Fifth in a series on “The 7 Winning Messages of Democratic Politicians”
One of the great tragedies of modern American politics is the right wing’s hijacking of religion and moral values—and the meek acquiescence of liberals in letting them get away with it. At least since the rise of the “Moral Majority” in the 1980s, conservatives have been overt in their Christian rhetoric and their co-opting of family values. And for 30 years Democrats and liberals have simply submitted to their insufferable moralizing.
That perception, that Republicans are the party of God and family values, is partly why the GOP has become so deeply entrenched across great swaths of the Southern and Midwestern Bible Belt, attracting even moderates who might otherwise vote Democratic but feel compelled to support conservatives as the supposed guardians of their religious values.
So how can Democrats reach them? How can we counter conservative religious rhetoric and convince deeply religious voters that Democrats are more deserving of their political support?
It’s a tall order, but the good news is that liberals don’t have to reach them all right away. To win elections, we can start with those moderate swing voters—the decent, God-fearing Middle Americans who believe in fairness and helping people in need, and may already be appalled at the extremist, hard-right views taking over the Republican Party. They may not even need much persuasion; they just need to know that if they vote Democratic, they are voting for leaders and policies that embrace faith and high moral values.
Republicans have shown that faith and values are winning messages for a large segment of Americans. Democratic political messages must constantly make the connection between our policies and our moral and religious values, like helping the poor, compassion, and human decency.
In previous posts (on the winning messages of patriotism, positivity, American exceptionalism, and fighting for the underdog), we’ve shown how liberals can infuse policy discussions with traditional American values like freedom, equality, and fairness. Talking about religious values are a bit trickier for Democrats and liberals, partly because progressives believe in separating church and state and are understandably wary of the demagogy of religion. And honestly, it may also be that Democratic candidates (like Democrats generally) are less inclined to be actively religious.
That’s all the more reason why Democratic candidates who are Christian—especially in the South and Midwest—must learn to be comfortable talking about their religious values and faith, because the subject is obviously important to so many voters. That can be done overtly or subtly, by weaving Christian references and values into speeches and debates (see some examples below). Christian candidates who can walk the walk—who can quote Bible passages and show they attend church regularly—have a strong shield against Republican “theolitics” and a powerful means to expose conservative Christian hypocrisy. Democratic leadership should be actively recruiting strongly religious candidates in red and purple swing districts of the country.
Even nonreligious candidates, or those uncomfortable talking explicitly about religion, can talk more generally about “values,” and “faith” (see below for examples). They can refer to America as a “nation of faith” and talk about “the values I grew up with,” “the values I learned from my parents and teachers,” “American values,” “morality,” “the values we all share as human beings,” and “human decency.”
These days, thankfully, Democrats can also quote liberally from Pope Francis, who has spoken forcefully about inequality and compassion for the poor and immigrants.
Democratic leaders and activists should be energetically seeking support and partnerships with religious and moral leaders on various issues, from anti-poverty efforts to preserving the environment to gay rights.
While it’s true that conservatives have the twin moral cudgels of abortion and gay rights to bash liberals with, liberals have an arsenal of their own, including the words and actions of Jesus (see the essay “The Shocking Hypocrisy of Christian Conservatives”), the imprimatur of the Pope on poverty and immigration issues, and the universal moral values of equality and fairness.
Whenever possible, Democrats must tie political issues to moral and religious principles if they are to win the hearts—and votes—of religiously moderate Americans. The good news is that the Democratic philosophy of compassion for the poor and marginalized is a tenet of every major religion and, in particular, is a deeply felt, core teaching of the Christian faith.
Here are a couple of examples of how Democrats can weave these messages into their campaigns on specific issues. The first examples could be used by a Christian Democrat running in a Bible Belt district; the second examples are secularized a bit for candidates who are nonreligious or who are less comfortable with overtly religious language.
On the environment, climate change, or reduced funding for the Environmental Protection Agency:
Christian Democrat: “I believe that protecting the earth is not just a political issue but a moral and even a religious issue. In my view, it would be a sin to destroy or degrade God’s creation. The Bible tells us that God gave us dominion over the earth. But if we are to be the stewards of creation, that implies that we are to be responsible stewards. We are to care for the earth in God’s stead. That’s why the Pope, Christians in the evangelical environmental movement, and people of all faiths have spoken so strongly about protecting the earth God has blessed us with.”
Secular Democrat: “I’ve never understood why protecting the environment has become a Democrat vs. Republican issue, or a liberal vs. conservative issue. Preserving our resources and keeping the earth healthy should be the concern of all of us. For many, this is a moral and even a religious issue—the protection of God’s creation. That’s why the Pope, the Christian evangelical environmental movement, and people of all faiths have spoken so strongly about protecting the earth. America has 5% of the world’s population but consumes 20% of its energy. The world is looking to us for leadership.”
On poverty or income inequality:
Christian Democrat: “America is a nation of fairness and equality. And we are also a nation of morality and faith. My faith teaches me that we have a moral obligation to help people in poverty. Jesus said that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do for Him. We will be judged by how we treat the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged. The Gospel of Luke tells us, “The person who has two coats must share with the one who doesn’t have any, and the person who has food must do the same.” And there are many other Bible verses I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with. And it’s not just the Christian religion that believes this; helping the poor is a tenet of every major religion on earth.
“So what does that mean in the world of politics? For one thing, it means that if Republicans cut taxes for the rich, they shouldn’t cut food stamps for poor. If conservatives want to eliminate the inheritance tax from millionaires, they shouldn’t also eliminate health care for people struggling to afford it. And if Republicans want to give tax breaks to America’s largest corporations, they should also give a raise to minimum-wage workers. That’s only right. It’s only fair.
“As Americans, we can’t let our hearts be hardened by the rhetoric of conservatives. Our nation’s values, and our faith, call on us to be fair and to do right by those who have the least.”
Secular Democrat: “The issue of income inequality isn’t just a political or economic issue. For many, it’s a moral and even religious issue. It’s about the American values of fairness and equality. And it’s about the moral and religious value of helping people in need, which is a teaching of every major religion on earth.
“As Americans, we have to stay true to those values. We are a nation that looks after our own. In America, we don’t cut taxes for the rich and then cut food stamps for the poor, as Republicans have tried to do. That’s not right. Those aren’t the values of a great and moral nation. We can’t let conservatives try to eliminate the inheritance tax for millionaires, and then take away health care for people struggling to afford it. We can’t give tax breaks to the world’s biggest corporations but then refuse to give raises to their minimum-wage workers. It’s not right, it’s not fair, it’s not American, and it certainly isn’t moral.
“I agree with Pope Francis when he says, ‘To live charitably means not looking out for our own interests, but carrying the burdens of the weakest and poorest among us.'”