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Why Don't the Democrats Go After Non-Religious Voters?

Society & Culture  (tags: activists, americans, culture, dishonesty, education, elections, family, freedoms, government, politics, religion, rights, society, women )

- 2005 days ago -
Soul-searching by the Democratic Party led some of its leaders to a natural conclusion: the future of the party lay in the hands of church-going voters, and the party had better win them back. They were wrong.

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Kit B (276)
Thursday October 25, 2012, 7:04 am
(Photo Credit: Schott)

For the better part of the decade that followed its bitter loss to George W. Bush in 2000, soul-searching by the Democratic Party led some of its leaders to a natural conclusion: the future of the party lay in the hands of church-going voters, and the party had better win them back. The only problem with that was that it was wrong.

Not only was it a wrong conclusion, but it was one that saw Democrats ignoring a key constituency: the growing numbers of voters with no religious affiliation -- voters whose values tend to fall naturally in line with the party’s professed goals.

Today, a new survey released on Monday by the Public Religion Research Institute confirms just what a mistake that was: Nearly one-fifth -- 19 percent -- of Americans now say they are unaffiliated with any religion, and 63 percent of them lean Democratic. But the survey also shows they’re significantly less likely to turn up at the polls than religious voters. Perhaps that’s because they feel left out of the dialogue, as leaders of the Democratic spent the last eight years trying to show the public that they love Jesus as much as anybody.

In 2007, I attended a breakout session at progressive conference on how to win religious voters. Afterwards, I asked one of the presenters what kind of outreach was being made to the then-14 percent of voters who identified as “unchurched.” He seemed flummoxed by the question. He’d never thought about it, he said.

Around December 2004, Democrats found themselves in a quandary, as Karl Rove and Ralph Reed marshalled the votes of evangelical Christians for George W. Bush, partially through the strategy of getting anti-gay referenda placed on the presidential ballot in battleground states. The strategy was to drive up turnout among the so-called “values voters,” and Rove later claimed that he brought greater numbers of evangelicals to the polls than had voted in previous elections.

Democrats had already been talking among themselves, after 2000, about how to counter the foot soldiers commanded by Rove, and thinking inside the box, began listening to power-mongers like the anti-gay, anti-choice Rev. Jim Wallis and Rev. Sam Rodriguez about the need for religious outreach to build a church-going Democratic base. In 2004, a group of religious leaders came together in Washington, D.C., to lay the foundation for an organization that would address those concerns, which in 2006 was launched as Faith and Public Life.

But the Democrats already had churchgoers among their base: Latino Catholics, African-American evangelicals and white mainline Protestants -- not to mention non-Christian religious people, such as Jews and Muslims -- and were never likely to effectively appeal to a politicized white evangelical population whose values comprised a cultural identity based wholly on patriarchy and an exclusionary idea of what constituted a “real” American. But that didn’t stop them from trying.

In 2007, one of the most humiliating exercises of the Democratic presidential primary was a CNN town-hall meeting at George Washington University in which each of the candidates, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, came before Wallis and anchor Soledad O’Brien to make a confession of faith. (Oh how I would have loved, I wrote at the time, for one of those candidates to respond to O’Brien’s deeply personal questions, “I know the Lord. The Lord is a friend of mine. And you, Soledad O’Brien, are not the Lord.”)

Meanwhile, the numbers of the unchurched, unsynagogued, untempled and unmosqued have only grown, and nobody is talking to them, unless they happen to belong to another part of the Democratic coalition -- say, as a union member or champion of women’s rights.

There are two reasons for this, as I see it:

1. Democrats have been so cowed by the lying right’s characterization of them as the enemies of religion that they feel they mustn’t dare to make an explicit appeal to those who believe in compassion, a social safety net, and justice for those who corrupted the financial system, simply because their own moral compass -- and not a pronouncement from a pulpit or a text -- tells them those are good values.

2. It’s easy to organize the churched because it’s pretty obvious where you find them. (That would be in churches.) But the unchurched? Who are they? Where are they?

To the first concern, it’s long past time the Democrats got over that fear. After all, where did all that outreach get them? Remember the Rick Warren inaugural benediction of President Barack Obama, and how that was supposed to buy him some goodwill among members of the religious right? Ha!

Democrats, in the years that intervened since the Obama inauguration, certainly got the message that all that outreach wasn’t worth a hill of beans. Jim Wallis lost his halo among party leaders, and Samuel Rodriguez has been revealed as a right-wing operative and, as Sarah Posner reported, aligned with anti-Muslim zealots. (See Frederick Clarkson’s report on Rodriguez, here.)

