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.