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USA: The Democrats’ Religion Problem vs a strong commitment to civil rights

Saturday 1 July 2017, by siawi3

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/23/opinion/democrats-religion-jon-ossoff.html?mcubz=2&_r=0


The Democrats’ Religion Problem

By DANIEL K. WILLIAMS

JUNE 23, 2017

Carrollton, Ga. — Jon Ossoff’s defeat in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District election on Tuesday wasn’t just a sign that Democrats may have a harder time winning in the Trump era than they had hoped. It is a symptom of a larger problem for the party — a generational and racial divide between a largely secular group of young, white party activists and an older electorate that is more religious and more socially conservative.

Put simply, outside of a few progressive districts, secular-minded young activists in the party are unable to win voters’ trust.

Mr. Ossoff, 30, represented this new wing of the party. He said almost nothing about his religious beliefs or the way in which his Jewish upbringing affected his political views — probably because, like many white, college-educated Democratic activists of his generation, religion didn’t shape his political beliefs.

Mr. Ossoff’s secularism would have surprised many American liberals of the 1950s and 1960s, who looked to the moral inspiration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, both of whom saw a religious imperative for social justice. The civil rights movement was grounded so thoroughly in the theology and culture of the African-American church that the historian David L. Chappell has called it a “religious revival.” And the economic views of New Deal and Great Society liberalism echoed the positions of mainline Protestant denominations and the social teachings of 20th-century Catholicism.

In the late 1960s, some white liberals — especially college-age baby boomers — began to adopt a secularized version of liberal Protestant values. Yet even then, the Democratic Party’s leaders retained a connection to those religious traditions, which allowed them to maintain their appeal to religious voters.

Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, the party’s leading antiwar candidates for the presidential nomination in 1968, were practicing Catholics who found inspiration in the church’s teachings. Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist deacon who regularly taught an adult Sunday school class during his 1976 campaign for president.

Jesse Jackson, who won several primaries in 1984 and 1988, was an ordained minister. Al Gore was a Southern Baptist who had attended divinity school. Bill Clinton had deep roots in the Southern Baptist tradition, despite his troubled relationship with some of the conservative leaders of his denomination during his presidency.

Hillary Clinton frequently cited her Methodist faith as a source of her values. And Barack Obama, despite a secular upbringing, learned to speak in the theological cadences of a Protestant Christian tradition while attending a progressive African-American church in Chicago.

Yet now younger, secular Democrats are attempting to separate their party’s progressive values from those religious traditions. Some may belong to a religious tradition or consider themselves to be spiritual people, but they are not able to speak the language of a communally based faith because it does not inform or shape their political views.

This has posed a problem at the polls, because most Democratic voters are not as secular as these activists might assume. While only 47 percent of white, college-educated Democrats identify as Christians, Christianity remains the faith of 81 percent of African-American Democrats and 76 percent of Latino Democrats.

The religious differences between generations are just as stark as the differences between racial groups. While 35 percent of millennials report having no religious affiliation, only 17 percent of baby boomers — and fewer than 11 percent of Americans born before 1945 — are religiously unaffiliated.

The party is thus split between a minority of young, educated, secular white activists and a larger group of African-Americans, Hispanics and older whites whose political values are closely tied to their faith. No wonder candidates like Mr. Ossoff struggled to connect with key blocs of the Democratic coalition.

And it’s also no wonder that the Democratic congressional leadership is still dominated by a graying generation of leaders; they are the only ones who can bridge the party’s religious divide. The median age of House Democratic representatives is now well over 60 — the highest in decades, and several years older than the median Republican age.

All four of Georgia’s Democratic representatives are 60 or older, and most have deep roots in the African-American Baptist tradition. If Mr. Ossoff had been elected to represent the Sixth District, he would have been over 30 years younger than the next-youngest member of the Georgia Democratic delegation, and he would have represented a very different set of cultural values.

What can Democrats do to bridge the divide between young, secular party activists and the rest of voters? Oddly, last year’s presidential run by Senator Bernie Sanders, a secular Jew, may suggest a way forward.

