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

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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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 those not-religious but spiritually-minded voters. 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.

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