Heavy lift in 2020? Democrats continue to seek a modernized faith formula that works

After 20 Democratic candidates’ “food fight” debates (thank you, Kamala Harris), pundits are pondering whether Harris or Elizabeth Warren will win their developing faceoff, whether senior citizens Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are slipping and whether the party is roaming too far left to win the mushy American middle.

Meanwhile, political reporters interested in religion, and religion reporters interested in politics, should examine whether the Democrats can improve their religion outreach after a lackluster 2016 effort, amid perennial predictions that a revivified “religious left” could counterbalance Republicans’ familiar “Religious Right.”

This time around, Democrats have uttered more religious mentions than usual, but hopes center upon one newcomer, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, an outspoken gay Episcopalian.

Asked about immigration during the debate, Episcopalian Buttigieg said “the Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion” while “our party doesn’t talk about that as much,” largely because of commitment to separation of church and state. Then this: “For a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is O.K. to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”


There’s upcoming news in Buttigieg’s pick for full-time “Faith Engagement Director.” The job ad says the campaign “rejects transactional interactions” in favor of “creative ways to unlock cultural appreciation.” (Translation, please.) Notably, “women, LGBTQ folks, and disabled people are strongly encouraged to apply.” (What, no blacks and Latinos?)

The Democratic Party has already made a similar hire, with the Rev. Derrick Harkins serving as director of religious outreach, which he also was in 2012. Back then, the left worried he’d lack enthusiasm for open-ended abortion and gay rights, but interviewers will presumably find he’s now fully on board, in the cultural liberalism department.

Harkins was the assistant pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City and has served as pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Dallas and Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Since 2015 he’s been “Senior Vice President for Innovations in Public Programming” at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Under Harkins, the party’s first listening session was with the pro-LGBTQ Union of Affirming Christians.

Yet Democrats already get fat margins among black Protestants, the white liberal Protestants the seminary symbolizes and gay activists.

OK, forget evangelicals, but what about — repeat after me — Catholics? Especially non-Hispanic Catholics who are moderate or moderately liberal, attend Mass, retain some respect for the church despite everything and reside in Florida and those crucial Big Ten states?

Journalists also need to weigh the impact when Democrats, already religiously tone-deaf, rely upon a large constituency of voters without any religious affiliation or identity, including a faction of hardline secularists. This, combined with LGBTQ sensitivities, prevents serious consideration of any religious freedom claims under the Bill of Rights.

In the same way, President Donald Trump and the emergent Trumpublican Party cultivate personalities from some sectors within the broad evangelical movement. The hunt for religious supporters as polarized as just about everything else in American politics and culture.

Three related notes.

Before debate memories fade, writers should contemplate Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii as the pioneering first Hindu candidate, who’s both a combat veteran and foreign policy dove. And it’s certainly time for new looks at Marianne Williamson, though she won’t be our next president, either. Her Web site calls Williamson “one of America’s most well known public voices for more than three decades.” But Google says she got the most post-debate searches among the 20 candidates, indicating multitudes are still unfamiliar with this inspirational speaker and author despite major boosts from Oprah.

Williamson had a Jewish upbringing, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency describes her as a “New Age self-help” guru and “post-religion spiritual leader.” Her made-in-America “transformational wisdom” derives from “A Course in Miracles,” with maxims like the Law of Divine Compensation: “Spiritual Growth involves giving up the stories of your past so the universe can write a new one.” Politically, her chief innovation is a proposed Cabinet-level Department of Peace for “promoting life instead of death.”

Finally, colleagues should be following the ongoing work on all this by the eminent Emma Green of The Atlantic magazine and theatlantic.com, searchable here. www.theatlantic.com/author/emma-green Don’t miss her post-election interview from 2016 under the prescient title “Democrats Have a Religion Problem.” www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/democrats-have-a-religion-problem/510761

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