Progressive Values Can't Be Just Secular Values

New polls suggest liberals have an increasingly negative view of religion, despite the fact that most Democrats—and Americans—are religious.

Delegates pray during the opening of the Texas State Democratic Convention in Houston, June 18 2004.  (Michael Stravato/AP)

For a generation, the Democratic Party of which I’m a member has steadily moved away from communities of faith. Today, according to a recent Pew study, more than one-third of Democrats—including 44 percent of self-described liberal Democrats—think churches and religious organizations actually have a “negative impact” on the United States.

But the beliefs of those liberal Democrats don’t reflect the views of most American voters. The fact of the matter is this: The vast majority of Americans—including the majority of Democrats—are people of faith. According to a recent Pew study, for example, nearly 80 percent of Americans identify with a religious faith. Two-thirds of them pray every day.

That’s why if progressives are to achieve our goals, we have to open our hearts and minds to our allies in the faith community. Doing so won’t just advance our shared policy goals—it might also help heal a nation deeply divided along political lines.

Like many Americans, I’m a progressive Democrat and a Christian. That’s why I know that progressive values aren’t just secular values. We can get to some of our most important public-policy priorities through both secular and scriptural routes.

If you believe fighting economic injustice and creating opportunity for the poor is an urgent challenge, you can get there because you value the fundamental premise of the American dream that anyone who works hard can earn a decent living, provide for their family, and leave their children better off. Or, you can get there because you take to heart the biblical injunction to care for those who are less well-off and treat fairly those who are oppressed.

If you believe Americans should welcome immigrants and refugees into our country, you can get there as an intellectual or a humanist who cares about others, or even as a business leader who understands that immigration strengthens the economy. But you can also get there by reading and learning from passages in the Torah, the Qur’an, and the Gospel that call on all of us to welcome the stranger and the foreigner.

You might be committed to protecting the environment and fighting climate change because you see and understand the science linking carbon emissions with melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and a changing climate. Or, you can get there because of a steadfast belief that God created the Earth and gave us stewardship over it, and that it is our responsibility to improve our world and leave it cleaner and healthier for our children and grandchildren.

If you care about reforming a broken criminal-justice system that condemns too many Americans to a lifetime without justice, opportunity, or participation in the democratic process, you can get there by comparing the numbers of African Americans and Latino Americans to the numbers of white Americans arrested and charged for the same offenses, or by consulting data showing that mass incarceration is prohibitively expensive and doesn’t make us any safer. Or, you can get there through the words of the prophet Isaiah, who urges us to bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness the prisoners.

Even when Americans travel different paths to get to the same conclusions, they can find common ground on many issues, from expanding access to health care to fighting hunger and poverty.

Across the country, faith leaders at the local, state, and national levels are encouraging their communities to fight for progressive causes. In North Carolina, for example, William Barber II has mobilized thousands against voter suppression and anti-LGBT laws, inspiring widespread civic engagement through a series of “Moral Monday” protests at the state capitol.

Jennifer Butler, the CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based organization Faith in Public Life, has worked to unite people of different religions behind progressive goals, including by organizing interfaith resistance to efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Gabriel Salguero, a New York City pastor who founded the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, has fought for racial reconciliation and testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the importance of reforming immigration laws and improving police-community relations.

Barber, Butler, and Salguero are among the grassroots faith leaders who are each forging local alliances with progressive organizations and Americans of all faith backgrounds to fight for progressive causes. In doing so, they’re following in well-trodden footsteps of faith communities that have helped motivate and sustain generations of social progress in the United States.

In 1965, for example, the civil-rights marchers who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, were not just women and men, black and white, but also ministers and rabbis.

Martin Luther King Jr. was successful as a national leader in part because he made the case for civil rights through the words of both the Gospel and the Constitution.

“All that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it part of my ministry,” King told worshippers at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago in 1967. Yet while King’s commitment to social justice was inspired by his Christian faith, it wasn’t limited to those who shared that faith. Six years earlier King had written: “It is my sincere conviction that no religion has a monopoly on truth ... When I speak of America rising to the heights of a Democratic and Christian nation, I am referring to the need of rising to the heights of noble ethical and moral principles.”

In pursuing those ethical and moral principles, King—like many leaders of the civil-rights movement—took an inclusive approach to social change that progressives today would be well served to adopt.

I have no illusions that Americans can, or should, agree on every issue. There are fundamental differences I have with people whose faith I share.

This distinction is important to recognize because some Americans, particularly millennials and religious “nones,” have grown up associating religious faith with staunch opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage.

While it’s true that these issues have been and remain a source of division in some communities, it’s equally true that many congregations across the United States don’t make either issue a sole defining test of faith. In the era of Pope Francis, for example, the Catholic Church has elevated its public witness about refugees, economic justice, and the environment. My own denomination, like many other mainline Protestant denominations, for several years has welcomed LGBTQ members and clergy and celebrated same-sex marriages.

Yet rather than looking for the shared beliefs that might unite Americans in pursuit of common aims, the political expression of our religious beliefs has more often divided us. That tendency, in turn, has made it more difficult to find areas where we agree.

But I still remain optimistic that faith can help bridge even the most profound political disagreements. Most Wednesday mornings, the first item on my schedule is what I’ve often called the most important hour of my week, the Senate Prayer Breakfast.

Two-dozen Senators—liberal and conservative; Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon, Protestant, Jewish, and Buddhist—come together to hear each other and to pray. We do two simple things that rarely find their way into our schedules at any other time of the week: We trust each other, and we listen. We hear our colleagues’ suffering and struggles, their purpose and their path, their principles and their priorities. We share their humanity, building personal connections that help us to bridge our political divides.

It’s because of the personal relationships I’ve built with my colleagues at this breakfast that I’ve managed to legislate successfully with some of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate. I worked with Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, with whom I disagree on many public-policy issues, to pass and get signed into law new protections for intellectual property. I’ve joined with Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia on a successful effort to strengthen the U.S. poultry industry, which impacts both of our home states. Last year we introduced a bill to encourage colleges and universities to increase graduation rates and help more low-income students attend college.

These are just two examples of relationships that have led to real legislative progress. I’m a progressive Democrat, but at times I feel I have a closer relationship with Orrin Hatch and Johnny Isakson than some members of my own party, because we share a personal bond rooted in faith.

So why have Democrats let faith become a partisan issue?

A pro-life church can still work with progressive groups to defend and welcome immigrants. An environmental organization that wants to fight climate change can team up with a faith-based organization that shares that goal, even if their members disagree on other issues. Jews, Muslims, and Christians can unite with Americans who practice no faith to march against a discriminatory ban on refugees.

The Democratic Party has to recognize that progressive values can’t be just secular values. It needs to see that we can only solve our nation’s most urgent problems and shape a more equitable America if we trust each other, listen to each other, and engage with those who are traveling along secular and scriptural paths.

Democrats welcome and celebrate our differences. Whether it’s race, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation, we are fighting for a country that is open, tolerant, and accepting—and we shouldn’t yield an inch in that fight.

But we also need to recognize when we aren’t living up to our own admirable standard. We need to acknowledge when our own disagreements or beliefs keep us from engaging and working with those who might see the world differently.

Social progress is not a zero-sum game. Democrats can open our arms to new allies even if we don’t share all of their views. If we do, I suspect we won’t just move our party closer toward achieving our policy goals—we’ll move our nation closer to the promised land of civility, compromise, and progress.