The Democratic presidential candidates have an extremely daunting task in front of them in 2020. In order to win the election, whoever the candidate is must come up with a platform that can counter balance the powerful Republican voting bloc that is activated by a deeply conservative Christian message. This is a message that often contains but is not limited to a mix of any of the following: marriage as only between men and women, purely binary concepts of sexuality and gender, abortion regarded as an act of murder regardless of the situation and a belief that “progressive values” are attacks on (Christian) faith.
On the surface, the goal looks simple: find a way to appeal to this bloc on a partial or maybe a “tolerable” basis to attract a few voters to the progressive side. But it is impossible for modern progressive Democrats to beat the Republican Party on their own turf, conservatives are much too well entrenched at this point. What the Democrats need to do is draw conservative faith communities into an entirely new space where they can feel equally heard and counted as part of the American experiment which actually thrives on divergent views. Taking a cue from the politics of economics and race, Democrats could benefit from adopting the position of Religious Equity. By crafting a platform that includes Religious Equity, the 2020 candidates have the opportunity to get away from the “either/or” language that currently plagues the political discourse around faith. This platform would not seek a middle ground but, like other forms of social equity, it would seek a balanced social environment where faith (or no faith) can thrive regardless of politics. Candidates must be able to convince conservative communities of faith that even if they don’t hold the same religious convictions, progressives are not against them. This is the real challenge.
Too often Democrats are perceived as expressing their personal faith views with little commitment to bringing any kind of faith with them into the political arena. Granted, this is the way our government is supposed to work. But judging from the success of the Republican Party Platform, a tacit expression of the separation of church and state is not what motivates conservative voters. Indeed, recent Republican candidates have managed to thread the needle in a clever way. Instead of activating their personal religious views as the impulse behind policy (with the notable exception of people like Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo and Michelle Bachman) they have secured their following by activating policy as a public reassurance to conservative religious voters whether they hold those views or not. This is how a twice divorced, known misogynist with a history of cultivating even the decision making and powerful women in his orbit as ornaments can be seen as “pro woman.” It would be disingenuous of him to say that his religious convictions are what have compelled him to appoint judges who are poised to undo Roe v Wade, but instead he puts his policy of judge appointment up as proof of his “cred” with the Christian conservatives. His personal religious convictions never really come into the picture only his willingness to be the representative of those values does. This strategy of leading with conservative policy puts the Republican candidate on the same footing as the voter and draws a closer and more intimate alliance between the two even though it is mereley a power grab and not necessarily proof of any sincerely held values. It is the Republican version of identity politics and it works.
Religious Equity moves outside of identity politics. In this framework, there is recognition of the vast difference and divergence of religious belief in this nation. It does not prioritize one expression over another and it does not leave the candidate as the standard bearer of a unique faith perspective. Religious Equity recognizes that in order to live out the promise of the Constitution, all religious convictions (including the right to have no religion at all) must be protected by political leaders regardless of their personal identity. “Religious Liberty” has become code for protecting Christian rights. Religious Equity can become the definition of providing the opportunity for multiple (even conflicting) perspectives on faith and non-faith to co-exist. Religious Equity is “both/and” as opposed to “either/or.” Most importantly, Religious Equity is not indecisive. Instead, it functions on a higher level in the conversation, putting a fine point in modern language on how we affirm the separation of church and state. Religious Equity gives current relevance to the principles of the US Constitution and specifically the Bill of Rights. Religious Equity seeks to prioritize the government’s role as protector of the systems that contain an inherent right of human dignity to hold and practice individual religious expression. Religious Equity firmly establishes why and how the government cannot be a champion for one faith expression over another but an enabler of all.
Regardless of who the Democratic Party candidate is, anyone who wants to dislodge the current toxic Republican leadership must strike the right tone and language with messaging about faith. They cannot ignore this conversation or take a casual, cursory or even traditional approach to how they address faith. The candidates cannot rely on the typical tropes of separation of church and state. They must find new and exciting ways to draw in progressives and conservatives alike; Atheist or Orthodox; religious zealots and religious “nones.” The sweet spot that progressives need in order to counter the divisive narrative offered by staunch religious conservatives in the political arena could be Religious Equity. The question is, who among the Democrats is willing to put such a bold message out into the world?