Why Democrats Must Regain the Trust of Religious Voters

If the party wants to win back votes in the Trump era, it will need to stop ignoring people of faith.

Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan clasps his hands in prayer as he takes his place between Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump in New York on October 20, 2016. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Democrats ignored broad swaths of religious America in the 2016 election campaign and the nation has suffered because of it. Yet calls for a recommitment to faith outreach—particularly to white and other conservative or moderate religious voters—have been met in some corners of liberal punditry with a response as common as it is unwarranted. Some quarters of the Democratic party would rather maintain rhetorical and ideological purity than win with a more inclusive coalition. For the sake of the country, the party must turn back to people of faith.

We know faith outreach works, because it has worked before. In 2005, after the reelection of a president many Democrats believed was clearly unfit for leadership, a concerted decision was made to close the “God Gap” that the GOP had so effectively exploited. Yes, the Democratic Party was losing among white religious people, but there was also an understanding in the party that its margins among black and Hispanic voters were limited by the perception that the party was antagonistic toward religion. Democrats took back Congress in the 2006 midterms, through a combination of direct engagement, district-based flexibility on policy, and rhetorical adjustments. The majority gained in 2006 is the majority that delivered all of the legislative-policy wins progressives hail from the first two years of the Obama administration, including the Affordable Care Act.

Barack Obama built upon this effort to reach people of faith, incorporating all three primary elements of successful faith outreach: direct engagement, policy commitments, and rhetoric. Both of his campaigns included direct, explicit engagement of people of faith that was built into the structure of the campaign (staff, website, merchandise, press). Obama not only spoke about the role of faith in his own life, but his rhetoric provided a vision for a positive role for people of faith to play in America under his presidency. On policy, the president made concentrated efforts to positively connect his policies to the values and priorities of religious voters, while also placing important limitations on how far his policies would go on social issues where he generally disagreed with religious conservatives. His reelection campaign—where I directed religious outreach—put forward a positive platform of policy commitments on issues of shared concern with faith voters.

In 2016, as I have argued elsewhere, the Clinton campaign and Democrats ignored virtually all of the lessons learned from the previous decade of Democratic faith outreach. Her campaign’s approach to religious voters amounted to political malpractice that simply can’t be repeated by the party moving forward. The campaign virtually neglected direct engagement with many religious constituencies, refusing to ask people of faith for their vote while taking policy positions that made it easy for Trump to prey on their sense of embattlement.

For all of the critique of the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump, it’s a bit too convenient for those who never cared about Democratic faith outreach in the first place to harp on the 81 percent without pointing out the 16 percent: the middling, previously unfathomable percentage of white evangelicals who voted for Hillary Clinton. In 2012, Barack Obama—the first president in American history to endorse same-sex marriage, the target of a massive campaign accusing him of waging a “war on religion”—won 21 percent of white evangelicals. Because white evangelicals account for more than a quarter of the American electorate, that five-point difference accounts for a swing of millions of votes nationally. In a state like Michigan, if Hillary Clinton would have matched Obama’s 2012 numbers among white evangelicals, she would have won the state comfortably.

Calls for the Democrats to return to a robust religious outreach have received pushback among some influential voices. The Democratic Party has spent much of the first-year that Republicans have controlled both the White House and Congress by debating which Democratic voters it can afford to cut loose—specifically, whether there’s a place in the party for pro-life voters at all.  Following a controversy involving Heath Mello—a candidate for mayor in Omaha, Nebraska, who was deemed to be insufficiently pro-choice—Democratic party chairman Tom Perez said in a statement that it was “not negotiable” that every Democrat should support abortion rights. Mello lost the election to a Republican. Perez’s standard was news to 23 million pro-life Democrats, and Democratic elected officials who have received party support even if they hold nuanced positions on abortion.

No matter how consistently NARAL’s candidates lose to vehemently pro-life, down-the-line Republican politicians, they continue to attack successful Democrats who do not go along with whatever the new litmus test issue is for being “fully pro-choice.” In the closing weeks of the 2016 election, NARAL was running victory laps with its chosen candidate, Katie McGinty, apparently deciding abortion rights was a strong way to close out a campaign in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, Pat Toomey was elected to a second term, a seat that nearly cost Democrats and the nation repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and just last month served as the deciding vote on the Republican budget.

