Someone says it at least once every presidential election: The Democratic candidates need God, if not to save their souls, then to salvage their chances in the Midwest. Or the South, or whichever region the interlocutor of the day is using as a proxy for white and Christian. The Evangelical author Jim Wallis has written multiple books on the subject. Doug Pagitt, another Evangelical, tours the country encouraging liberals to get more comfortable with Jesus. “What we want you to do is like religious people enough that you can ask for their votes,” Pagitt recently told The New Yorker’s Eliza Griswold. “There are seventy million evangelicals. Moving fifteen percent of seventy million is a large number.”
On Wednesday, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni joined the choir. He reviewed the last debate transcript, he said, and found it lacking. “God came up only in throwaway phrases,” he complained. Senator Cory Booker earned a gold star for mentioning his Bible study, but that “was the closest the debate came to acknowledging the importance of faith in many people’s lives.” To Bruni, God’s relative absence from the debates is proof that Democrats risk losing religious Americans.
“Democrats would make it harder for Trump to vilify them as enemies of so-called traditional values if they talked a bit more about spirituality and religion — including, if applicable, their own,” he added. Not only does Bruni overstate the secularism of this year’s primary field, his optimism is misplaced. Recent political history doesn’t suggest that Democratic candidates will win major swing votes by leaning into religion. Even if they tried, they risk undermining the same principles of religious freedom under attack by the Trump White House.
Democrats aren’t strangers to triangulation — or to religion. When Nancy Pelosi calls her party a big tent, what she really means is that it welcomes conservative Christians like Representatives Henry Cuellar and Dan Lipinski. The party does not typically run abortion-hostile candidates in general elections, and Bruni is right to believe that Christians to Cuellar’s left should try to reclaim the political territory they’ve lost — but it’s not as if Democrats are resolutely secular. In July, nine appeared at a candidate forum hosted by the Reverend William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign. And like Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have both discussed their Christian beliefs in speeches to voters.
What, then, would they gain from discussing religion in more detail at the debates? Bruni suggests that an avowedly religious Democrat may have better luck deflecting right-wing attacks on their character. Barack Obama might disagree: His overt Christianity did not prevent conservative activists from inventing tales of Barack the jihadi sympathizer, or from attacking his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. There’s no reason to think that candidates would fare any better now — that an eloquent account of conversion would deter the right-wing or convince a critical number of conservative Protestants to switch sides.
Nonwhite people of faith already largely oppose Donald Trump, as a wide-ranging survey by the Public Religion Research Institute reinforced this week. But they aren’t the religious voters that Democrats theoretically need to persuade. Bruni seems to be referring instead to white Christians, a bloc that tends to be fanatically loyal to the Republican Party. In the same PRRI survey, 77 percent of white Evangelicals say they still back Trump. That’s four points lower than the percentage Trump won in 2016, and 44 percent also told PRRI that Trump could lose their support.
But that figure may not mean much. In 2016, white Evangelicals expressed skepticism about Trump only to rally around him by Election Day. Overall, they’ve demonstrated an extraordinary tolerance for Trump. They’ve ignored his adultery, his likely sexual assaults, and his corruption. Trump, in exchange, has given them the Supreme Court and vice-president of their dreams. It’s a fair deal. Consider, too, that white conservative Protestants still list immigration and terrorism as top areas of concern, and it looks even less likely that they’ll reject an expert fearmonger like Trump. With white Evangelicals, the odds don’t favor any Democratic nominee, no matter how Christian they say they are. To disavow the tenets of the Christian right is to disavow Christianity itself, in the eyes of most white Evangelicals. Against the forces of racial prejudice, misogyny, and Mammon-worship, a shared religious label can provide scant common ground.
Religious candidates ought to discuss their faith for its own sake, not because they think it will win them a handful of votes in the Midwest. But they should still mind certain dangers. This year’s primary field may be the most religiously diverse in the party’s history: Bernie Sanders is Jewish, Tulsi Gabbard is Hindu, and Marianne Williamson adheres to a home brew of New Age spirituality. But most candidates are still Christian. More God talk, in this case, quite specifically means more talk of the Christian God, and while that’s great news for Christians, it’s not as helpful to anyone else. Christians are still reliably the only candidates who can discuss their faith in public without alienating voters. A more pious field may only move the needle in one direction — toward Christianity — at the disadvantage of those who have no faith at all, or who belong to stigmatized faith traditions. The white Evangelical Never Trumpers who are allegedly up for grabs might not find Ilhan Omar so compelling.
Perhaps that’s why Bruni’s point feels unfinished. We are saturated with God talk. Nobody is starving for anything but a version of God less cruel and less authoritarian than the version Donald Trump worships. But it’s not always so easy to tell what the liberal God looks like. Most seem to skip over the part where Christ tells a would-be disciple that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. If there’s no talk of God, or of faith, that connects either to a deep conviction about how to best safeguard the common good, it’s pointless. Bruni mentions separation of church and state in passing, but it deserves more attention; the Trump administration is particularly hostile to it, and it is one clear way for anyone who is even vaguely on the left to distinguish themselves from the anti-democratic shift on the right. A democratic God who can’t defend free thought, who will not defend the poor and tear down the mighty, is worse than no God at all.