Krista's Journal: On the Religious Voice in Politics

September 16, 2004

I have never believed in the God gap, or the God gulf as others call it. This idea rests on evidence—taken from results of the 2000 election and further extrapolated by opinion polls—that a majority of people (though not all) who go to church more than once a week vote Republican, while a majority (though not all) who never or rarely go to church vote Democratic. In this week's program, we open up such statistics for re-examination. My guest, journalist and Beliefnet founder Steven Waldman, finds that when it comes to God, the gulf between Democrats and Republicans shrinks dramatically if you focus on religious and spiritual indicators other than church attendance—such as belief in God, daily prayer, and belief in an afterlife. In other words, the theory of the God gap is based on too narrow a view of what it means to have a life of faith in modern America.

Steven Waldman took his perspective to the Democratic and Republic conventions in Boston and New York. He provides a refreshingly wide lens through which to analyze the role of religion in the remaining days of this campaign. And in doing so, he reveals what may be the real God gap. The fact that the Republican religious base is centered in institutions is of practical significance. And, in recent decades, the Republican party has nurtured that institutional relationship at the grassroots level and thoroughly integrated religious people and ideas into its national platform and strategy. This is not the "religious right" or the Christian Coalition of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. It represents a more sophisticated and diverse integration of religious people and their concerns into the very fabric of Republican identity. And this integration does provide an important political advantage.

By contrast, the Democratic Party had a strong moral and religious voice in the 1960's, especially around issues of civil rights and poverty. But that voice fell silent as such issues became associated with a trail of Democratic defeat. Now, decades later and nearly a quarter century after the entry of religious conservatives into party politics, Democratic religious thinkers and actors are taking steps to reclaim their place and their voice in Democratic identity. Keynote speaker Barack Obama issued one of the convention's prime-time clarion calls, "We worship an awesome God in the blue states."

With balance and good humor, Steven Waldman chronicles the at times surprising efforts both parties made at their conventions to respond to the perceived God gap. It is fascinating to hear some of their religious language side by side—from John Kerry "finding his faith voice" in Waldman's analysis to the "elegantly" understated and non-sectarian God-talk in George Bush's acceptance speech.

Here, in outline form, are some of Steven Waldman's insights that will shape my political observations and questions beyond November:

  • The most important Evangelical Christian leader in America today, Waldman asserts, is George W. Bush. On the other hand, President Bush—like Ronald Reagan before him—doesn't adopt a conservative Christian legislative agenda wholesale. He chooses key issues and carries them wholeheartedly forward. However, there are significant gaps between the religiously-influenced Republican Party platform and George Bush's actual political agenda in office.
  • Leading Democrats take great care to avoid sectarian religious language, even when they hold deep personal faith, in part out of a concern not to exclude or alienate minority groups. But when they do that, Waldman cautions, they often sound secular rather than pluralistic.
  • Americans value moral clarity in their leaders, even when they don't agree with their positions. And voters on both sides of the political divide believe intuitively that personal religious faith is a measure of moral and practical strength. As support for this theory, Waldman points out that only two Democrats have been elected president in the last four decades, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and both of them are Southern Baptists who are comfortable speaking about their faith.

There is a danger of becoming cynical when mixing religion and politics, or even when discussing religion in politics. I heard myself sounding more cynical than usual in this program. But on balance, by the end of my interview with Waldman, I had come to find a new respect for the enormous and delicate balancing act required of religious people who wish to be influential not just in policy but in party politics. I've often declared my interest in the real-world, messy, and unpredictable intersection of theology and human experience. The tightrope of living faith politically is as messy, real, and dynamic as it gets.

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is a former editor for U.S. News and World Report, and co-founder and CEO of Beliefnet.