Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Religion and Politics Beyond the Party Lines

James Skillen


December 29, 2003

In all the speeches the Democratic candidates for president have carefully crafted to woo primary voters, one theme has been conspicuous by its near absence: religion. Religion has been so much ignored that even The Washington Post, a newspaper hardly noted for being pro-faith, has wondered about the silence, pointing out that most voters in the general electorate desire to hear words of faith from national leaders.

So why the silence of almost all of the Democratic presidential candidates? They say they are worried about wrongly mixing church and state, and they say they are cautious because, as John Edwards puts it, voters "do not want you to be beating them over their heads with your religious views." But there's a deeper reason, a long-term shift in the relations between religion and politics in America.

Here's how a Knight-Ridder story in late November put it: "Want to know how Americans will vote next Election Day? Watch what they do the weekend before. If they attend religious services regularly, they probably will vote Republican by a 2-1 margin. If they never go, they likely will vote Democratic by a 2-1 margin." That sketches too stark a picture of committed believers in one party and secularists and casual church-goers in the other, ignoring exceptions such as the nearly unanimous preference of all blacks for the Democrats.

Still, the trend is clear and it has been in the making for a long time. Although the press hammers on the capture of the Republican Party by the Religious Right, equally important is how secularists have been gaining control of the Democratic Party since the early 1970s. Also key is the long-term trend that some call the "deprivatization of religion"—believers deciding that their faith must not be restricted to private life but should also direct their public life, including their political views and action.

Deprivatization is positive, because a serious faith can't simply be cast aside like an overcoat upon entering political life. Yet the growing split between the parties along religious lines is deeply troubling. Not because the division will produce political strife. The dangers in the American context are different.

If Democrats come to believe that religion is irrelevant or dangerous for public policy, then the party is likely to forget that religion for most other Americans and for our civil society itself is not optional. Yet how will the Democratic politician who is convinced that faith should be private make just decisions about religion in public life—about the faith-based initiative, faith in public schools, or dealing with international movements that are driven by religion?

The Republican danger is the opposite: mistaking the party line for true religious insight. As committed believers of many faiths line up with the Republican Party, the temptation is great to think that the right religious view is whatever the party thinks is right. Then, instead of religion transcending and correcting the party's flaws, it becomes a mere prop for the party.

These trends put committed religious believers in a bind. Because we take our faith seriously, we insist that it must shape our political views and our political action. But the mechanisms for much political action are dominated by two parties that each, in its own way, seeks to domesticate religion, either by ignoring it or by capturing it. So the challenge is clear to all of us, as voters, officials, or party activists: at the same time that we work to make a real political impact, we must ensure that our politics are shaped by our faith, and not the other way around.

—Stanley W. Carlson-Thies, Fellow
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”