Monday, September 12, 2005

Democrats, Religion, and Rhetoric

Less than a third of Americans think the Democratic Party is friendly toward religion. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in July of 2005, only 29% of those surveyed thought Democrats were “religion-friendly;” down from 40% in 2004. More than half of those surveyed--55%--thought the Republicans were friendly toward religion.

At the same time, 45% of those polled thought that “religious conservatives” had too much control over the Republican Party, while 44% thought that “non-religious liberals” had too much control over the Democratic Party.

These results can be interpreted in many ways, but I think they show that the Democratic Party and its allies need to spend more time thinking about how the average American perceives their attitude toward religion. In reality, millions of people of faith are loyal Democrats. In the past few years, however, many Democratic Party leaders have demonstrated their inability to discuss religion, politics, and the Christian Right using language that teaches rather than trashes. Every week I get postal mail and e-mail solicitations for donations that use demonizing buzz phrases such as “Radical Religious Right,” or “Religious Political Extremist.” That type of rhetoric may scare some people into writing checks in the short run, but it makes it harder in the long run for grassroots organizers to build a broad-based movement for social change that includes people in progressive, liberal, and centrist religious groups.

I do worry about the Christian Right. I worry about separation of church and state. I worry about theocracy and the tendency toward Dominionism that leads some in the Christian Right to seek a form of Christian nationalism that would rewrite Consitutional protections for those with whom they disagree or see as sinful. Frankly, George W. Bush scares me. He owes the Christian Right a bunch of political favors for their electoral support, and he has been delivering.

Most Christian evangelicals, however, are not part of the Christian Right. I know from talking with evangelicals and fundamentalists across the country that they are offended by the rhetoric from some liberal and Democratic Party leaders who do not seem to be able to talk about religion without chewing on their foot.

I have this fantasy about kidnapping a busload of liberal inside-the-beltway pundits and driving them to some town in Middle America where they have to learn how to talk to voters who think that going to a church, or synagogue, or mosque or other place of worship is a normal part of life. The pundits won’t be given a ticket back to Dupont Circle until they don’t flinch when someone says words like “faith,” “prayer,” or “blessing.”

I suspect some will have to walk back to the Potomac.

Like I said, it’s just a fantasy, but rhetoric is important. If we are to change the perception that Democrats are not friendly to religion, then a good first step is changing language that is offensive.

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