For decades, the Democratic Party has been diagnosed with a “religion problem,” an accusation that still makes headlines. In the fall of 2019, the Washington Examiner detailed the party’s apparent aversion to any mention of prayer, Scripture, or God’s will, and a Religion News Service column pointedly asked the question: “Do the Democrats have a religion problem?” The New York Times assumed there was a God gap between the two major parties when it heralded a religious revival on the left in 2017, claiming that religious liberals had “sat out of politics” for the past 40 years.
To be sure, there are rising numbers of religiously unaffiliated Democratic voters, and fewer white Christians vote for candidates on the left. Yet the Democratic Party’s secular image seems erroneous when one considers how often candidates have folded religious rhetoric into their campaigns. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were certainly well versed in church-talk. In 2007, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton sat down with Jim Wallis, the founder of the progressive evangelical organization Sojourners, on CNN to discuss religion, and in the 2016 race, vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine made frequent mention of his Catholicism. After 2016, pundits criticized Hillary Clinton for failing to reach out more to religious voters, but in fact she consistently spoke about her own Methodist faith.
This year, many of the top Democratic hopefuls have made a concerted effort to affirm their religious beliefs. Though they may frame their policies on abortion rights and gay rights in non-religious terms, Democrats do not avoid or dismiss religion altogether. Instead, they offer religious voters, particularly Christian voters, with critical alternatives for applying faith to politics, albeit with a decidedly different tone and message than their counterparts in the GOP. Whereas Christian Republicans emphasize prayer, doctrine, the end-times, personal sin, and salvation, Christian Democrats tend to promote the social gospel—namely, Jesus’ mandate to care for others, especially the poor and oppressed.
Since the late nineteenth century, progressives have connected the social gospel to social justice issues such as poverty, public health, taxation, and wealth equity reforms. In 1907, for instance, Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch popularized the social gospel in his book Christianity and the Social Crisis, which encouraged Americans to channel their religious principles into activism. “Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus,” he wrote.
Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren, a Methodist, has suggested the same, citing Scripture such as Matthew 25:31-46 in many of her stump speeches. When asked about her personal motto at a recent Democratic debate, she cited it again. A favorite passage among social gospelers because of its explicit command to help those in need, Matthew 25’s parable of the sheep and the goats condemns those who have neglected the hungry, the sick, and “the least of these” among us. For Warren, the lesson is clear: “That passage is not about you had a good thought and held onto it. … No. It says, you saw something wrong,” she told a CNN town hall. “You saw somebody who was thirsty. You saw somebody who was in prison. You saw their face. You saw somebody who was hungry, and it moved you to act. I believe we are called on to act.” In this framing, her push for health care reform, prison reform, and living wage increases are substantiated by the will of God.
Warren isn’t the only presidential candidate employing religious language on the campaign trail this year. Before dropping out of the race in early January, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker appeared so comfortable with God talk that Religion News Service distinguished him as a potential political spokesperson for the religious left. Former Vice President Joe Biden has also made connections between his religious and political beliefs, saying that his “sense of fairness and justice and disdain for those who abused their power … flow from the teachings of the Catholic Church.” Like Warren, Biden believes that good deeds for the common good, not just prayer, are the duty of any Christian.
The candidate who talked about his faith the most was perhaps Pete Buttigieg, an Episcopalian from South Bend, Indiana. Before suspending his campaign recently, Buttigieg, a gay, married man, frequently took the offensive against those who challenge LGBTQ rights or question his faith. “If you belong to the Christian tradition that I belong to,” he explained at a town hall meeting last October, “then you believe that God loves you, and you look around and you notice that you’re gay, and those two things exist at the same time.” Marshalling social gospel language, Buttigieg went on to say that his faith “instructs me to identify with the marginalized and to recognize that the greatest thing that any of us has to offer is love.” During a presidential debate last summer, Buttigieg chastised Republicans for failing to abide by the gospels when separating immigrant families and putting children in cages. His use of religious rhetoric, which he has linked to his belief in helping the poor, has prompted some observers to compare him to social gospel progressives of the past, although the former mayor’s popularity among billionaire supporters raised eyebrows for those who questioned his stated intentions to address economic inequality.
Even a politician who typically eschews religious claims, Bernie Sanders, has alluded to religion during the past two elections. In December, Sanders’ staff posted Instagram photos of the outspoken socialist celebrating Hanukkah, and in an episode of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates Jr., he made pointed references to his Jewish identity and the persecution his ancestors faced in the past. “It just makes us realize how hard we have got to work to not descend into this type of barbarity and to create a world where people can love each other,” he stated.
