after all, threats to progressive ideals have often derived from secular fundamentalisms, such as communism and fascism.  The enemy, to repeat, is not religion, but the denial of basic individual rights, protections, and opportunities, whatever the justification for their abridgement.   

To turn back the conservative tide, Democrats should recruit allies wherever they exist, in churches or not, to create a progressive coalition.  This coalition must appeal explicitly to human capacities for empathy and compassion which undergird liberal conceptions of justice and fairness.  Democrats must reframe the political debate to reflect what it truly is - the competition between our better, altruistic nature, and the closed, fearful, absolutist impulse to enforce a monolithic vision of human purposes, whether religious or secular. 

In such a debate, faith-based world views can and should play a role.  But it’s not necessary, and indeed it would be counter-productive, for Democrats to wrap themselves in religion to win back the political center.  It’s simply hypocritical to pretend that faith has a lock on morality, and it betrays the cultural diversity of progressives to suppose they must dress their values in religion.  Our true calling is not to either faith or unbelief, but to freedom, security, and equality for those of all peaceful persuasions. 

TWC, 12/2004

[1]Democrats need a religious left
[2]Time to get religion