But what Democrats lack is the kind of creative thinking that would help bring more of those religiously unaffiliated to the polls. For, contrary to the way it’s been reported, this is a pretty motivated lot of people.

In the Washington Post report on the PRRI survey, the hook is the contrast in turnout between the unaffiliated and those who belong to an organized religion:

Nearly one-quarter of likely Obama supporters say they have have no particular religion— a group less likely to vote than those affiliated with an organized religion, according to a poll released Monday by the Public Religion Research Institute. Sixty-one percent of unaffiliated Americans said they are certain to cast a ballot, compared with 73 percent of Americans who are religiously affiliated.

Now think about that: at least half, if not more of those church-going voters, are being organized by the Republican right for turnout -- relentlessly bombarded with text messages, phone calls and voter “guides” tucked into their weekly church bulletins, if Ralph Reed, president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, is to be believed. So it’s no wonder that more than three-quarters of religiously-affiliated voters are primed to vote.

And the non-affiliated? Nobody is reaching out to them, at least not on that particular point of their demographic chart, and still 61 percent plan to vote. Imagine how many might vote if a concerted effort were made to find them and ask them for their vote? To speak their language -- a combination of self-help and new-age phrases, together with secular humanist touchstones?

If Democrats were to make a bid for that 12-percent deficit in turnout between the organized-religion adherents and the unchurched, they’d have to find a way to talk to some 17 million people who believe in something, and have an individualized belief system that they cobbled together on their own.

When it’s done well, it works. Think about “women’s rights are human rights.” And that’s just the secular humanist piece of it. No one has yet to dare to speak of our national karma or the yin and yang of things. It’s not as if you have to give up your Bible quotes. (Just don’t cite the chapter and verse.) In polyglot America, the language of compassion and equality is a mansion with many rooms.

The trick is where and how to find them. But it’s probably less difficult than you think. In these days of micro-targeting, campaigns regularly target likely voters based on their purchases. If Ralph Reed is gathering data on everybody who’s bought a Bible in the last two years (he says he is), one would hope the Dems have a bead on everybody who’s bought a Deepak Chopra book, or Eat, Pray, Love, or visited a Lululemon shop (never mind that its owner is a libertarian), or downloaded Springsteen’s latest album. (For all I know, they’re actually doing that, but if they’re not, here’s a genius idea, Dems!)

And even the solitary spiritual types have gathering places: yoga studios, health-food stores, bike-riding clubs. Every election year, much is made of the cliched organizing tactic of working the voters in African-American beauty salons and barber shops; why not the hipster coffee shops?

I suspect that the Democrats’ fear of reaching directly out to the unchurched is not just a fear of being branded as in league with atheists -- atheists comprise only a tiny fraction of the unaffiliated. It’s the fear of being identified with those who have rejected what many see as the ultimate authority: that of the divine’s self-appointed arbiters on earth.

In truth, there’s nothing more American than that. When it comes to inventing religious denominations and spiritual identities, no other nation holds a candle to the Americans. From the Mormons to the transcendentalists, we are a spiritual lot. But the most iconic American among that lot is the self-seeker. The author of the Declaration of Independence described himself as a sect of one. He made his own Bible and rejected the divinity of Jesus. You can’t get much more American than that.

By Adam Lee | alternet |

Past Member (0)
Thursday October 25, 2012, 7:14 am
Or: which politician will have he guts to tell the truth about their non-religious views?

It's astonishing that in the 21st century American would-be Presidents have to tow the accepted line about their faith. I have to tell you, here in the rest of the world we just don't care about our leader's religious beliefs.

Try it sometime. I think you'll like it.

Sue Matheson (79)
Thursday October 25, 2012, 7:51 am
interesting. thanks.

Teresa W (782)
Thursday October 25, 2012, 8:23 am
The Democrats are actually closer to the Gospel (health care coverage for the poor, etc) that the bigoted Republicans!

pam w (139)
Thursday October 25, 2012, 9:04 am
The Democrats appeal to intelligence, logic and fairness. That's attractive to atheists.

Kit B (276)
Thursday October 25, 2012, 10:47 am

Atheist may be a small group, but of citizens over the age of 18, people that chose no religious affiliation make up 20% of potential voters. Though Americans claim (40%) to spend a lot of time in church, when churches were monitored it turns out that only about 20% attend church regularly. I think the noise made by the few only sounds like the many.

