Kerry and Religion

Steve Waldman’s Slate piece, “John Kerry’s dubious approach to religion,” is creating a stir.

As you may already know, one of America’s two political parties is extremely religious. Sixty-one percent of this party’s voters say they pray daily or more often. An astounding 92 percent of them believe in life after death. And there’s a hard-core subgroup in this party of super-religious Christian zealots. Very conservative on gay marriage, half of the members of this subgroup believe Bush uses too little religious rhetoric, and 51 percent of them believe God gave Israel to the Jews and that its existence fulfills the prophecy about the second coming of Jesus.

Liberals could read these statistics and sneer about “those silly Republicans” were it not for the fact that it’s the Democrats who hold these beliefs. And the abovementioned ultrareligious subgroup is not the so-called “Religious Right” but rather the so-called “African-Americans.”

If you’re surprised it’s probably because we’ve been hearing a lot about the religion differences between the parties. Republicans are the party of the faithful and Democrats the party of secularists, goes the C.W. There is, according to Time magazine, a “Religion Gap.” That’s not exactly right, however. What exists is a church-attendance gap, not a religion gap or a “God gulf.” More Republicans do indeed go to church regularly, and the most secular folks are more likely to be Democrats. Both tendencies have, in fact, become more pronounced in recent years. But in general, most Republicans and most Democrats are pretty religious. The stark differences are at the extremes of each party, and, as so often is the case, the big question is whether the extremes will define the party as a whole. Most Republicans aren’t conservative fundamentalists, although it sometimes seems that way given the proclivities of the leadership. And the Democrats have their own version of that same dilemma, and it’s affecting the most important arena there is—this year’s presidential race: Will Kerry’s Democrats act like the Party of Secularists even if they aren’t?


More likely, the Kerry campaign suffers from the fact that while most Democrats are religious, many liberal Democratic activists are not. Perhaps the real problem with the paucity of African-Americans at senior levels of the Kerry campaign is not that he doesn’t understand racial language but that—forgive the gross stereotyping—the white aides tend to be more tone deaf about religion than the black ones.

There’s quite a bit more to the piece, which I commend to you. A line of particular note, though, is this one: “If Kerry’s really secular, he’s abnormal.”

Atrios is apoplectic.

Let’s see how these sound:

If Kerry’s really Muslim, he’s abnormal.

If Kerry’s really Jewish, he’s abnormal.

Yah, those sound great, and they’re just the same.

Yah, if Kerry were running for president of Pakistan or Israel, respectively.

Atrios actually makes Waldman’s case for him. Democratic activists are much more likely to be secular–indeed, hostile to religiousity–than their Republican counterparts. If they want to win on a national level, however, they have to be cognizant of the fact they are, indeed, abnormal. The word “abnormal” isn’t a slur here, merely a statement of fact. I’m abnormal in this sense, too. Indeed, as a secular anti-theist who usually votes Republican, I’m more abnormal than Atrios, who presumably votes Democrat.

Nick Confessore is right:

This piece . . . should be required reading for everyone on John Kerry’s campaign. I share the opinion of Waldman, Amy Sullivan (here), and others that Kerry’s unwillingness to reach out to religious constituencies in a meaningful and respectful way is one of this biggest strategic errors so far. It may well cost him the election.

The last two Democrats to win the presidency, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, wore their faith on their sleeve.

UPDATE: Bush gets it: WaPo – Churchgoers Get Direction From Bush Campaign

The Bush-Cheney reelection campaign has sent a detailed plan of action to religious volunteers across the country asking them to turn over church directories to the campaign, distribute issue guides in their churches and persuade their pastors to hold voter registration drives. Campaign officials said the instructions are part of an accelerating effort to mobilize President Bush’s base of religious supporters. They said the suggested activities are intended to help churchgoers rally support for Bush without violating tax rules that prohibit churches from engaging in partisan activity.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. chris says:

    Yeah, and Sullivan will be sure to say that it’s just another sign of Bush’s extremism that he reaches out to the “radical right” in order to get re-elected as another reason he can’t support Bush. Give me a break; when Kerry does it, it’s called “outreach” (assuming he will do it).

    Great article.

  2. I have to ask: what is an anti-theist? I have some deist leanings myself (I’m noncomittal, but still abnormal) and am just curious.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Robert: While I’m agnostic to the existence of God (falsification is rather difficult) I’m actually opposed to the idea of religion. While I can’t explicitly reject the existence of a higher being, I find the idea of an omnipotent tyrannt appaling and subservience to invisible wraiths degrading.

  4. James,

    Thanks for the explanation. I’m open to pretty much anyone’s beliefs as long as said beliefs don’t lead them to do me harm. As Jefferson said, “it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”.

    My own views are along those of a deist: God created the universe and gave us (along with whatever other beings might be out there) the ability to understand the universe to some extent, though infinity is out of our reach except as a mathematical concept. I don’t have a deist’s hostility to Christianity (like, say, Thomas Paine) and find the notion of Jesus, as depicted in the the Sermon on the Mount or the Prayer of St. Francis, quite pleasing. Now if we could only get people to actually live that way……

  5. Joseph Marshall says:

    The problem for Bush/Cheney is radically different (and much simpler) than the problem for John Kerry, and both are also different than the problem for Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

    For Bush/Cheney the matter is one of a straight lobbying quid-pro-quo: “I share your values, I think they should be imposed on everyone with the force of law, and I will use all the power at my command to do so. Please help me.” This is what permits George to make the remark which has been widely quoted that Neo-Pagan beliefs are “not a religion”.

    The high probability is that George, at least, can say so truthfully. I’m not sure about Dick one way or the other.

    Kerry, on the other hand, is a Catholic who is, to some degree, in conflict with at least some of the “official” values of his church. He cannot reach out honestly to other religions in the same way as Bush/Cheney since the Church considers most of them heterodox in doctrine, and he cannot fully reach out to those members of the Church with whom he has serious disagreements over Roe v. Wade.

    Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter had the simplest situation of all–a church affiliation and a religious attitude (Genuine, I am certain, in the case of Jimmy–maybe genuine, but certainly personally conflicted, in the case of Bill.) that was personal but not political: “I am like you, I believe in God. I try, and sometimes fail, to lead a religous life.”

    They are the only ones who could genuinely, I think, reach out to a broad spectrum of religious opinion in this country.

    But even then not to everyone. I am an American convert to Buddhism and no candidate I know could possibly say to me honestly that he shares my religious values. Now there are only about 250,000 of us, I should guess, in the entire country, so it is not as if reaching out to us is all that important politically.

    But I am here to point out to you, and to any candidate, that the word “religion” has many more meanings than even Christian or Deist Americans commonly assume.