Just over a year ago, before the frenzy of the midterm elections hit full swing, I traveled to Ohio to campaign with Senator Sherrod Brown, who was running for reelection. I told the crowds about the Sherrod I know from the weekly prayer breakfast he hosts in the Capitol, every Wednesday when the Senate is in session.
When I brought up his faith at our first campaign stop, though, a funny thing happened: As I told the folks in the room about how inspiring and passionate Sherrod is when talking about his faith, many faces showed surprise. They knew him as a passionate advocate for the middle class and a brilliant, hardworking senator, but not everyone knew him as man of faith. It wasn’t part of his stump speech.
At our second stop, the same thing happened. By our third stop, Sherrod had changed his stump speech. He still emphasized manufacturing, health care, and education, but he also talked about how his faith inspires him to fight for the dignity of every person he represents. He talked about how all of us are called to care for, support, and lift up our neighbors. He was arguing for the same progressive policies he’d discussed before, but rooting his perspective and values in the Gospels. In the room, heads were nodding; people understood exactly where he was coming from. It reminded me of the famous Christian edict: “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”
Unfortunately, choosing not to talk much—or even at all—about faith and religion has become common in today’s Democratic Party. That choice, I believe, is the wrong one for two important reasons.
First, it hides away the deep, passionate, and formative faith backgrounds of so many Democrats who are seeking or serving in office. At our weekly Senate prayer breakfasts, for example, I’m consistently inspired and moved by the words of my colleagues whose faith is fundamental to their life and their work, but who rarely talk about it publicly.
Second, choosing not to talk about our faith as Democrats ignores the clear fact that America is still an overwhelmingly religious country, and that the Democratic Party, too, remains a coalition largely made up of people of faith—including tens of millions who identify as deeply religious.
There are good reasons—and some bad ones—that explain how we’ve gotten to this point.
For starters, we simply haven’t done enough to counter the decades-long effort by Republicans to claim that the most important, pressing political issues for Christians are opposition to abortion access and LGBTQ rights. Many Democrats of my generation remember all too well the “Moral Majority” of the late 1970s and early ’80s that intertwined the Christian right with the Republican Party, blurring the lines of politics and religion in ways we can still see today.
Make no mistake—those GOP efforts have made a difference, and slowly but surely, Democrats have allowed conventional wisdom to correlate public displays of Christian religiosity with anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ policies.
Democrats today spend less time showing how our faith and religious backgrounds drive and inform our positions on all kinds of things—immigration, climate change, taxes, health care—out of a largely unspoken concern that publicly connecting faith with politics doesn’t quite fit.
Some argue that Democrats’ de-emphasis of faith makes sense in a country that’s becoming less religious, but that vastly overstates the decline of religious affiliation in America. For all the talk of American secularization, only 17 percent of the people who voted in 2018 identified their religion to pollsters as “none.”
Others argue that while America might remain a religious country overall, the Democratic Party is notably less so. But about half of Democratic voters were considered highly religious, and more than a quarter fairly religious, on the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study.
Why, then, does conventional wisdom argue that Democrats are becoming dramatically less religious or even anti-religious? It’s true that fewer Democrats today identify as highly religious—but observers have placed more emphasis on the direction of that shift than on its actual magnitude. To explain that, one has to give some credit to the sustained, though plainly inaccurate, arguments to that effect made by Republicans over the years, but Democrats are also sometimes guilty of misreading the country and our own voters on this issue.
Take for example, the inaccurate stereotype of the Democratic base as Millennial and secular. First, Millennial voters still make up only a relatively small percentage of Democrats. And second, while Millennial voters identify, more than any generation before them, as religiously unaffiliated, a majority of them still identify as at least somewhat religious. Those that don’t are an even smaller (albeit increasing) slice of the country and the party.
The perception of Democratic voters as being less religious also comes from an excessive focus on white Democrats. In the 2014 Pew survey, fully 78 percent of African-American Democrats were highly religious, 17 percent were fairly religious, and only 5 percent were not religious at all. Among Hispanic Democrats, the numbers were similarly clear: 57 percent were highly religious, 29 percent were fairly religious, and only 15 percent were not religious. The point is that while white Millennial voters might receive the most attention from the national media and some strategists, their changing religious identity is only a small part of the story for the party overall.
That’s why Democratic officials and candidates need to lose their reluctance to talk publicly about how faith informs our work, our values, and our lives. I’ve been encouraged by the ways that many of the Democrats running for president have done just that.
Senator Cory Booker told his congregation, the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark, that he was going to run for president before he publicly announced his candidacy, and said in a CNN town hall that “Christ is the center of my life.” Senator Elizabeth Warren, a former Sunday-school teacher, recently quoted the Gospel of Matthew while speaking to an audience in Mississippi about her own faith, and spoke eloquently about feeling called to action. Mayor Pete Buttigieg told a town-hall audience that “scripture is about protecting the stranger, and the prisoner, and the poor person, and that idea of welcome.” Former Vice President Joe Biden (whose candidacy I have endorsed) has for decades spoken about how his faith has sustained him through tragedy and inspired him to serve others.
Those examples reflect an important point: Democrats can fight for our progressive values while also identifying with the religious backgrounds that are so important to tens of millions of Americans. It’s not about citing one scripture verse or another to argue for a certain policy; it’s about letting those Americans for whom religion is central to their lives know that we understand them, respect them, and in many cases share their religious backgrounds.
There is, of course, a wrong way to do this. We must be careful to never weaponize or politicize faith, religion, or scripture, nor should we claim some sort of divine endorsement for our policies. A healthy dose of humility is always important when interpreting scripture, and doubly so when it inspires politics and policy. We also need to make clear that Democrats are committed to both freedom of and freedom from religion. Americans of all faiths or no faith at all should feel equally welcomed in our coalition.
Democrats should remember that while we’re a party committed to progressive values, we’re also a party that’s inspired and driven by many people of faith, seeking to lead, inspire, and heal a country that remains deeply religious. We’re at our best when we remember that those aren’t facts to be reconciled, but rather truths that mutually reinforce who we are.
Several months after my visit in 2018, Sherrod Brown was reelected in Ohio by 7 points. In Ohio, that’s more than 300,000 votes—and it was a double-digit percentage swing from 2016, when Donald Trump won the state by more than 8 points.
At his victory party, Sherrod finished his remarks on stage by saying, “Let me dig a bit deeper to explain how I see the world and the sisterhood and brotherhood of humanity. At gatherings like this, we Democrats seldom talk about our faith … Here’s what Jesus said: ‘When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me. What you did for those who seemed less important, you did for me.’ Let our country—our nation’s citizens, our Democratic Party, my fellow elected officials all over the country—let them all cast their eyes toward the heartland, to the industrial Midwest, to our Great Lakes state. Let them hear what we say. Let them see what we do.”