Sanders has also addressed evangelical Christians, most notably at conservative stronghold Liberty University in September 2015 during his last presidential run, urging students to extend their religious values into progressive politics. In his attempt to “find common ground” with his audience at Liberty, Sanders chose to link his non-Christian ethics to the ministry of Jesus, referencing the “Golden Rule” from Matthew 7:12. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them to do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets,” Sanders said, adding, “It is not very complicated.” The Vermont senator approvingly quoted social gospel advocate Pope Francis and upheld the moral choice to “stand with the poor.” “We are living in a nation and in a world, and the Bible speaks to this issue,” he noted, “which worships not love of brothers and sisters, not love of the poor and the sick, but worships the acquisition of money and great wealth. I do not believe that is the country we should be living in.”
Though Democrats have not avoided religious language, they have struggled to broaden the spectrum of religiously based policy. Voters who favor an inclusive, cooperative religion that promotes social justice have not captured the same attention in national politics, ever since the GOP began, as Buttigieg put it, to “cloak” its political agenda with religious justification and capture the media’s attention in the 1970s and 80s.
The GOP’s self-conscious association with Christianity has gone far at convincing Americans that voting Christian is voting Republican. But an intense focus on single issues such as abortion, gay rights, or the state of Israel, according to progressive Christians, misses the forest for the trees. These Democrats remind the faithful that love, tolerance, social justice, and fellowship form the core of Jesus’ ministry and should be broadly applied.
The Rev. William Barber, the vocal leader of the Moral Mondays movement and reviver of the Poor People’s Campaign, has challenged conservative Christians on these terms. Using one of his oft-repeated phrases, he told Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker that the so-called Moral Majority Christians “‘say so much about areas where the Bible says very little’—abortion, homosexuality—’and speak so little about the issues where the Bible says so much,’ like poverty, empathy, and justice.” Since gaining national attention after he spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, Barber’s advocacy for social gospel activism has opened a space for progressive Christians to gain some new political traction. Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg pledged to participate in Barber’s proposed debate on poverty, which activists in the Poor People’s Campaign are pressuring the Democratic National Committee to hold this year. Many of the candidates spoke at the Poor People’s Presidential Forum last June, and Buttigieg also made a point of meeting with Barber at his church in North Carolina this past December. During the presidential debate in January, Buttigieg made a specific reference to Barber’s campaign.
There is little reason to doubt that the embrace of religious rhetoric among Democrats is born of sincere personal conviction, but it is also good political strategy. If Democrats hope to mobilize voters, particularly swing voters as well as racial minorities, then appeals to progressive religious values can provide one path to progressive policies. While white evangelicals still form much of the Republican base, there have been cracks in that foundation, especially when it comes to questions of Trumpism and its moral barometer. A recent editorial and another follow-up piece on the topic of white evangelical politics in Christianity Today provide significant cases in point.
Beyond the white evangelical demographic, however, there are millions of religious Americans predisposed to respond to religious rhetoric that frames social policy in alignment with their values. In fact, a recent poll shows that 86 percent of self-identifying Democrats, not counting swing voters, believe in a higher power or spiritual source. Not all these voters may take the Bible or church as seriously as their more conservative counterparts, but they do profess a spiritual belief in a force for good in the world. Democrats, by marshaling the social gospel, can ground the party’s policies in spiritual substance without resorting to strict doctrine or the kind of dogmatism that could turn off non-religious voters. As the primaries proceed in the next few months, the Democratic candidates may be able to tip the balance in their favor by offering Christian Americans more choice and flexibility for their religious sensibilities than the GOP.
The Democratic Party is not antithetical to religion, even if it is struggling to find a way to express its politics in terms of broad religious values that can appeal to diverse constituents of believers and non-believers alike. At its ethical baseline of social justice, the social gospel theology that many Democrats express has the potential to reach across denominations and perhaps reach across various faith groups, including Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, who believe in human rights and social justice as moral imperatives. As Sanders put it back in 2015: “I am motivated by a vision, which exists in all of the great religions, in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, Buddhism and other religions.” Though Sanders was addressing a Christian audience, he, more than any other candidate talking about religion, has made his remarks about religion and justice inclusive. “I think that when we talk about morality, what we are talking about is all of God’s children,” he has said. Convincing conservative Christians to change their minds about abortion or gay rights in order to vote for Democrats will be difficult if not impossible in the short-run this election cycle. And yet, the social gospel has been the most effective theology to rally progressives in the past century, and it continues to provide political currency for the Democratic candidates in 2020.
Vaneesa Cook is a historian, professor, and freelance writer in Wisconsin. Her book Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left is available through the University of Pennsylvania Press. Follow her @CookVaneesa.