There are many voters within the Party who don’t want to see it give up ground on progressive issues like reproductive rights. There are also many who believe that religion is a private matter that should be separated from politics, and that publicly discussing it alienates religious minorities and non-religious voters.
On a Tuesday afternoon this past summer, Doug Pagitt, a fifty-three-year-old pastor in a blue straw hat and glasses, stood in a conference room at the Democratic Congressional Committee’s office in Washington, D.C., laying out sandwiches. Pagitt was preparing to lead a training session for Democratic members of Congress on how to speak to evangelicals. A table was littered with blue-and-orange lapel pins reading “Vote Common Good,” the name of an organization that Pagitt launched last year to make the religious left more visible. “We want people to know that it exists, and they can join it,” he said. Last year, the group’s members spent a month travelling the country in a tour bus, campaigning for roughly forty progressive candidates on their religious message, but this was their first time speaking to politicians in Washington. Five members of the group took seats around the conference table, some wearing blazers and sensible sandals. Pagitt generally projects an air of ease, but this afternoon he was anxious. “Today is pretty much a beta test,” he told me.
A few minutes later, Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Ohio who, at seventy-three, is the longest-serving woman in the House of Representatives, arrived wearing a sea-foam jacket. Soon after, Representative Katherine Clark, from Massachusetts, and Ted Lieu, from California, walked in, followed by a half-dozen staff members. Robb Ryerse, a self-described former fundamentalist pastor and the political director of Vote Common Good, opened the meeting with a tip. “Trying to memorize John 3:16 in the car on your way to the event and then quote that is probably not the best way to connect with faith-based voters,” he said. He had seen a candidate try this trick on the way to a rally in Kansas and then struggle to remember the phrase onstage.
The exodus of religious voters from the Democratic Party over the past several decades is typically explained by the culture wars, most notably over abortion. As the historian of religion Randall Balmer notes in his book “Thy Kingdom Come,” in the sixties and seventies, the Democratic Party had a large Catholic contingent and mostly opposed abortion. By contrast, many prominent Republicans—including Nelson Rockefeller; Ronald Reagan, during his time as the governor of California; and Harry Blackmun, the Supreme Court Justice who wrote the opinion in Roe v. Wade—affirmed and expanded abortion rights. But, beginning in the early seventies, evangelical preachers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson worked with Republican strategists to press the Party to more vigorously oppose abortion. At the same time, the second-wave feminist movement pushed the Democratic Party to defend women’s reproductive rights. As a result, pro-life Democrats, most notably religious voters, began defecting from the Party.
Pagitt believes that this history is overly simplistic. He points out that a large percentage of Democratic voters—sixty-seven per cent, according to a Pew poll from 2018—still claim a religious affiliation. He believes that many moderate evangelicals would be happy to vote for Democrats, but that the Party often overlooks them during campaigns. In 2008, Barack Obama courted evangelicals, along with Catholics, mainstream Protestants, and Jewish voters, by asking religious leaders to appear as campaign surrogates and to take part in a regular conference call. Pagitt worked on behalf of the campaign, approaching conservative leaders and calling evangelicals who had voted for George W. Bush in 2004. “It wasn’t just me; they kept calling hundreds of leaders and asking if we could spare one more weekend,” Pagitt said. Obama succeeded in taking a large number of white evangelical and Catholic Bush voters.
But, in 2016, Hillary Clinton failed to woo these voters: between 2008 and 2016, the percentage of people who voted for the Democratic Presidential candidate declined among voters in every religious affiliation, and the dropoff was especially sharp among evangelicals. Pagitt pointed out that, though Clinton is a devout Methodist and received daily devotional readings during the campaign, she almost never spoke about her faith in public. “I don’t even know what her favorite Bible passage was,” he said. “I thought, Well, her polling numbers must tell her she doesn’t need religious voters.”