Ignoring faith voters will always be abhorrent from the perspective that elected officials ought to represent and speak to all of the people they represent. But that is not all that is at stake. At some point, the Democratic Party, advocacy groups, and pundits will have to answer to voters and their own constituencies. Women, who are far from uniformly pro-choice, may begin to ask if it is worth putting policies like the ACA’s coverage for maternal health at risk just so the Democratic Party can take symbolic stances on policies that have no reasonable expectation of passage in the short-term (like repeal of the Hyde Amendment).

At some point, years after the legalization of same-sex marriage, LGBT voters and allies who care about LGBT rights may wonder why Democrats are content to push the Equality Act, which  no Democrat believes can pass in the short-term, while neglecting a more viable path forward with evangelicals and others who are willing to support LGBT rights if reasonable religious freedom protections are included. Does the LGBT American who is worried they can get married on Sunday, but fired on Monday, know this?

African American and Hispanic Democrats may ask why their party is willing to take symbolic, extreme positions on social issues—positions many Hispanic and African American voters do not even support—when voter disenfranchisement and deportation of Dreamers are at stake. Does intersectionality really demand that the Little Sisters of the Poor be held to provide contraceptive coverage to celibate nuns even if the political cost of that policy is the election of Republicans who are opposed to the vast majority of policy objectives supported by those who embrace the idea of intersectionality?

Ideological consolidation works well for D.C. advocacy groups and politicians who raise money off demonizing their opponents, but it costs the people they claim to defend. Democrats can continue to seek ideological purity and wait for the day when the Republicans are so deplorable that Americans have no other choice, but that day will not come soon enough for the voters they represent. The moral vacuum that is Donald Trump, and the fracturing that is occurring in the Republican Party, offer Democrats an opportunity to regain what they have lost among religious voters, and build a lasting majority. They can do this through returning to the faith community with direct engagement, rhetoric, and policy commitments.

Barack Obama was right when he said in the wake of the 2016 election that Democrats have to “show up.” We have to take their message to all communities, including religious communities. The DNC needs to hire and keep faith outreach staff who are equipped to reach out to all religious Americans, inclusive of religious Americans of minority faiths, theologically conservative traditions, and all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Democratic candidates should answer the tough questions about policy issues people of faith care about, even if their answers will be both unsatisfactory to those who disagree and worrisome to their fiercest backers. Democratic elected officials should get to know the clergy and churches that they represent, even if there’s no clear political benefit. One of the reasons hucksters like Robert Jeffress, one of Trump’s primary evangelical backers, have been able to stoke so much fear among conservative religious people is because they operate in these environments virtually uncontested. If someone who claimed to be your friend told you someone hated you, and whenever you saw that person all you caught a glimpse of was their cold shoulder, would you not just assume that person hated you? Many religious voters believe they are hated by Democrats, because many Democrats seem disinterested, at best, in engaging them.

Rhetorically, a few Democrats are showing the party the way forward. Senator Chris Coons, a graduate of Yale’s* Divinity School, wrote for The Atlantic that “progressive values can’t just be secular values.” Kamala Harris, a strong progressive herself, has been raising money and boosting support for centrist Democrats that some “Democrats” would like to see lose because of their position on the Hyde Amendment. Outreach to people of faith may not be a top priority for some activists, but the Democratic Party must learn the difference between advocates who view the party has a vehicle to advance their issues, and the Democratic Party’s mission of actually electing Democrats.

Finally, while the Democratic Party can make significant advances with people of faith just by taking a more open posture toward them rhetorically and conducting concentrated outreach to America’s diverse faith communities, a different policy approach is needed to maximize potential gains. The Democratic Party has a positive case to make to people of faith around issues like poverty alleviation, pro-family work and tax policies, immigration, criminal-justice reform, environmental stewardship, adoption, anti-human trafficking efforts, and so many others. The party can and must offer a proactive, energetic appeal to people of faith that they want their votes, and that there is good reason, based on their values, to vote for Democrats.