Mr. Sanders’s non-Christian background may have hurt him in the South; he did poorly among African-American voters, despite his consistent civil rights record. But he did what few other secular candidates have done: He won a sympathetic hearing from conservative evangelicals with a speech that gave a religious grounding for his economic views, complete with biblical citations. When Mr. Sanders spoke at Liberty University, he did not pretend to share evangelical Christians’ faith, but he showed respect for his audience’s religious tradition.

To do the same, secular Democrats need to study the religious language of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They need to take the time to learn the religious values of their audience. They need to be honest about their own secularity, but acknowledge their debt to the religious traditions that have shaped their progressive ideology.

Only through a willingness to ground their policy proposals in the religious values of prospective voters will they be able to convince people of faith that they are not a threat to their values but are instead an ally in a common cause.

Daniel K. Williams is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of “God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right.”

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Source: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2017/06/democrats-religion-problem-theyre-not-ones/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=Newsletter&utm_campaign=Best+of+Patheos&utm_content=57

The Democrats Have a Religion Problem. But They’re Not the Only Ones.

June 29, 2017

by Kristin Du Mez

So, you’ve probably heard by now: The Democrats have a religion problem.

Historian Daniel K. Williams certainly isn’t the first to make this case, but in light of Jon Ossoff’s defeat in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District last week, Williams thought it an opportune moment to consider anew the Democrats’ problem.

In a New York Times op-ed, Williams identifies “a generational and racial divide between a largely secular group of young, white party activists and an older electorate that is more religious and more socially conservative.” The problem, according to Williams, is that “outside of a few progressive districts, secular-minded young activists in the party are unable to win voters’ trust.” Case in point? Ossoff, a young, secular, college-educated white activist who went down in defeat.

Williams rightly points out that the Democratic party has a more religious pedigree than many today might appreciate. He points to Martin Luther King Jr. and Reinhold Neibuhr as two of the more prominent social justice activists inspired by deep faith commitments. Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson, Al Gore and Bill Clinton—all of these liberal politicians were practicing Christians, genuinely shaped by their respective religious traditions.

And then, of course, we have Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Despite copious rumors to the contrary, both are indeed committed Christians who can articulate, in eloquent terms, the many ways their faith shapes their personal and public life.

But, Williams argues, we now have “younger, secular Democrats” who are “attempting to separate their party’s progressive values from those religious traditions.” And this, according to Williams, “has posed a problem at the polls.” Why? It turns out “most Democratic voters are not as secular as these activists might assume”—particularly when looking at African American and Latino Democrats.

“The party is thus split between a minority of young, educated, secular white activists and a larger group of African-Americans, Hispanics and older whites whose political values are closely tied to their faith. No wonder candidates like Mr. Ossoff struggled to connect with key blocs of the Democratic coalition,” Williams asserts. (This may be some truth to this, but it does leave me wondering where a young, white, religious progressive like Rep. Joe Kennedy fits into this equation).

So, what can Democrats do to bridge the divide between young, secular party activists and the rest of the electorate?

Here’s where Williams starts to lose me.

According to Williams, Bernie Sanders offers a way forward. Yes, Bernie Sanders.
To his credit, Williams concedes that Sanders’ “non-Christian background” may have diminished his appeal in the South, particularly among African Americans.

But then he goes on to suggest that Sanders “did what few other secular candidates have done: He won a sympathetic hearing from conservative evangelicals with a speech that gave a religious grounding for his economic views, complete with biblical citations.” When speaking at Liberty University, Sanders didn’t pretend to share his audience’s faith, Williams explains, but he did show his respect for that faith.

And so, Williams concludes:

“To do the same, secular Democrats need to study the religious language of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They need to take the time to learn the religious values of their audience. They need to be honest about their own secularity, but acknowledge their debt to the religious traditions that have shaped their progressive ideology.”

“Only through a willingness to ground their policy proposals in the religious values of prospective voters will they be able to convince people of faith that they are not a threat to their values but are instead an ally in a common cause.”

