Quick, which is the religious party the Republicans or the Democrats? I think most people would say the Republicans and there is some truth in that response. Churchgoers are more likely to vote for a Republican than a Democrat. Moreover, Republicans openly and unashamedly discuss religion in primaries and politics generally. The Democrats generally are silent on religion. Indeed, when Kerry ran for President, he refused all invitations to speak in white churches. Obama spoke more in a religious vein, but the Democrats have an enormous uphill battle if they want to avoid the perception that they are the godless party.
My last book (The Religious Left and Church-State Relations) argued that it is an enormous political mistake in a religious country for the Democratic Party to maintain a silence on religion. What accounts for the silence? First, there are many non-religious humanists in the Democratic Party, but the overwhelming majority of Democrats are religious. Yes, the number of those who belong to no institutional religion is fast rising, but only a small percentage of that group is agnostic or atheist. Second, the Democratic Party is afflicted with public reason disease. The idea is that the best political discourse proceeds for shared premises among reasonable comprehensive views and that it violates respect for others to use politics to impose conclusions drawn from a contested comprehensive view. Adherence to this idea yields the conclusion that it is wrong to introduce religious arguments in religious life. I argue in the book that this idea works with a mistaken view of respect and of politics. Leaving that for the most part aside, my main point here is that this conception of public reason has never been the norm in American politics. Religion has always been a part of American political discourse. Leaving the Republicans free to place their religious spin on American politics while refraining from contesting it on the ground that to do so would not show proper respect for others (as if it were political bad manners) is a handicap the Democratic Party cannot afford. Finally, many Democrats think that to inject religion into politics is to violate the principle of church state separation. Democrats rightly think that government cannot adopt laws without adequate secular justifications and cannot use religious premises to support laws. But that is a far cry from what citizens are permitted to think in a democratic society. I can support anti-poverty legislation and support politicians who will do so – each on religious grounds – without violating principles of church and state. The latter principles (unlike the overly precious philosophical, but not legal principle of public reason) apply to governments, not to citizens.
What inspires this little rift this morning is the front page story in the New York Times in which President Obama has launched a political initiative to combat income inequality. The Republicans have quickly and predictably responded that they oppose an increase in the minimum wage and want to cut off the period of time currently permitted for the unemployed to get unemployment benefits just as they have cut the food stamp program and are working to cut it even more. They deride Obama’s initiative as an attempt to distract those from the frustrations of people with the Affordable Care Act. Meanwhile the Republicans appear not to care for the frustrations of the 50 million Americans without health insurance.
What is wrong with this picture? The so-called godless party wants to help the poor and the so-called Christian party demeans the poor.
In fairness, the record of Christian evangelicals who are largely Republicans (but not exclusively, 10% of white evangelicals are relatively liberal and the overwhelming majority of African-Americans are evangelical and Democrats) have a strong record of helping the poor. But the Republican Party has typically denigrated the poor and used racist appeals in doing so.
Too often neglected, as I argued in my book, is that there is a religious left in this country, and the religious left, albeit disorganized, is almost as large as the religious right. Criticism of those who denigrate the poor for political advantage is much needed and that criticism is best advanced by those on the religious left. There is nothing Christian about denigrating the poor. Denigrating the poor runs headlong against the message of Jewish or Christian scripture. It is folly not to make this an important theme in our political dialogue. The Pope, a member of the religious left on this issue, has done an important service in reminding us that the poor and vulnerable at a minimum are not to be treated with condescension let alone with racism, that we have affirmative responsibilities to treat our wealth as trustees for the public interest, and that unregulated capitalism rules without respect for human dignity. Other religious leaders need to step up on this issue. And Democratic political leaders need to recognize that the centrality of the poor to Christian and Judaism should not be ignored.
The Republican Party claims to be the party of God. Maybe so, but with respect to poverty, the God they purport to serve (a selfish, materialistic, and hateful god) is a constructed concoction – a false God.