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

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.

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:

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