This is all well and good.

Except that it seems to me that Williams is overlooking a few things.

Most glaringly, Hillary Clinton.

By Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA (Bernie Sanders & Hillary Clinton) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA (Bernie Sanders & Hillary Clinton) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Williams gives her a passing mention, placing her in the company of those old school, religiously inspired liberals. But then Clinton disappears from the narrative. Puzzlingly, it is Bernie Sanders, the most secular presidential candidate we’ve had in recent memory, who offers the way forward.

Yet, as Williams himself notes, Clinton “frequently cited her Methodist faith as a source of her values.” And she did more than that. Theologically literate, steeped in Bible knowledge (not to mention fluent in her books of the Bible), Clinton was more publicly and authentically religious, in word and deed, than her Republican opponent—by a long shot.

To be sure, she could have done more to appeal to religious voters—most especially, to white evangelicals.

She could have given a more thoughtful defense of her pro-choice position, explaining how, as a person of faith, she believed that access to abortion was a necessary (if lamentable?) right worth protecting. (She may not have won many religious conservatives to her side, but that position didn’t seem to stand in Sanders’ way, if Williams is correct.)

She could have tackled the question of religious liberty head-on. Rather than allowing her opponents to craft a narrative based on a quote taken out of context “proving” she had declared “war on religious Americans,” she could have articulated a more nuanced vision of religious pluralism balancing religious freedom and civil rights.

She could have accepted that invitation to speak at the University of Notre Dame.

In short, she could have made a stronger play for “values voters” of all stripes. (Perhaps she believed that Donald Trump’s character issues would do the job for her; hard to blame her for that miscalculation.)

And yet.

Even as I recount these missteps—mistakes that materialize quite clearly in hindsight—I fear that this synopsis misses the real “religion problem” facing Democrats.

And it’s not only Democrats who should be concerned.

Because although Clinton could have done more to address the hopes and fears of faith voters—of conservative, white, evangelical faith voters, to be precise—it is worth returning to the point Williams glosses over: Hillary Clinton spoke regularly, and at length, about her Christian faith.

While Clinton was the first to admit she’s not a natural politician, she was visibly most at ease on the campaign trail when in the company of African American Christians.

Far from ignoring religion, she was explicit about how her vision for the common good—“stronger together,” if you will—was rooted in her Christian faith, and shaped by her Methodist upbringing.

Despite claims to the contrary, the Democratic Party didn’t present a secular front. If you tuned into the Democratic National Convention, you might have mistaken the gathering for a religious revival.

Clinton’s social justice Christianity did resonate with some people of faith, particularly with African American and progressive Christians.

But it was ignored, ridiculed, or dismissed outright by a large swath of white Christians.Trump taking the oath of office This despite the fact that her Republican opponent struggled to master the unfamiliar language of faith, spoke irreverently about God, felt no need to ask for forgiveness, and trampled over any semblance of family values. Yet this “baby Christian” was embraced by a remarkable number of “faith voters.”

The problem, then, is not so much that Democrats can’t or won’t speak the language of faith. But rather, that that language fails to communicate across the political (and, yes, racial) divide. Biblical teachings, theological commitments, and religious values have become so enmeshed with party politics that it has become impossible to speak a language of faith that transcends politics, and, perhaps ultimately, to communicate religious truths within as well as across political factions.

When politics trumps faith, the prophetic voice is silenced. Or rebuffed. Or ignored. And without the prophetic, religion itself becomes something else entirely.

This is the secularization that Christians ought to fear.

For Christians who lament the decline of religion in public life, the danger posed by any external threat pales in comparison to the threat looming within. By politicizing Christianity to such an extent, Christians have lost the ability to speak of faith on its own terms, to critique what ought to be critiqued both within and beyond their communities of faith, to challenge one another to be more faithful, and, ultimately, to bear witness to the faith they claim to hold dear. In doing so, they have inadvertently hastened the secularization of public life, and quite possibly of their own belief systems as well.

