During every election cycle, numerous articles chronicle the challenge that Democratic presidential candidates face in reaching religious voters. This time around, the paradox that President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMcCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Biden's Supreme Court reform study panel notes 'considerable' risks to court expansion Bennie Thompson not ruling out subpoenaing Trump MORE is not religiously devout but enjoys strong support among Christian evangelicals affords Democrats a great opportunity to reach religious voters.
But Democrats won’t be able to win them over merely by pointing out Trump’s apparent lack of personal religiosity and Christian virtue. Successful candidates must first understand religious voters better.
One dominant but incomplete storyline is that America has become increasingly non-religious, and that the vanguard of secularization is in the Democratic Party. Indisputably, the share of Americans who identify as Christian has declined significantly. Data from a new Pew Research Center report suggest a decline of 12 percent over the past 12 years. And Democrats are, on average, less religious than Republicans. But averages fail to tell the whole story.
Another storyline is that the secularization thesis is wrong, and that America continues to be a Christian nation. The idea is that those who are religiously devout continue to be devout but that the loosely religious have become non-practitioners. Data from the General Social Survey and of the Pew Research Center suggest that Christians comprise roughly two-thirds of Americans. That is still a strong majority, though far less than the nine-in-ten reality of four decades ago.
Within the Democratic Party, candidates understand that African American and Hispanic voters attend church at higher rates than their white counterparts, particularly liberal whites. Conventional wisdom for Democrats has been to focus religious outreach on Black and Hispanic churches, while not overlooking white liberal congregations. But there are at least three additional factors to keep in mind: age, geography and religious diversity.
Older voters, who tend to vote at higher rates than younger voters, are far more religious than younger voters across demographic groups. There has been a precipitous decline in religiosity among millennials who identify as Democrats. Older generations of voters continue to identify, though not quite as robustly as before, as Christian and to attend church.
Geographically, many swing states have higher rates of religiosity than do the large coastal states with early primary voting, such as California and Massachusetts.
The third complicating factor is religious diversity. The one-third of Americans who are not Christian divide between religious “nones” (roughly 26 percent) and religious adherents who are Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh and so on (roughly 7 percent). These religious citizens live disproportionately in major cities and on the coasts, and they are an important part of the Democratic base, especially in large states.
Where does this complexity leave presidential candidates in terms of shaping their message and reaching out to would-be supporters? Here are a few pointers for Democratic candidates:
- Attract Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other voters into your camp. You cannot afford to spurn religion. Your rhetoric and your presence must demonstrate that you appreciate religious and spiritual practice.
- Prioritize your personal appearances in traditionally Black and Hispanic churches. But don’t overlook older, white voters, especially in the Midwest and South.
- Celebrate the presence of (non-Christian) religious and cultural communities in key states, and reach out to key leaders in those communities.
- Engage young voters on issues they see as moral – if not religious – imperatives. Black, Hispanic and white young adults are not nearly as easy to find in church pews as their older peers. But you can find them on social media and in other community settings. They likely won’t lead with religion. But they will tell you that they consider climate change, affordable college, health care and other related issues in moral terms.
- Be authentic in your own outreach to citizens who identify as religious, spiritual and moral citizens. Democratic voters are highly attuned to hypocrisy and phoniness at a time when they are calling for significant political and social change. You don’t need to be religious to connect with religious voters, but you do need to be yourself.
The overarching story of religion in Democratic politics is that there is no simple story. The kind of careful analysis and micro-targeting of the electorate that made the Obama campaign so successful is needed today, but this time to bring religious voters into the fold.
Douglas A. Hicks is dean and the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Religion at Oxford College of Emory University.