Has the religion/political landscape really changed?

The Christian Democrats of America pushed a press release today claiming that the Republican Party is losing its hold on the “faith vote.”

It cited this article on the liberal Think Progress site earlier this month that said it’s getting harder for Republican Christians to justify awarding a vote to Republican candidates.

But the loss of an absolute political claim over religious belief is not just an issue for GOP Catholics. Large, progressive faith traditions have started to unsettle once simplistic understandings to “traditional” belief. Both Rand Paul (R-KY) and Donald Trump are affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), a Christian tradition that — unlike either candidate — now openly embraces same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, Ohio governor and Republican candidate John Kasich is challenging conservative ideas that Christianity has to toe a party line: He publicly defended his decision to expand medicaid by in his state during last week’s GOP debate by citing God’s call to care for the poor.

Neither organization comes at the issue from a neutral perspective, of course, but the timing is interesting (to me) because seven years ago today, I wrote the blog post below about this very subject from a Democratic perspective.

We were out in Denver for the national convention, which was days short of nominating Barack Obama. I happened to stumble across the post by coincidence today and was struck by how little I’ve heard about the religious vote, beyond the simplistic guesswork and speculation that passes for political analysis more than a year before the next national conventions.

Has the religious/political landscape changed?

Here’s what Dr. Douglas Kmiec, who was the focus of the original post, told me today:

Thank you for your note and your insightful commentary of some time ago. Has anything changed? Yes, but it has been glacial change. Much of the change was already accomplished by candidate Obama’s and then Pres. Obama’s willingness to engage in faith-based discussion. What that willingness demonstrated was what Pope Francis has since called non-judgmental-ism or “who am I to judge?” While I think that attitude is not yet triumphant, the fact that the papal person has brought it to prominence coincides well with the presidents view that faith matters, it cannot be imposed, to show mutual respect, we need to know something about what each other believes, and to know that, we have to be speaking to one another and not raining down missiles or chopping off heads, or otherwise engaging in inhuman, cruel behavior on the basis of stereotypes. I have not seen very much written about the correlation between Obama healthcare and the incidence of abortion. I mention this because your original thread had abortion in the center of it, and because it was the view of the candidacy of Sen. Obama that the incidence of abortion would decline if one put in place programs to assist single mothers unemployment or find afterschool assistance. The GOP has been so negative toward any universal healthcare proposal, and in particular, disdainful of the presidents enacted program, that it is hard to gauge whether the enhancement in maternity care or the protective prospective enhancement in that care is major or minor is conceptually significant, but I’d like to see the empirical data.

In terms of the Catholic view, we cannot expect the president to unite us so we can follow is unifying example. Are the American prelates doing so? Those that are welcoming of the breath of fresh air that Francis has brought to the Vatican I think would readily concede that, while not perfect, the presidents healthcare reform deserves to be given a chance in implementation. Will that chance be given? I’m not much of an election prognosticator, but it seems to me that Mr. Trump is taking us in the exact opposite direction – building up fear and avarice, especially fear of the stranger; and feeding those who get agitated far too easily to engage in dialogue. I am particularly encouraged in anticipation of the papal visit next month since I think it will be an example of truth to power.

I do have one or two concerns about the president’s commitment; he sent me to Malta to engage in among other things, an inter-religious dialogue that would understand the common origin of Abrahamic religions, and then fully explored the implications of that. Religious common ground (which necessarily includes a strong commitment to human rights and social justice) for peace in the Middle East and in the individual countries of Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Israel. We were well on our way to opening the minds of the intellectual leaders in that region to pursuing the interfaith dialogue which the president had described capably in Cairo in 2009, but for reasons that remain obscure, the president allowed subordinates in the Department of State and White House to subvert the effort, just as it was getting underway. Not every president has full control of the executive branch; indeed, a relatively young president with only legislative experience is sometimes incapable of reaching into the bureaucracy to see even the best ideas come to light. In my case, the interfaith diplomacy effort was allowed to be dismantled at the assistant secretary level in the Department of State and the president raised no objection, even as one must assume he had knowledge.

Now we face a new election season, and none of the candidates are anywhere close to the empathetic understanding of the importance of faith that candidate in the early president Obama exhibited. I believe much can be done in the remaining days of the Obama administration, and even beyond. As the prophetic witness of Jimmy Carter illustrates, what the former president will dedicate himself to post-presidency matters, and I for one hope that the initiative to understand comparative faith traditions and their relationship to democratic governance and genuine civil order (as opposed to the tranquility which is the product of oppression) will find a prominent place in his reflections.

