OPINION | To win at the ballot box, Democrats need to find religion again

With the American political system in predictable chaos under the presidential leadership (or lack thereof) offered by Donald Trump, it is no surprise that candidates are already lining up to challenge him in 2020.

Democratic operatives, watching fund raising and early trips to Iowa, told The New York Times “that it was the earliest start they had ever seen to the jockeying that typically precedes the official kickoff to the campaign for the party’s presidential nomination.” For a Democrat to win in 2020, however, it will take more than just money from wealthy donors. Democrats need to make serious inroads with people of faith.

{mosads}Arguably, one of the major reasons for Trump’s improbable electoral college victory in 2016 were the white conservative evangelical voters that flocked to the GOP candidate’s side despite his lack of religiosity.

Trump claimed membership in the Presbyterian Church USA in 2016 but that denomination reported no records of his membership in any of their churches. He was baptized but not active throughout his life. What he did do in 2016 was build a successful network of conservative evangelical surrogates who told parishioners to ignore his colorful, some might say sinful, life in favor of his promise to appoint judges that would promote conservative Christian principles over pluralistic ideals of religious freedom more in tune with mainstream America.

{mosads}Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was well known as a faithful member of the United Methodist Church she grew up in. The former secretary of state talked about her faith on the campaign trail, particularly during the primary season, but never developed a fully fledged outreach effort to draw in religious voters in the way that Barack Obama, another active Christian, had during the 2008 campaign.

Obama and Clinton both had problems with conservative evangelical voters. For Obama, the issue was race. For Clinton, the issue was gender. Obama, however, demonstrated in 2008 that a democrat who organized in the faith community and worked hard could build bridges with faith voters — Christians, Jews, Muslims and smaller faith traditions — on issues of common ground including economic opportunity for all, immigration reform and climate change.

Pew Research Center reported on November 5, 2008:

“President-elect Barack Obama made a concerted effort to reach out to people of faith during the 2008 presidential campaign, and early exit polls show that this outreach may have paid off on Election Day. Among nearly every religious group, the Democratic candidate received equal or higher levels of support compared with the 2004 Democratic nominee, John Kerry.”

Obama, for example, won the Catholic vote in 2008. Kerry, a Roman Catholic himself, lost the Catholic vote in his 2004 race against George W. Bush. Kerry offered no religious outreach to speak of during his campaign. Obama was also able to increase his share of the overall Protestant vote by 5 percent compared with Kerry’s 2004 performance. In close elections, such outcomes matter.

In 2012, faith outreach was downsized in importance in the Obama campaign. The president’s “A” team was busy at the White House. Backbenchers took the helm in 2012 when it came to faith outreach.

The only bright light was the hiring of the Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins to work on religious outreach at the Democratic National Committee. So it was no surprise to see Obama’s overall share of the religious vote shrink in 2012.

This should have been an important lesson for 2016 but the Clinton campaign did not heed it. What faith outreach that did occur happened largely with the help of groups outside the campaign. What Clinton needed was a Obama 2008-style outreach effort headed by someone like Joshua DuBois or Burns Strider, two veterans of the Obama and Clinton campaigns. Perhaps it was predictable that evangelical Christians would vote for the GOP nominee. But Clinton lost the Roman Catholic vote that Obama carried in 2008 and 2012. Clinton’s campaign also saw their share of the Protestant vote drop, according to Pew.

Early counts speculate that as many as 20 Democrats are considering a run against Trump. Former Vice-President Joe Biden and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, both Roman Catholics, would benefit from their faith stories and changing demographics in American culture that will eventually make white conservative evangelicals less important than Latino Roman Catholics.

Jeff Merkley, the U.S. Senator from Oregon and favorite of the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, has never shied away from talking about this faith as a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (the largest U.S. Lutheran denomination).

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, who identifies as Baptist, told The Los Angeles Times in 2015 that: “I grew up going to a black Baptist Church and a Hindu temple.” Harris could be the most authentically interfaith candidate in American history. For those that have read “The End of White Christian America” by Robert P. Jones, the idea of a candidate with an interfaith background is intriguing in a nation becoming more and more religiously and culturally pluralistic.

With so many candidates of deep faith potentially running, the question for Democrats in both the upcoming mid-terms in 2018 and the presidential election of 2020, is will they once again engage faith voters as an important if not critical part of the Democratic coalition, or will they continue a pattern of self-defeating behavior and largely ignore people of faith? As Kerry and Clinton learned the hard way, being a person of faith is not the same as getting people of faith to vote for you.

The Rev. Dr. Chuck Currie is University Chaplain, Director of the Center for Peace and Spirituality and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. Currie is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. He served as a surrogate for Obama for America in 2008 and was a surrogate for Correct the Record in 2016.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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