July 17, 2006


The Democrats' Unreligious Fringe (Gregory Rodriguez, July 16, 2006, LA Times)

Just as the Republican Party pays obeisance to the demands of the 37% of its base that is white evangelical Christian, the Democrats feel they must not offend the 22% of their core voters who claim no religious affiliation. Why not? Because although they make up less than one-quarter of the coalition, these secular Democrats are much more likely than others to be high-level party activists.

That was not always the case. Some scholars point to the Democratic National Convention of 1972 as not only the moment Democrats edged toward secularism but the event that created the religious rift in American politics. Before 1972, both major parties were essentially indistinguishable in their approach to religion. The activist cores of both were dominated by members of mainstream religious groups: the GOP by mainline Protestants and the Democratic Party by Catholics and Jews.

But the Democratic delegation that nominated South Dakota Sen. George McGovern for president at the '72 convention represented a profound shift from what had been the cultural consensus in American politics. Whereas only 5% of Americans could be considered secular in 1972, fully 24% of first-time Democratic delegates that year were self-identified agnostics, atheists or people who rarely, if ever, set foot in a house of worship. This new activist base encouraged a growing number of Democratic politicians to tone down their appeal to religious voters and to seek a higher wall separating church and state. With little regard for the traditionalist sensitivities of religious people within or outside of the party, the Democrats also embraced progressive stances on feminism and homosexuality that the public had never openly debated.

Meanwhile, the Republican delegation — and by extension the party platform — remained unchanged, and the GOP essentially became the party of tradition and religion by default. "The partisan differences that emerged in 1972," writes University of Maryland political scientist Geoffrey Layman, "were not caused by any sudden increase in the religious and cultural traditionalism of the Republican activists but by the pervasive secularism and cultural liberalism of the Democratic supporters of George McGovern."

Over the next generation, the shift in the Democratic Party pushed many religious voters, including the traditionally Democratic bloc of Southern evangelicals, into the arms of the Republican Party.

So, the GOP leadership may not be particularly religious in personal terms, but recognizes that its voters are, so advances religious causes. Meanwhile, Democratic voters may not be secular, but the party leadership doesn't much care about them and just advances its own fringe causes. Then they wonder why they're a 40% party?

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 17, 2006 11:58 PM

I was sitting at the wedding dinner of NW side Chicago Irish Catholics last summer. Father of the bride worked many years in the Building Department - classic Daley machine family. Talk eventually turned to politics with one outlier (an in-law) sharply criticizing the President. Long story short, I asked how many at the table voted for Bush in 2004. Nine out of ten people at the table had.

Posted by: Rick T. at July 18, 2006 9:39 AM

This points right to the Zell Millers and the Joe Liebermans of the democratic party. Sooner or later, unless the dems change their approach to religion, these winners are the ones who will change their party affiliation. Their moral stands are already more in tune with the republican party than the democratic party and with the approach of the democratic party faithful to religion the rest of them will follow. Hillary and company are trying to stem the tide but I don't think anyone believes Hillary anyway.

Posted by: dick at July 18, 2006 12:49 PM