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Why the Democratic Party faced a backlash for praising nonreligious voters

For decades, the Democratic Party has struggled with the perception that it’s anti-God. A new resolution might make the reputation even harder to shake.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez speaks to the media before the start of the Democratic primary debate on Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami.
Brynn Anderson, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Last month, the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution praising the party’s religious “nones.” It called on Democratic leaders to listen to religiously unaffiliated constituents and address their concerns.

“Religiously unaffiliated Americans are a group that, as much as any other, advocates for rational public policy based on sound science and universal humanistic values and should be represented, included and heard by the party,” the document said.

Secular activists celebrated the move as a savvy and long-awaited nod to their community’s growing political significance. But some experts on religion and politics decried it as a dangerous, unforced error.

“There’s nothing to be gained from it and there’s a lot to be lost,” said Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University.

Prothero and others, including a former faith adviser for the Obama administration, argue that the DNC is failing to recognize how the resolution will sound to Christian voters. Democrats can’t afford to focus on nonreligious voters when they’re already struggling with the reputation of being anti-God, they said.

“There are Christians who would like to vote for Democrats and don’t want to feel like Democrats are sneering at them for their stupid, old-fashioned religiosity,” Prothero said.

Additionally, the resolution’s critics questioned whether it even makes sense to reach out to religious nones collectively, since the group is more united by their rejection of organized religion than their embrace of something else.

“They’re coming to politics as a member of a political party or a person who cares about the environment or health care. Very few come with the identity of a religious none,” said Michael Wear, who directed faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, to the Deseret News last year.

Sarah Levin, director of governmental affairs for the Secular Coalition for America, said reactions like these show why the resolution matters. For too long, atheist, agnostic and religiously unaffiliated voters have been seen as a threat to people of faith.

“I think the reaction that this is an attack on faith is just an extension of the same problem we have where our community is not understood,” she said.

However, Levin added that complaining about negative reactions to the resolution will likely do little to boost her community’s popularity. She and other religious nones know their actions will speak louder than words.

“We can’t change the minds of people who think we’re a political liability until we get secular (voters) to deliver for their parties,” she said.

In terms of numbers, religiously unaffiliated voters have been a big part of the Democratic Party for several election cycles. In 2016, nearly 3 in 10 registered Democrats were religious nones, and that number continues to climb, according to Pew Research Center.

Despite this trend, party leaders have done little to court more atheist or agnostic voters or ensure that those who were registered actually turned up at the polls, Levin said. The resolution, passed at the DNC’s summer meeting on Aug. 24, was meant to be a step toward more direct engagement with the nonreligious community.

“We want to make sure people understand and recognize and respect the nonreligious as a constituency,” said Levin, whose organization, the Secular Coalition for America, helped draft and recruit sponsors for the resolution.

But sometimes even religious nones fail to understand themselves as part of that constituency. Levin said she regularly meets with religiously affiliated voters who are unaware that their lack of a religious identity could be a political rallying cry.

“I talk to people about secular caucuses and they say, ‘Oh my gosh. I had no clue that existed,’” she said, noting that the resolution can help clear up that confusion.

Although it’s only one page in length, the resolution offers some clues as to who the DNC has in mind when it talks about nonreligious voters. It explains that these men and women rally around issues like immigration and LGBTQ rights and object to using religious liberty protections to justify harm done to minority groups.

“Religiously unaffiliated Americans overwhelmingly share the Democratic Party’s values, with 70% voting for Democrats in 2018, 80% supporting same-sex marriage and 61% saying immigrants make American society stronger,” the resolution said.

Prothero doesn’t take issue with these conclusions or the idea that the DNC will continue to need the support of religious nones to succeed. But he thinks this support was guaranteed even before the resolution was passed and that Democratic leaders should focus on outreach to Christians, instead.

“Why not say, ‘We’re the Democratic Party: the party of Christians who get along with nonbelievers and nonbelievers who get along with Christians?’” Prothero said.

As it stands, the resolution could alienate religious voters, especially those who were already nervous about the Democratic Party’s relationship to religion, he added, noting that the DNC has struggled with accusations of being anti-God since the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s.

“One of the reasons for the success of the Republican Party in my adult lifetime ... is because they were able to position themselves as Christians and position Democrats as godless,” Prothero said.

Over the last few decades, plenty of Christians voted for Democratic candidates, but the DNC had limited success reaching religious voters who don’t naturally gravitate to either party. John Kerry’s loss in 2004 was a turning point and showed Democratic leaders they needed to speak more openly about God, Prothero said.

“Obama talked about his faith all the time,” he said. “Candidates like Pete Buttigieg are trying to ... say the Democratic Party is more faithful to the Bible and to Christian history than Republican politics.”

Democratic National Committee members join hands as the Rev. Dr. William Barber II speaks Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, in San Francisco at the party’s summer meeting.
Ben Margot, Associated Press

In recent months, the DNC appointed the Rev. Derrick Harkins as national director of interfaith outreach. He’s been meeting with diverse groups of faith leaders and trying to strengthen the party’s relationship with various religious denominations.

“The idea that there’s some antipathy within any quarters of the Democratic Party around faith — I just don’t see that to be true,” the Rev. Harkins recently told Religion News Service.

The resolution in favor of religious nones could disrupt this work and increase President Donald Trump’s appeal to Christians in the political middle, Prothero said.

“It seems like there’s been this effort to be more Christian-friendly, so why position yourself all of a sudden as anti-God?” he said.

Levin isn’t surprised by this reaction, but she is frustrated. She rejects the notion that saying nice things about atheist, agnostic or religiously unaffiliated Americans will have a negative impact on the Democratic Party’s relationship to people of faith.

“I’m not persuaded that there are people who would see this resolution and suddenly say, ‘Now I’m never voting for a Democrat,’” she said.

Many Americans will never even hear about the resolution, which was one of dozens considered at the summer meeting. The DNC hasn’t committed to publicizing it and it only provides suggestions for future action, not a binding action plan.

“It doesn’t have any sort of strategic plan or funding attached to it,” Levin said.

The resolution’s claims that it’s possible to be moral and patriotic without believing in God or that some Americans use religious liberty to limit LGBTQ civil rights may raise eyebrows, but similar statements have been made by prominent Democrats elsewhere, she added.

This year alone, Democrats in the House of Representatives have passed multiple pieces of legislation aimed at expanding nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community and mostly ignored concerns about how these policies would affect people of faith, as the Deseret News has reported.

Rather than dwell on how the resolution will sound to Christian voters, Levin is focused on its significance for the secular community. For more than a year, she’s been working to increase political engagement among religious nones, and this statement will boost those efforts, she said.

“(Secular) folks are realizing they can participate in their party and that there’s a place for them,” she noted.

Despite the backlash faced by the DNC, Levin said she’ll continue working to convince other parties to issue similar statements. There are nonreligious Republicans, Libertarians and Greens, and they deserve more attention from party leaders, too, she said.

“We would love nothing more than if all political parties were fighting for the nonreligious vote,” she said.