Lost Democrats: Faith and the 2010 Elections

With most of the online world buzzing about Lost, another tale of loss caught my attention in this morning's Washington Post. It began by posing the question: "If 2008 was the year Democrats finally got religion, will 2010 be the year the party loses it again?"

The story tracked Democratic successes with faith outreach in 2005, 2006, and 2008, noting that President Obama received more votes from "churchgoing voters" than any other presidential candidate in recent elections. However, in the current election cycle, the DNC's "faith staff of more than a half-dozen has dwindled to one part-time slot." No one is tending the flock.

Those quoted in the article cited no specific reason for the change, opting instead for general explanations of economic worries. Although some will interpret it to mean that the Democratic Party is fundamentally secular and that "faith-based" outreach was always a sort of political window-dressing, I suspect that something else is happening. That "something" may well be an early indicator of a reordering of American religion and politics.

In 2004, a political science study from East Carolina University found that voters could be divided into three categories based solely on their beliefs about the Bible. Fundamentalists believed that the Bible was God's inerrant word; moderates believed that although the Bible was God's word, it wasn't to be taken literally; and biblical minimalists believed that the Bible was a human document.

The researchers discovered that voters' views of the Bible predicted their opinions about every issue from abortion and gay marriage to the size of government and taxes. Fundamentalists aligned with Republican politics; biblical minimalists aligned with the Democratic Party. This led the lead researcher, Dr. Peter Francia, to conclude, "It is not a culture war between red states and blue states, but rather a war between Fundamentalists and biblical minimalists within both the red and the blue states." The moderates, apparently, shift their alliances but tend to cluster in blue states. The research further suggests that division doesn't come from elites in politics and the media who "may be responding to the polarization that exists with the electorate rather than the other way around."

Francia's analysis helps to explain why the Democrats are drawing back on faith outreach this year -- they are responding to a change within the electorate rather than ignoring religious communities. The change is, quite simply, stunning. In the last decade, American attitudes toward religion, belief, attending church, and practicing faith are markedly moving away from fundamentalism and conventional religions. In every category, Americans are now less religious than any time in the last 50 years, with nearly every major denomination (including most conservative denominations) posting numerical declines. Americans now express lower confidence that God exists, that there is an actual heaven and hell, and that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. And, conversely, large numbers of Americans are migrating toward atheism, agnosticism, post-theism, non-western religions, and being "spiritual-but-not-religious."

Using the East Carolina categories, it appears that many moderates are now becoming biblical minimalists, that the territory of theological contention is shrinking, and that more people are moving toward the classically liberal position that the Bible is a largely human document, one that may be inspiring, beautiful, or meaningful but not the inerrant word of God.

Therefore, the growing "religious" edge of the Democratic Party is not -- and will not be -- the traditional evangelicals whom they once hoped to woo. Rather, the most significant grassroots pressure on Democratic candidates will come from those who hold liberal views of scripture. Some of those people will, no doubt, be progressive churchgoers (and not a few will be progressive evangelicals), but others -- and probably many others -- will be in the category of spiritual-but-not-religious, and still others will be secular humanists, agnostics, atheists, and adherents of non-western religions.

In short, the DNC has a very tough road ahead with faith outreach. To which faith should you be reaching? Whose language do you speak? How do you shape political issues in a moral framework when there is so little shared ethical vision?

The Democrats may be less Lost and more Star Trek -- having to go where no political party has really gone before. Their problem is not that they are a-religious; their problem is that they are so diverse when it comes to religion that there is no single faith or moral framework that encapsulates this remarkable and unprecedented pluralism.

Democrats might be tempted to ignore religion because the issues are too hard -- and too ripe with possibilities to split their own party. That may well be their tacit approach this year. But to those of us who care deeply about the moral dimensions of our common life, and who fear that only those who believe in an inerrant Christian scripture will offer an ethical vision for America, that would be a disaster. Part of the Democratic imperative is to respond to this grassroots transformation of American life and frame a truly inclusive vision of spirituality and public faith.

A version of this blog originally appeared on Beliefnet.