Yesterday, I talked about President Trump’s “Mormon problem,” namely that even though most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints firmly support the Republican Party, Mormon support for Trump himself tends to lag, as highlighted by several of his most prominent critics belonging to the Mormon faith. Today, as Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, we can equally discuss what many have called the Democrat’s “religion problem.” Except, “religion” isn’t really where that problem lies.
Congress has been getting increasingly diverse, and the incoming Representatives and Senators are no exception, in terms of race, ethnicity, sex and religion. Looking at this last category, as the Pew Forum helpfully likes to do (no, I’m not sucking up to them because I’m angling for a job down the road – I’m angling for a consultancy, which is totally different), the religious diversity is mostly coming from the Democratic side of the aisle.
In the previous Congress, the vast majority of legislators on both parties were Christian, but there were stark differences. Except for two Jewish members of the House, every Republican member of Congress identified as Christian. By contrast, Democrats sent “28 Jews, three Buddhists, three Hindus, two Muslims and one Unitarian Universalist” and one religiously unaffiliated Representative to Congress. That religious diversity has only increased among Democrats in the new Congress being seated today, with the unprecedented election of two Muslim women on Democratic tickets.
Now, the fact that the Democratic Party seems to appeal more to non-Christians doesn’t necessarily mean that the Democrats aren’t appealing to Christians as well. The NBA can increase its appeal to black viewers and maintain its white viewers, as well; Marvel movies appeal to nerds and mainstream viewers at the same time, if not in the same ways (I am honestly a bit annoyed that everyone will now get my no-longer-obscure Infinity Gauntlet references). Likewise, the Democratic Party could appeal to a religiously diverse electorate while still drawing in support from Christians.
In some circles, they have. Democrats have a slight lead on Republicans among American Catholics (although neither party has a majority of Catholics), as well as so-called mainline denominations like the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ (Pew, Pew) [lasers are fun…wait, what were we doing again?]. And predominantly black denominations overwhelmingly support the Democratic party, as well.
Yet, as I mentioned yesterday, even with their issues with Donald Trump personally, Mormons still mostly support the Republican Party, as do most socially conservative Evangelical denominations. The Democrats real issue here is not a “religion problem” or even a “Christian problem;” it’s a white Evangelical problem.
A recent interview of Jerry Falwell, Jr., President of the Christian school Liberty University and a leading Evangelical voice, reminded us of the depth of Evangelical support for Donald Trump. Although he doesn’t speak for all Evangelicals, the idea that Falwell was willing to publicly declare unwavering (unwavable) devotion to Donald Trump (or, really, anyone not named Jesus of Nazareth) is remarkable (see, I’m remarking about it right now; freaky).
Now, Donald Trump and his political success is unorthodox (Christian pun!) and unusual in many ways (I’m still suspicious that he has a Monkey’s Paw hidden away at Mar-a-Lago). But even without Trump, and especially with him, Evangelical support for the Republican Party, particularly centered around cultural issues like LGBTQ rights vs. “religious freedom” and Roe v. Wade and appointments to the Supreme Court, seems to remain strong.
This does not mean that abortion policy must forever serve as a dividing line between Republicans and Democrats, or that Democrats cannot reach out to religious individuals. The partisan divide on abortion rights may be more of an elite issue than one that divides supporters of the two parties, as pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats exist in significant numbers. Additionally, it’s worth remembering that the Religious Right did not initially arise because of abortion, but because of segregation (oh, um, I mean “religious freedom.” specially, the freedom to remain segregated, which, doesn’t seem super Christian to me, but I’m no big city religion scholar [oh wait, I am!]).
Furthermore, remember that black Christians overwhelmingly support Democrats, despite often being as socially conservative as their white Evangelical counterparts (fortunately for the Dems here, the Republican Party’s continued willingness to reach out to racist – *ahem* “nationalist” – elements makes the choice fairly easy for black voters). Similarly, at least one predominantly white Evangelical denomination – Seventh-Day Adventists – are more likely to support Democrats, for a number of reasons of policy and ideology, even though Adventists tend to be fairly socially conservative.
Given the power of white Evangelicals in the 2016 election, some Democratic operatives have made a point of appealing to them for 2020. And in addition to this top-down approach, there does exist bottom-up Evangelical support for Democrats, although it has generally been overshadowed by the Religious Right. Democrats may be able to put a larger dent in the partisan divide among Evangelicals, or, given that white Evangelicals are essentially the last religious group to hold out support for Donald Trump, Democrats may decide to build upon their more diverse religious appeal and sidestep Evangelicals instead as long as they are tied to Trump. Either way, Democrats have the opportunity to make their “Evangelical problem” less of a problem for the party.