What Happened to Religious Progressives?
Democrats’ obscure language and moral relativism is a dead end. They should get back to a politics of the common good.
Is it any wonder that the Democratic Party’s brand is in the toilet these days? Voters don’t have a clue what Democrats are talking about half the time but sense that it has little to do with them or their values.
Much of modern progressive-left discourse sounds like a dreary small group discussion in sociology class. “Systemic problem this” and “structural change that” with no clarity whatsoever about what is being discussed, why it matters, and why anyone should care. Contemporary progressive language often seems designed to alienate and confuse people rather than find shared priorities and connections across disparate groups.
Fortunately, the antidote to this intellectual obscurity and moral relativism is right within Democrats’ grasp: the universal values and teachings of Judaism and Christianity that underpin the belief systems of most regular Democratic voters.
Although not as intensely religious as Republicans, more than 7 in 10 Democrats report that religion is important in their lives, with nearly half saying religion is "very important" to them. More than half of Democrats also report that they believe in God and are “absolutely certain” in their belief, along with another one-fifth who are “fairly certain” about their belief in God, according to Pew’s big religious landscape study in all 50 states conducted a few years ago.
Looking at contemporary political debates, you’d be forgiven for not finding any evidence of this religious influence among Democrats except a few ham-fisted scriptural quotations or exhortations to support a moral budget every once and a while.
President Biden, only the second Catholic president in America’s history, occasionally references how important his Catholic faith is to him personally and how it shapes the policies and decisions he makes. Yet, little more than half of Americans even know he’s Catholic, and only a quarter say the President is very religious despite his regular mass attendance. Same with Speaker Nancy Pelosi who describes herself as a “devout Catholic” who grew up heavily influenced by the Catholic schools and community of her Baltimore youth:
“From a very early age, my brothers and I were taught to be compassionate and to be aware of the world around us…”
Central to her childhood, she says, was her Italian-American family’s Roman Catholic faith. Her family - Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., the congressman and mayor, wife Annunciata, and their five children - attended Mass at St. Leo the Great. Nancy, the youngest and the only girl, was taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame at the Institute of Notre Dame. Her mother dreamed that she would follow them into religious life.
Understandably, Americans don’t want religious lectures from their political leaders—and most political leaders don’t want to grandstand about their faith or belief systems. We are a pluralistic nation with people from all religious backgrounds and faith traditions, and many with no religious affiliation at all.
According to Pew’s data, Americans draw ideas about what is right and wrong in the world from several sources—religion among them for one-third of Americans, along with common sense (45 percent), philosophy (11 percent), and science (9 percent).
American values rightly emerge from a nice blend of all these sources.
But rather than listen to another strange Democratic speech on systemic inequality or a 10-point plan about a complicated new social policy that few people understand, it would be nice occasionally if religious Democrats just said: “We believe everyone is equal in the eyes of God and under our Constitution. Our policies are motivated by a desire to secure the common good for the entire nation and equal dignity and rights for all people.”
What would a Democratic politics motivated by concern for the common good look like? As Ruy Teixeira and I outlined way back in 2006 in a report for The American Prospect entitled, “The Politics of Definition”:
Securing the common good means putting the public interest above narrow self-interest and group demands; working to achieve social and economic conditions that benefit everyone; promoting a personal, governmental and corporate ethic of responsibility and service to others; creating a more open and honest governmental structure that relies upon an engaged and participatory citizenry; and doing more to meet our common responsibilities to aid the disadvantaged, protect our natural resources, and provide opportunities rather than burdens for future generations...
A primary goal of the government in this approach is to ensure basic fairness and opportunity: the civil, legal, and economic arrangements necessary to ensure every American has a real shot at his or her dreams. Common-good progressivism does not guarantee that everybody will be the same, think the same, or get the same material benefits in life; it simply means that people should start from a level playing field and have a reasonable chance at achieving success…
Internationally, common-good progressivism focuses on new and revitalized global leadership grounded in the integrated use of military, economic, and diplomatic power; the just use of force; global engagement; new institutions and networks to deal with intractable problems; and global equity. As in past battles against fascism and totalitarianism, common-good progressives today seek to fight global extremism by using a comprehensive national-security strategy that employs all our strengths for strategic and moral advantage. This requires true leadership and global cooperation rather than the dominant “my-way-or-the-highway” mentality…
Progressives should not forget that the common good is a powerful theme in the social teachings of many major faith traditions—Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, in particular, and in moderate evangelical and other denominations as well. The principle of the common good is drawn upon in these faiths to guide people towards more thoughtful consideration of their own actions in light of others; to compel political leaders and policymakers to consider the needs of the entire society; and to check unrestrained individualism that frequently erodes community sensibilities and values.
The goal of the common good in both the secular and faith traditions is a more balanced and considerate populace that seeks to provide the social and economic conditions necessary for all people to lead meaningful and dignified lives.
These common good values, in turn, underlie Democrats’ efforts to advance affordable health care, support for the poor, family and environmental policies, and public investments. If Democrats lead with consensus values like these—religious or otherwise—then specific policies and messages will flow more naturally and persuasively for voters.
This approach might not be to everyone’s taste, and there are secular humanist versions of these same values that are equally powerful to convey. The main point is that a commitment to the common good helps to express a clear values system that many religious Americans and others can relate to much more easily than the academic concepts and theories that dominate policy debates in contemporary Democratic circles.
Religious progressives therefore can help Democrats get back in touch with real people who hold clear moral values shaped by historically powerful belief systems.
(Editor’s note: The Liberal Patriot will be back with posts next week. Enjoy your families and down time this Thanksgiving.)