You mentioned the denial of communion as being my reward for asking what some would seem as intemperate questions and endorsing then Sen. Obama. That communion denial was itself at odds with the spirit that Francis has brought to the church, so I am not particularly concerned that it will be repeated. That said, the Archbishop of Philadelphia is one of the most divisive and partisan conservative prelates in the American church, and the conference on families that is occurring there that will be addressed by the holy father is being packed with like-minded conservatives who are not inclined to be open to Pope Francis. As with the Obama aborted interfaith initiative, it shall now be seen whether the simple joy and truth of the Pope’s message of inclusion can triumph over exclusionary forces seeking the GOP nomination and seeking to keep believers at odds with one another, sometimes even in hurtful ways. The Pope has stated, “there are no closed doors,” and I would hope Pres. Obama in his final year would have none either. In particular, it would be nice having been his appointed ambassador with a portion of this interfaith portfolio to speak with him directly, to put aside hard feelings for why it was earlier abandoned, and to get the work done now, before he leaves office.

Those are some thoughts on where we have been, where we did not go, and where faith and human right call upon our better selves.

What about you? If you consider yourself religious, has your political landscape changed? Consider it from where you may have been on this date seven years ago.

Here’s the original post, including the usual NewsCut commentators who brought valuable perspective to the question at the time.

Here’s a reprint of the post about the first meeting of the Democratic faith caucus.


Away from the glitter and goofy hats of a political convention, you can usually catch a whiff of the things that keep Democrat insiders up at night.

In Denver on Thursday, the “faith caucus” held its first meeting ever, an attempt to bridge a divide within the party over abortion, and prepare for a Republican strategy that markets faith as a GOP virtue.

howard_dean.jpg“It’s hard for people to talk about religion,” Party Chair Howard Dean told a three-quarters-empty Denver Convention Center ballroom. “We’ve been people of faith for a long time. We just don’t like to talk about it. It matters how you live your values, not what you say on Sunday.”

That shot at Republicans was the easy part. When Dean left, the rift within the party over abortion was more apparent.

“I’m a pro-life Democrat and I like to think I’m in a party that has room for me,” said Rev. Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, former director of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Nobody should be left outside a party that’s called a Democratic Party. I’m proud to stand beside a pro-choice Democrat, but I want you to hear what I have to say. It’s saying ‘my values matter and you have room for my values that my Bible tells me about.'”

kmiec.jpg The issue has driven millions of Catholics into the arms of the Republican Party. “The Catholic vote is an important vote,” said Dr. Douglas Kmiec of Pepperdine University, a Catholic legal scholar who wrote a Slate Magazine article claiming Obama is a natural choice for Catholics. “It’s 25% of the electorate. Catholics have voted for the winning candidate in the last nine presidential elections. They know how to pick a winner.”

Kmiec told a Catholic newspaper earlier this week that Barack Obama’s position on abortion is “morally unacceptable.” But he’s still voting for him. “I, too, am pro-life, but that label … has to be a commitment to all of life, from the moment of conception to the moment of death,” he said. His church responded by denying him communion.

Wooing conservative Catholics to the Democratic Party may be a tough sell. It’s no coincidence that Obama picked a Catholic — Joe Biden — as a running mate. Biden, however, supports legalized abortion in defiance of his church.

An even tougher sell for a party trying to learn how to talk religion is evangelical Christians, a solid Republican voting bloc.

relevant.jpg“Younger evangelicals are morally conservative but more socially compassionate than previous generations of evangelicals,” according to Cameron Strang, of Relevant Magazine. “They’re very pro-life, but this generation has a more holistic view of what it means — the defense of innocent lives. Not just the unborn, but it includes genocide, unnecessary war, slavery, and abortion.”

Strang identified some common ground on the issue of abortion — adoption reform. “If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, what happens to all of these unwanted children?” he asked. “It costs $25,000 for an adoption. It costs $500 for an abortion. That’s messed up.”

But Strang this week showed why it will be difficult for Democrats to stand side-by-side with evangelicals. He was to give the benediction at the convention on Monday, but pulled out, citing fears his bridge-building gesture would be misinterpreted.

Little known to outsiders, the Strang name carries weight with evangelicals, especially in the fast-growing charismatic and Pentecostal branches, according to the Chicago Tribune.