Democratic candidates would pick up votes and enthusiasm from faith voters just by explicitly connecting their policy priorities with the priorities, values, and interests of religious communities, but they should also be responsive to areas of concern and disagreement. The party’s ever-leftward, ever-symbolic, and ever-antagonistic policy approach on social issues must be tempered to win the votes of disaffected religious voters in the Trump era.

This does not mean the party must become pro-life, or that the party must move an inch on supporting LGBT rights. Critics of Democratic faith outreach, on both the right and the left, who suggest this is the only alternative to ignoring faith voters have their own interests and are comfortable with the status quo that leads to purity for Democrats and victory for Republicans.

On abortion, one path forward is for the party to reverse its change to the platform on the Hyde Amendment, and return to focusing its argument on the idea that abortion should be legal, rather than a social good that should be encouraged. Instead of viewing Republican extremism as an excuse to move to the left on abortion in 2016, Democrats could have appealed to the broad middle by claiming the historic reduction of the abortion rate under President Obama as a Democratic success story. Unfortunately, the most political, vehement pro-choice advocates do not want Democrats to applaud the reduction in the abortion rate, because they are afraid the American people will then value lowering the abortion rate as an end in and of itself. Well, again, sometimes the interests of advocacy groups will not align with the interest of the Democratic Party or our national politics. How can we let parochial political calculations prevent us from pointing to the data, and saying out loud that a lower abortion rate is a positive development any moral society should embrace?

On religious freedom, Democrats should draw clear lines where they can to stem the fear-mongering that flourished in 2016 because of their silence. Democrats should rule out taking away church’s tax-exempt status. Democrats should make clear that religious institutions should be allowed to organize around their faith without government interference.  They should be clear that just as George W. Bush never threatened the religious freedom of churches who supported same-sex marriage in 2004 while he was campaigning for a federal marriage amendment, Democrats do not believe the government’s role is to coerce ecclesial transformation on questions of LGBT inclusion. This is what the separation of Church and State demands. Wherever individual Democratic politicians stand on religious freedom in the context of LGBT rights, the essential and responsible action is for all Democrats to explicitly, clearly draw the line somewhere.

I understand many critiques of religious voters, primarily white religious voters, who were willing to vote for Trump. I share Ta-Nehisi Coates’s assessment that while surely not every Trump voter is a racist, Trump’s racist appeals were certainly not a deal-breaker for his supporters. But I wonder if, had Hillary Clinton won, the same level of critique would have been applied to the fact that Clinton would have won by running a campaign that excluded many religious voters. No one has asked why people who voted for Hillary Clinton failed to adequately consider the sincere concerns of conservative religious people regarding the consequences of Hillary’s victory for them.

Democrats’ political vision for America needs to include a vision for how religious Americans with deep convictions can thrive in it. If it does not, Democrats will lose more often than we should, and even when we win, the social costs will be great. Democrats cannot be a functional governing party and either ignore religious conservatives (or any other significant community), or cast them as enemies who must be overcome. Given the Clinton campaign’s posture toward much of the faith community, particularly conservative evangelicals and Catholics, a vote for Clinton amounted to their co-signing their own irrelevance. As a Christian who cares for the common good, and as a Democrat, I actually think more of them should have made that choice. But is that really all Democrats can or want to offer? Is that what statesmanship requires? Does it even measure up to the demands of the political moment?

There are elements of the Trump coalition Democrats should never go after, and need not accommodate, but the party needs to think carefully about the wisdom, propriety, and consequences of making that judgment regarding people of faith. Democrats have made progress before, and they can do it again, particularly in this moment and at this time of such consequence. The Democratic Party can regain its footing in the Trump era if it will choose to once again tell the story of a nation where people of faith have a positive, contributing role to play, too.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Senator Chris Coons attended Harvard Divinity School; it was Yale Divinity School. We regret the error.*