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.