**Although I quibble with Williams’ interpretation here, I highly recommend his God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, and Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade.

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Source: https://ourfuture.org/20170626/would-a-berniecrat-have-won-ossoffs-georgia-race

Would a Berniecrat Have Won Ossoff’s Georgia Race?

Richard Eskow

July 26, 2017
Campaign for America’s Future

Do you have to run like a Republican to win in a district like the Georgia 6th?

Photo: Jon Ossoff with a veiled young woman/ Facebook,

Reams of commentary have been written about the results of the recent special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Jon Ossoff lost the seat, which was left vacant by Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, to his Republican rival by a margin that was larger than expected.

It was the most expensive House race in history, with the two candidates spending a combined $50 million. Republican Karen Handel beat Ossoff by a 3.8 percent margin, winning 51.9 percent of the vote to Ossoff’s 48.1 percent.

Ossoff substantially outperformed the Democrats who had run against Price, who typically won by 20-point margins. But despite spending enormous sums on his campaign, he failed to match Hillary Clinton’s 1-point loss to Donald Trump in the same district in 2016.

A total of 259,488 votes were cast. Handel won with a margin of less than 10,000 votes – 9,702. That means a shift of only 9,703 votes would have changed the outcome. Remember that figure.

A Republican District?

Virtually all the commentary that has been written about this race was based on the assumption that this district is white, wealthier than average, and “a safe Republican seat.” Ossoff’s campaign appeared to share this assumption. Ossoff ran as a “Republican Lite,” demonizing government service and downplaying bread-and-butter Democratic issues.

Ossoff even talked about “bringing the government up to private-sector standards.” He presumably was not thinking of the “standards” that caused the BP oil spill or the Wall Street financial crisis of 2008.

But was his underlying assumption true? Do you have to run like a Republican to win in a district like the Georgia 6th?

Mining the Data

The Census Bureau publishes searchable data online for every congressional district, but very few commentators seem to have taken advantage of this free resource. The same seems to be true of the Democratic consultants who helped themselves to some of the $20 million in campaign funds Ossoff spent.

Here’s what they would have learned if they had:

82,355 households in the 6th earn less than the national average in yearly income.

It’s true that this is a wealthier-then-average district – but that’s an average. These households earn less than the national average of $51,000 a year.

The voters who live in these households were never told that the Democratic candidate would fight to increase their wages, give them better benefits, or do more to make the necessities of living more affordable. And Ossoff studiously avoided class or economic inequality, refusing to support tax increases even for the wealthiest Americans.

77,658 residents had no health insurance coverage at all.

That’s after the Affordable Care Act had been in effect for year. During the campaign, these voters were never told that healthcare is a basic human right, or that Medicare For All could provide them with the medical care they need. Instead, Ossoff said that he did not support single-payer healthcare.

81,376 voters are 65 years of age or older.

The Trumpcare bill Karen Handel supports slashes revenue for Medicare, laying the groundwork for deep cuts further down the road. The Medicaid cuts pushed by Trump and his fellow Republicans would eliminate a major source of funding for the nursing home care used by many seniors. And Trump’s budget would cut billions in funding from Social Security.

Ossoff could have run on strengthening Medicare’s funding and expanding Social Security to meet our nation’s retirement crisis. Instead, he chose to soft-pedal these issues, even though seniors are more likely than other eligible voters to show up at the polls on Election Day.

95,974 residents are African-American.

Despite the district’s large black population, Ossoff did very little outreach to black voters. He spent heavily on television advertising and very little on get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts in predominantly African-American communities. He did not discuss racism, either individual or structural.

African-American working people struggle with the same burdens as workers of other races, and black college graduates have been especially ill-served by our system of student indebtedness. His silence on these issues undoubtedly also affected turnout in this group.

96,154 residents are Hispanic/Latino.

Again, it appears Ossoff conducted very little outreach to this group. Hispanics struggle with wage inequality, access to medical care, and environmental concerns, while struggling with issues of bigotry and hatred that have been inflamed by the current president and his party.

