Originally published in Official Artur Davis
For a stretch of several years in the middle of the last decade, liberals spent a fair amount of energy on strengthening their appeal to self-identified Christians. In the face of polling data showing a sizable and widening deficit for Democrats among white evangelicals, liberals sought to gain ground by casting many of their domestic priorities in faith-friendly language: universal health care, environmental protection, opposition to income inequality, for example, were repurposed in terms of biblical admonitions about the moral obligation to the “least of these.” Aspiring Democratic politicians like Barack Obama started slipping into their speeches references to their religiosity, including Obama’s clever and evocative reference in his 2004 keynote to voters in the blue states “who still worship an awesome God.”
It was an effort that fell flat. John Kerry’s share of white evangelicals eventually shrunk to historic low levels. Obama, as presidential candidate, rarely expounded on his religion, beyond fending off falsehoods that he was a closet Muslim and minimizing his attendance at Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity Church ( the first political defense, it is believed, based on sporadic church attendance). During the Obama presidency, invocations of his faith have been infrequent and spare, even in sectarian flavored settings like the memorial service for the Arizona “Congress on Your Corner” shooting victims in 2011. Health care reform was about “bending the cost curve”, not doing God’s work here on Earth, and the economic fairness message that is the cornerstone of Obama’s campaign is standard fare liberal populism that aims at middle-class self-interest more than the soul.
I thought of that discarded faith playbook this week as the values controversy de jour, over the Chick-fil-A president’s anti gay marriage comments, played out to predictable effect. Liberal commentators have denounced the fast food chain (great shakes, good chicken, awful fries) as a dark-star of religious intolerance; a growing number of Democratic politicians with strong gay donor or voter bases professed shock that a business with a practice of Sunday closings and strong evangelical ties might have a CEO with right-leaning social views. Resistance to same sex marriage—a point of view that according to Gallup, half the country holds and that reflects the laws of 36 states—has been aggressively twisted into a symptom of bigotry.
There is sincere displeasure on the left at the articulation of a belief that has become so swiftly so politically incorrect; but frankly, the atmosphere seems less one of angst, more one of satisfaction at a battle well joined: as Dick Morris once advised Bill Clinton, nothing builds a base like a fight against a good enemy. (But it takes a career at death’s doorstep to inspire a politician like DC’s Vince Gray to feel moved to coin the phrase “hate chicken”.)
What a difference a few cycles make. A liberal political class that just recently linked all manner of secular policy goals to a religious core has all but banished faith from its working vocabulary unless it is as a source of condemnation or backlash. Evangelicals are one more convenient right-wing pillar to bash, along with Tea Partiers, the One Percent, and shadowy donors. Bible-thumping eating establishments join birth-control denying Catholic institutions as rhetorical red meat for crusaders on guard against “rolling back the clock” on fundamental rights.
To be sure, the middle course of courting evangelicals on economic issues while soft-pedaling controversial social debates like same sex marriage and abortion did not really aid Democrats with right-leaning, faith oriented voters. (There was this weird thing about voters objecting to being told by politicians which parts of their faith they should prioritize.) But it at least epitomized the liberal tendency toward pluralism and reflected a strategy of accommodation rather than conflict with the social right. The result was not so much big tent politics—that was more aspiration than reality—but a perspective that countered and neutralized conservatives’ occasional ventures into demonizing conventional liberalism as a secular, anti-religious philosophy.
It’s harder for the left to claim the higher, less divisive ground these days. Their elected practitioners may be fighting on the side of their angels, for more equality and “fundamental dignity”, but the fight looks to numerous audiences like another distracting culture war. And at least some of those observers are socially conservative independents in Ohio and Florida and lapsed rural and ethnic Democrats in the upper South and Mid Atlantic who have traditionally bought much of the Democratic message on economic justice without even needing to locate it in a biblical text.
It is possible, of course, to regard the Democrats’ de-emphasis on religiosity and their uncompromised defense of gay equality and contraception rights as the dawn of a progressive party finding its own voice and its own spine. But such a view is most likely to flourish in exactly the urban condos and upscale college brownstones Democrats secured a generation ago. The risk for Team Obama is that the causes of the newly liberated Democratic Party just don’t sound to those swing voters in Columbus and Tampa like their fight.