Anyone watching the Democratic leaders in the months since Donald Trump was elected president will likely agree: The party is in nearly complete disarray. There is less consensus, however, about exactly why Democrats are having such a difficult time defining themselves in the post-Trump electoral landscape.
Democratic candidates have fallen in special election after special election this spring, most recently in Jon Ossoff’s nearly four-point loss to Republican Karen Handel in Georgia’s sixth district, despite the historic $23 million Ossoff raised and the extra millions poured into the race by the national Democratic party.
In the wake of that demoralizing defeat, some have suggested that the party’s top leadership is the main issue, and Democratic politicians in the House have begun openly grumbling against minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Others on the Left believe that Democratic candidates have been losing because they’ve stayed too close to the center, rather than endorsing the increasingly progressive policies some voters desire. Still others have posited that the underlying issue is the party’s dismissive attitude toward religious values and even organized religion itself.
While the problems afflicting the party must stem from some combination of these factors, Democrats’ scorn for religion should be their biggest concern. That scorn is compounded by the party’s sudden and dramatic swerve to the Left on key social issues — abortion, contraception, religious liberty, and marriage, to name a few — in a quest for votes from far-Left, progressive Americans.
Just after the election in Georgia, historian Daniel Williams wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “The Democrats’ Religion Problem.” In it, he suggested that Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign might offer the party a way of reaching religious Americans. He writes:
Mr. Sanders’s non-Christian background may have hurt him in the South; he did poorly among African-American voters, despite his consistent civil rights record. But he did what few other secular candidates have done: He won a sympathetic hearing from conservative evangelicals with a speech that gave a religious grounding for his economic views, complete with biblical citations. When Mr. Sanders spoke at Liberty University, he did not pretend to share evangelical Christians’ faith, but he showed respect for his audience’s religious tradition.
Williams concluded by arguing that Democratic politicians must convince religious voters that they are not enemies of faith, and they ought to do so by “grounding their policy proposals in the religious values of prospective voters.”
This week, in a New York Times column, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf offered an alternative model. The co-authors suggested that Thomas Jefferson’s unique attitude toward religion — which pervaded his contributions to the nation’s founding and early government — could serve as a model for today’s Democrats, especially Jefferson’s vigorous embrace of civil religion and peaceful pluralism.
These debates may provide Democrats a method of attaining electoral success, perhaps even in the near future. But while each suggestion hints at a way of combating negative public perception, neither of these models can eliminate the underlying obstacle: progressivism’s inherent contradiction of religion.
Progressivism has always been premised on the notion that man has a changeable nature and thus is able to achieve perfection during his time on earth. As a result, progressives consistently maintain that government is responsible for transforming men and women into perfect creatures. They develop programs and reforms suited not for man as he is, but for man as he ought to be (and, progressives would argue, for man as he could become, with the right societal structures).
Religion itself — and indeed any dependence on a Creator — is a direct contradiction to the progressive conception of man as changeable and perfectible.
Against that idea, most religious believers contend that man is flawed by his very nature and incapable of perfecting himself without the help of God, and that perfection is in fact unattainable during earthly life. While sects and denominations differ vastly, religion itself — and indeed any dependence on a Creator — is a direct contradiction to the progressive conception of man as changeable and perfectible.
In short, progressivism and religion — understood as a fundamental reliance on God rather than on oneself or on other men — are inherently incompatible. Where progressivism asserts that properly ordered government can and should transform man into a perfect being who lives in a man-made utopia, religion insists that God, not government, is responsible for changing men’s hearts.
To be sure, many religious Americans believe that progressive social programs are helping to carry out God’s work — caring for the world’s poor and needy. But that underlying contradiction remains a stumbling block for many faithful voters, especially when seen in conjunction with Democrats’ increasing repudiation of traditional values. Unless Democratic politicians understand and address those legitimate concerns, they won’t sway those who reject the notion that government should take the place of God.