Among the Believers: Democrats, Republicans, and Religion

By Janna Nelson

In recent decades, the Republican Party has come to be seen as the “religious” party – the one promoting the language of faith and the notion that religious beliefs should guide voters’ decision making. But the voters the Republicans are addressing are overwhelmingly white and Christian. During this month of April 2020, when the major holidays of Passover, Easter, and the first week of Ramadan all take place, it’s worth examining the more inclusive Democratic engagement of faith and politics.  

A recent Pew survey of religious affiliation (https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/) reveals that the Republican Party really does not deserve to be called the religious party. Religious Democrats may garner less attention than their counterparts on the right, but they are a large presence, nonetheless. It’s just that the diversity of religious/spiritual beliefs/practices among Democrats can distract from the total picture:

  • Democrats are winning the support of a substantial minority of Christian voters, while winning large majorities among unaffiliated and non-Christian religious voters. 
  • Democrats claim an overwhelming majority of historically black Protestant denominations, as well as 40 percent of mainline Protestants.
  • Democrats have the support of a majority of America’s voters from non-Christian religious traditions like Buddhism (69 percent), Islam (62 percent) and Hinduism (61 percent). 
  • Republicans dominate only among Evangelical Protestants (56 percent) and Mormons (70 percent).

Republicans are increasingly identified with a fundamentalist strain within American religion and the Trump administration’s bond with white evangelicals. This gives them an advantage of unity on many issues, such as reproductive choice and LGBTQ rights. Progressives – whether religious or nonreligious – do not share most of these positions.

My father, a Southern Baptist missionary, was a strong supporter of separation of church and state, as religious beliefs are practiced in the ways we take care of one another. He would say that allowing the government to institutionalize religion in any way is not required for believers to practice their faith – and what if the approved religion differs from your own? 

In Dad’s view, shared with me before his death, the Republicans were increasingly focused on what he described as sins of the flesh, having to do with controlling people’s sexuality, rather than sins of the soul – sins of poverty, racism, war, and greed. As we go out and engage with the world, we all need to bring messages of connection and hope and encouragement. We must not be afraid to share with those of different faiths the values and ideals that motivate and inspire us to create better structures for taking care of ourselves and this beautiful Earth that makes life possible.