Politics & Policy

Democrats Won’t Fix Their Religion Problem Any Time Soon

Pro-abortion protesters at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., January 2010. (Reuters photo: Molly Riley)
As long as the secular progressive elite runs the party, it will continue to struggle with Christian voters.

‘If we let those Christian groups stay on campus, how can we keep out the Klan?”

Defend religious liberty in higher education, and that is the question you’ll be forced to answer. I’ve heard it every year at least once for the last 16 years, since I first defended a Christian student group, at Tufts University in 2000.

The problem, you see, is that Christian groups stubbornly wish to be led by Christians, and at hundreds of universities they have refused to sign pledges or conform to policies that mandate that they not even consider a candidate’s religious faith when that person seeks to run a campus Christian fellowship. In radical eyes, imposing faith-based litmus tests is mere subterfuge, the benign-sounding pretext that masks homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny.

As a result, the question about the Klan isn’t so much a question about slippery slopes (can we impose any standards on campus groups?) but about comparing equivalents. If homophobia and transphobia are on the same plane as racism, is there any substantive ideological difference between the Klan and, say, a Baptist student fellowship?

This is actually how many progressives think. And, if anything, the trend is growing worse, not better. As moral debates about abortion, sexual morality, and gender identity are deemed “settled” by the cultural mandarins of the Left, an increasing number of people view orthodox Christians as exactly as venal as white supremacists. Refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding perpetuates a 21st-century Jim Crow. Maintaining Christian moral standards at Christian institutions is segregation.

It’s against this backdrop that I read Emma Green’s widely shared interview with Michael Wear, the director of the 2012 Obama campaign’s faith-outreach effort. Pondering the stunning white Evangelical turnout for Trump — who won a greater share of the Evangelical vote than George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney — Wear lamented not just the “ineptitude” of the Democratic party but also “the ignorance of Democrats in not even pretending to give these voters a reason to vote for them. He made the case for Democratic outreach to Evangelicals on principled grounds, arguing that “It’s the duty of living in a pluralistic society to make a case to all folks,” and on political ones, pointing out that “It doesn’t help you win elections if you’re openly disdainful toward the driving force in many Americans’ lives.”

I’m not sure Wear is correct. In hyper-polarized times, you do in fact win elections in part through disdain. When your base truly hates the other side, then “making nice” is hardly the way to get out the vote. (Wear acknowledges this reality, noting that, “We have a politics right now that is based on making enemies, and making people afraid.”)

When you’re fighting the ‘Klan,’ extremism in the defense of tolerance is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of social justice is no virtue.

Let’s put this bluntly. The Democrats won’t fix their “religion problem” so long as their progressive base believes the Christian religion is a problem. If the activist Left’s deepest conviction is that orthodox Christians aren’t so much misguided as maliciously evil, then the moral imperative is to either convert them (through culture and education) or defeat them (in court and at the ballot box).

We see this reality in the dominant leftist response to Trump’s victory. While there are multiple thoughtful liberals, like Wear, who either understand or seek to understand their ideological opponents, there are many more who view the election’s outcome as confirmation of their worst thoughts about their fellow citizens. (“See? I was right! White Evangelicals are racist.”)

It’s far from clear that Democrats have to appeal to Evangelicals to win back the presidency, of course. While Wear no doubt did his best to reach Evangelicals for Obama, his candidate won re-election in part through “war on women” rhetoric that directly attacked traditional-values voters. By 2012, his administration had thoroughly abandoned its more inclusive 2008 electoral vision in favor of abortifacient mandates and even a ham-handed attempt to inject federal anti-discrimination oversight into even the pastor-hiring process. He won anyway.

#related#Wear wants secular Democrats to “not be so in love with how pro-choice you are, and so opposed to how pro-life we are.” Good luck with that. Given the religious place that politics holds in many secular progressive hearts, asking for even such a small degree of moderation is like asking orthodox Christians to like Jesus just a little bit less.

In short, this is a party that’s nowhere near moving to what used to be its center, with an elite that is far more sympathetic to “shout your abortion” than to “safe, legal, and rare.” When you’re fighting the “Klan,” extremism in the defense of tolerance is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of social justice is no virtue. The secular leftist elite will have to wander in the political wilderness a while longer before it considers a new course. For now, at least, it loves “abortion rights” too much to change.  

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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