Past Member (0)
Thursday October 25, 2012, 2:34 pm
Good article. Noted.

Angelika R (143)
Thursday October 25, 2012, 4:04 pm
Interesting, yes. but I don't quite get those suggestions there as for the "search"-you DO HAVE data protection, don't you? No way such things as who bought or did what and when should and could be found out. ertainly NOT HERE.

JL A (281)
Thursday October 25, 2012, 7:00 pm
Researchers in academia and elsewhere have not spent near as much time profiling the unaffiliated, who can presumably be considered a more varied group than any 'churched' group who have some appearance of shared values at least. Without more of a profile or way of defining the population to get a representative sample at least (how can one tell if some subpopulation of this group defined by not being something else is missing?) it would seem hard to craft effective, comprehensive outreach. And most of the places and approaches one can imagine would also find some who are affiliated. It is possible that the DEM response has actually been to highlight policy differences for various groups of people (women, uninsured, LGBTQ, students, etc.) on issues directly relevant to their lives. Makes sense since unaffiliated would not be a homogenous group expected to have any other characteristic in common.

Rosie Lopez (73)
Friday October 26, 2012, 10:41 am
interesting thanks kit!!

Mary Donnelly (47)
Friday October 26, 2012, 5:43 pm
Thanks Kit--another great post.

Tom Edgar (56)
Friday October 26, 2012, 8:54 pm
Most of the Scandinavian and European nations are decidedly non religious. Australia's Political head is unashamedly atheist. and cohabits in an unmarried situation In Australia's census %40 stated NO RELIGION. Very few admitted to regular attendance at a place of worship.

America is medieval by comparison.

Julie W (32)
Saturday October 27, 2012, 3:25 am
Have to wonder - what happened to separation of Church and State? Choice of faith should be irrelevant, but apparently isn't in the US.

Nancy Dodson (18)
Saturday October 27, 2012, 12:54 pm
I think for the Republican party and their voters to consider themselves a religious party is something of a joke. They are really a party of off the wall nut cases. They are a party of extremists. They are a party of the Tea Party radicals.

What is their agenda if, God forbid, Romney would win this election? To take away President Obama's health care plan that is doing so much good for so many people including a member of my family. Christian? Didn't Jesus say that we are to take care of the sick? They are doing their best to remove programs that help so many of our poor. They vilify the needy as parasites who are lazy and the sick who are moochers! All this while we all know which party created so many more poor in our land. Christian? Didn't Jesus tell us to care for the poor?

Romneys' biggest plan is to give tax breaks to the rich. Like they need it! Christian? Didn't Jesus hate the money changers and throw them out of his temple because they were profiting from their wealth on the backs of the poor?

Republicans are doing everything possible to steal this election. They don't even hide it. And how convenient that Romney's son is involved in or owns a voting machine company. Didn't Jesus teach us to be honest in all our dealings with one another? Christian?

Didn't Jesus tell us to love one another as ourselves? The Republicans are a racist party and don't hide it. Christian?

Watching all of this for the past 4 years has turned me from organized Christianity. I now consider myself spiritual rather than christian. If what they preach and do is Christianity I decided it wasn't for me. I'll believe in my God in my own way. In the beauty of the earth, all the wondrous things in nature that I'm so blessed to be able to see every day, the beauty of our animals and their innocence, the beauty and wonder of a newborn baby, the beauty in fluffy white clouds and pink and orange sunsets............the beauty of wonderful friends...All of this is now my religion. God must weep at some who worship him and do nothing he asks us to do.

Nancy Dodson (18)
Saturday October 27, 2012, 1:16 pm
Thanks for the Green Star Kit. Thank you for this fabulous article. We in this country definately have to draw the line between church and state! It's getting crazy out there!

Kit B (276)
Saturday October 27, 2012, 1:25 pm

It's crazy out there. Some would prefer a theocracy to the democratic republic we have, though which theocratic ideas they want are still in question.

Lois Jordan (63)
Saturday October 27, 2012, 4:49 pm
Count me in the 20% unaffiliated non-theists who will never vote for a Republican....and my entire family as well. I believe the voices of the tiny minority of Faith Fanatics are not only magnified by FuxNoise, but by other media as well. Unfortunately, it serves to promote a false agenda to those who are uneducated and confused....easily led by others. We've got to figure out how to shift the media to report on the increasing number of citizens who are steadfastly for the separation of church & state.
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