You wouldn’t be alone in associating religion with the Republican Party and secularism with the Democratic Party. Over the last several decades, the rise of the Religious Right has cemented the fact that the Republican Party is dominated by white evangelicals inserting religious views into the party platform. Today, that sentiment is only reinforced as Republican candidates infuse Christianity into their campaign strategy. At Republican rallies this year, we’ve witnessed praise music, prayer, and other practices typically associated with religious worship. These religious practices at campaign events aren’t superfluous either, as Republican candidates call to end the separation between church and state and declare the United States a Christian nation. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, has struggled with religion due to the diverse religious and non-religious portions of its membership. In an effort to not alienate voters, Democrats have avoided religious rhetoric, often joined by criticism that they aren’t doing enough outreach to religious voters.
However, that appears to be changing. During the 2020 election, a significant number of Democrats engaged in religious outreach. During the primary campaign, then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg routinely referenced his faith to demonstrate that Democrats can be religious too. In one debate, Buttigieg employed a religious offensive against the Republican Party for hypocrisy between its platform and profession of Christianity. Other presidential hopefuls like Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren and then-Senator Kamala Harris also utilized religious rhetoric, speaking about their connection to G-d and specifically Christianity. President Joe Biden worked on extensive outreach to white Catholic and white evangelical voters, reducing former President Donald Trump’s performance among those groups enough to help solidify his victory.
Religion also made an appearance with both Democratic candidates for the two seats in the 2020-2021 U.S. Senate elections in Georgia. Senators Warnock and Ossoff’s election was a pivotal moment for the Democratic Party, securing a majority in the Senate. The infusion of his progressive views and background as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King preached, was a key factor in Senator Raphael Warnock’s victory. Although more hesitant to mention religion during the campaign, Senator Jon Ossoff referenced the Jewish values that informed his political views and became the first Jewish candidate to win statewide office in the South since 1974.
Additionally, we’re witnessing candidates in the 2022 midterm elections build off the religious momentum over the last several years. Warnock has made religion a central message of his reelection campaign, emphasizing the joint nature of devotion to faith and commitment to social justice. His messaging routinely references his religious work and how it informs his political views. Just like it delivered him for his initial election, Warnock is hoping Georgia voters will be drawn to his religious fervor.
Also in Georgia, the Democratic candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams, uses religion, but in a different way. As abortion becomes a pressing issue in all elections after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Abrams has discussed the role her faith has played in shaping her views on the subject. She’s openly discussed how her upbringing by Methodist preachers informed her initial stance against abortion, but she’s since changed her beliefs after viewing it as a health issue, not a moral one. Her approach to abortion opens a new vantage point for Democrats to reach voters who may be personally opposed to abortion, but are hesitant to attempts throughout the country to reduce access to it.
In Pennsylvania, Attorney General Josh Shapiro is running for governor openly as a Jew and refusing to cede religious voters to his opponent, Doug Mastriano, a state senator. Shapiro has used his devout faith to reach out to religious voters, especially Black Protestants in the state by attending worship services and speaking from the pulpit. He’s routinely referenced his faith during campaign events, hoping that some voters who typically vote Republican on religious grounds consider switching. Among other Democratic candidates who employ religious rhetoric, he’s especially notable for attacking Christian nationalism as an assault on religious liberty, especially for religious minorities.
Although religion may appear to be a new winning strategy for Democrats, it isn’t risk-free. In the last two decades, Democrats themselves have become less religious in their membership. This isn’t to say that non-religious Democrats would vote Republican, but it does risk alienation and low voter turnout. These candidates are wagering that religious rhetoric will either deliver more voters or drive voters away from Republicans, but the threat of alienation will always be present for a party as religiously diverse as the Democratic Party. This isn’t to argue that Democrats who reference religion will lose (we’ve seen that’s not always the case), but to point out there’s a reason why Democrats have been cautious about religious rhetoric in the past. Even if elected, the division in the Democratic Party between the religious and non-religious suggests that while religious rhetoric may contribute to electoral victory, it doesn’t necessarily translate to religious influence in policymaking.
This column is not an endorsement of religion as a political tool for Democrats or Republicans. The question of religion’s role in politics is separate from my observations of the trends in the Democratic Party. The last few years are a demonstration that Democrats can successfully utilize religion as an outreach method on the campaign trail. Although religion may still be tied heavily to the Republican Party, we’re beginning to see pushback from the Democratic Party and a potential shift in the way that religion operates in the political sphere.
Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.