88,230 people in this district are between the ages of 45 and 64.

Many of these Georgians will be severely harmed financially if “Trumpcare,” the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, becomes law. Many “Medicare for All” proposals, on the other hand, suggest a phased-in approach that begins by making Medicare available to people 55 and older; some include younger ages as well.

Ossoff opposed Medicare for All. He also opposed Trumpcare, but did not make it a centerpiece of his campaign. His healthcare comments were often rhetorically indistinguishable from that of many Republicans, a point he emphasized himself early in the campaign.

“Responsible leaders of both parties agree that no American should face financial ruin, suffer or die because they have a pre-existing condition,” Ossoff told an Atlanta newspaper early in the campaign.

Issues of wage stagnation have hit this age group heavily, but Ossoff did not run on raising wages or government investment in job growth.

131,586 people in the district are between the ages of 20 and 34.

Voters of all ages are struggling with the burden of student debt, but this age group has been hit especially hard. Total student debt in this country now exceeds $1.4 trillion, yet Ossoff did not make the issue a centerpiece of his campaign.

The debt issue has been made even worse for millennial college grads by the fact that they graduated into a weak job market. Ossoff could have campaigned on a platform of tuition-free higher education, combined with relief for student debt holders and a program for creating jobs and raising wages. And yet, despite the fact this this district includes many college graduates, he chose not to.

144,313 residents are foreign-born.

Ossoff did not emphasize immigrants’ rights or equality and social justice for ethnic and religious minorities. He did not speak out forcefully against Trump’s attempted Muslim ban or his demonization of Hispanics.

46,214 voting-age residents are disabled. Trump, together with his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill, is trying to slash Social Security disability. Trumpcare would have a devastating impact on disabled Americans.

63,123 residents work in educational services, health care, and social assistance.

29,736 are government workers. Another 9,238 work in public administration.

That’s 102,097 people whose jobs are on the cutting block when Republicans are in power. A strong progressive agenda, by contrast, would emphasize smart, targeted spending increases in these areas.

There are 130,472 housing units with mortgages in the district.

Since many of those mortgages are held by couples, means there are even more voters who write checks to a bank every month. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) protects their interests; a modern-day Glass Steagall Act, and a breakup of the biggest banks, would protect them even more.

More Than Numbers

What, if anything, does Ossoff’s loss mean for the Democratic Party going forward? While the answer is speculative by necessity, the answer is: It could mean quite a lot. Even in their worst years, the Democratic congressional candidate in this district has received 38 percent of the vote. That’s the Democrats’ foundation. What will get them from there to the finish line?

Remember, less than ten thousand votes would’ve made the difference for Ossoff. A campaign based on economic populism and a strong commitment to civil rights – that is, a “Berniecrat” campaign – could arguably have turned out many thousands of voters who stayed home this time around, while swaying others to the Democratic column.

The Ossoff campaign would have been wise to spend less on television buys and invest a lot more in doorbell-ringing and other forms of voter-to-voter outreach. That could have proved especially critical in communities of color and among workers who are struggling economically.

Would this strategy have succeeded in the Ossoff race? We can’t know, of course. But we do know this: what the Democrats have been doing has failed.

That’s why insiders and party activists must ignore the voices of those who created this mess in the first place. That includes Rahm Emmanuel and Bruce Reed, who argued recently that Trump hatred alone will lift the party to victory in 2018.

“Democrats don’t need to spend the next year navel-gazing over how to motivate their base,” they sneer. “Navel-gazing” is apparently a snarky term for any analysis that doesn’t promote your personal interests.

The party has lost more than 900 state legislature seats since 2009, according to some measures. It has lost both houses of Congress, along with two thirds of statehouses and two thirds of governorships. It has remained largely silent and impotent as Republicans rig the game in their favor through gerrymandering and voter suppression.

Something needs to change. The party must turn sharply left on both economic and social issues if it is to have a chance of regaining Congress in the future. If it does that, it will also be taking a stand on principle for the first time in a generation. The value of political courage is something that numbers alone can’t measure.