As the Democratic candidates for president attend religious
services for the holidays, their celebrations may be tempered by
an uncomfortable fact: churchgoing Americans tend to vote
An overwhelming majority of Americans consider themselves to be
religious. Yet according to the Pew Research Center for the
People and the Press, people who attend church more than once a
week vote Republican by 63 percent to 37 percent; people who
seldom or never attend vote Democratic by 62 percent to 38
This disparity should concern Democrats - if not as a matter of
faith then as a matter of politics. More important, it should
concern anyone who cares about the role of religion in public
life. By failing to engage Republicans in this debate, the
Democrats impoverish us all.
President Bush and the Republicans clearly have an advantage
with people of faith as an election year approaches. Republicans
are more comfortable talking about religious values and issues,
and they are quick to promise that their faith will affect their
policies (even if, like their Democratic counterparts, they
don't always follow through on their campaign promises).
President Bush is as public and expressive about his faith as
any recent occupant of the White House. Among his first acts as
president was to establish the Office of Faith-Based and
Community Initiatives, which helps religious and community
groups get federal financing for some of their work. Although
the "faith-based initiative" has turned out to be more symbolic
than substantial, symbolism matters - in religion as well as
The Democratic candidates, in contrast, seem uncomfortable with
the subject of religion. (The exception is Joseph Lieberman,
though even he seems less comfortable now than he was in 2000.)
They stumble over themselves to assure voters that while they
may be people of faith, they won't allow their religious beliefs
to affect their political views.
For too many Democrats, faith is private and has no implications
for political life. But what kind of faith is that? Where would
America be if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his
faith to himself?
Howard Dean, the leading challenger to President Bush,
illustrates the Democrats' problem. Dr. Dean recently said he
left his church in Vermont over a dispute about a bike path, and
explained that his faith does not inform his politics. He has
also said the presidential race should stay away from the issues
of "guns, God and gays" and focus on jobs, health care and
By framing the issue in this way - declining to discuss overtly
"religious" topics - Dr. Dean allows Republicans to define the
terms of the debate. The "religious issues" in this election
will be reduced to the Ten Commandments in public courthouses,
marriage amendments, prayer in schools and, of course, abortion.
These issues are important. But faith informs policy in other
areas as well. What about the biblical imperatives for social
justice, the God who lifts up the poor, the Jesus who said,
"blessed are the peacemakers"?
How a candidate deals with poverty is a religious issue, and the
Bush administration's failure to support poor working families
should be named as a religious failure. Neglect of the
environment is a religious issue. Fighting pre-emptive and
unilateral wars based on false claims is a religious issue (a
fact not changed by the capture of Saddam Hussein).
Such issues could pose problems for the Bush administration
among religious and nonreligious people alike - if someone were
to define them in moral terms. The failure of the Democrats to
do so is not just a political miscalculation. It shows they do
not appreciate the contributions of religion to American life.
The United States has a long history of religious faith
supporting and literally driving progressive causes and
movements. From the abolition of slavery to women's suffrage to
civil rights, religion has led the way for social change.
The separation of church and state does not require banishing
moral and religious values from the public square. America's
social fabric depends on such values and vision to shape our
politics - a dependence the founders recognized.
It is indeed possible (and necessary) to express one's faith and
convictions about public policy while still respecting the
pluralism of American democracy. Rather than suggesting that we
not talk about "God," Democrats should be arguing - on moral and
even religious grounds - that all Americans should have economic
security, health care and educational opportunity, and that true
faith results in a compassionate concern for those on the
Democrats should be saying that a just foreign and military
policy will not only work better, but also be more consistent
with both our democratic and spiritual values. And they must
offer a moral alternative to a national security policy based
primarily on fear, and say what most Americans intuitively know:
that defeating terrorism is both practically and spiritually
connected to the deeper work of addressing global poverty and
resolving the conflicts that sow the bitter seeds of despair and
Many of these policy choices can be informed and shaped by the
faith of candidates and citizens - without transgressing the
important boundaries of church and state.
God is always personal, but never private. The Democrats are
wrong to restrict religion to the private sphere - just as the
Republicans are wrong to define it solely in terms of individual
moral choices and sexual ethics. Allowing the right to decide
what is a religious issue would be both a moral and political
Not everyone in America has the same religious values, of
course. And many moral lessons are open to interpretation. But
by withdrawing into secularism, the Democrats deprive Americans
of an important debate.
Jim Wallis is editor of Sojourners magazine and the convener of
Call to Renewal, a national network of churches working to