It is somewhat ironic that many of the issues most central to our political decision-making are the most avoided by the two major political parties.
Republicans, for example, are quick to gloss over the formative and controlling power of demographic indicators. Even in these modern times, the moment a baby is born, lifetime opportunities are either made available or closed off based on his race, gender and economic class. The conservative reflex has evolved from shrill bigotry to a more silent discrimination that leaves these obstacles in place, solidifying biased power structures and reinforcing un-meritocratic aspects of the status quo. From affirmative action to equal pay laws, Republican politicians are content to play country club politics.
But if Republicans are too quick to ignore the influence of those aspects of life that are given, Democrats can overreach in the opposite direction. Too often they are guilty of hastily discounting the value of one of life’s most formative personal choices - that of faith and religion. Reacting to the excesses of the Religious Right, vigilant secularists came to dominate the party that had previously been home to devout believers from William Jennings Bryan to Jimmy Carter.
Now, those who speak the language of “personal savior” and “sin and redemption” can expect a response of pity and embarrassment from too many Democrats. This may be due partly to the Northeastern base of the party, home to the more staid practices of Catholics and Episcopalians for whom religion evokes order and hierarchy, not altar calls and speaking in tongues. John Kerry’s religion was important to him, but he wasn’t practiced in expressing his faith journey publicly. Howard Dean didn’t help either when he said Job was his favorite New Testament book.
Second, the failures of those who drag religion into the public square are legion. From the self-righteous rants of James Dobson and Pat Robertson to the public sin and scandal of Ted Haggard and Ralph Reed, cynicism has become too easy. Conservatives have so often abused religion, using it as a political wedge and electoral distraction, harnessing it for judgment rather than compassion. Many liberals are left with a distaste not only for theocratic hypocrites, but also for religion itself.
All of this is unfortunate, for while Republicans are more successful in paving the path from church pew to polling booth, the Democratic platform should be much more recognizable to “values voters.” At the heart of the Democratic creed is a commitment to the least of these among us, the stranger in our land, the redemptive power of peace.
Meanwhile, the hopes of those who put their faith in the Republican Party go unfulfilled. David Kuo, former President George W. Bush’s deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, resigned in frustration, citing the “snoring indifference” of Republican leaders and “minimal senior White House commitment to the faith-based agenda.” John DiIulio, the office’s first director, similarly blasted the “hyperpolitical nature of the Bush White House.” For Republicans, religion has become a voter-outreach strategy, not a governing commitment.
Finally, Democrats are starting to come around, finding ways to marry their governing commitment with a voter-outreach strategy. For the first time, the Democratic National Convention opened with an interfaith prayer. The party’s campaign arms are staffed with faith-based offices. And President Obama speaks of his Christianity with humility, grace and conviction. If Democrats can successfully navigate these religious waters, they won’t be the only winners. So, too, will a United States that becomes more just, more compassionate, and - maybe - a little more holy.