Members Only | June 5, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Erasing Champions of Religious Freedom

The truth is in plain sight.

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One of the habits of the Washington press corps is equalizing the parties so their differences are not apparent. The Republican Party is a vertical organization whose members are inherently deferential to party authority. The Democratic Party is more horizontal. Arrangements of power are negotiated among competing factions. For this reason, the Republicans always come off as forceful and more disciplined in their messaging. For this reason, the Democrats always comes off as indecisive and soft.

Dan Patrick says “the left” is trying to kick God out. He hasn’t been watching the same protests you’ve been watching.

That the Democrats sound this way is frustrating to some liberals and progressives— and, these days, a few conservative former Republicans demanding a stronger reaction to an authoritarian president. What these critics don’t see is something journalistic balance prevents them from seeing. The Democrats are the bigger tent, much bigger in the age of Donald Trump. Their messaging may sound wishy-washy, but their power speaks for itself. The GOP, meanwhile, sounds powerful no matter how weak it is.

“Bothsiderism,” as journalistic balance is sometimes called, affects the electorate’s understanding of the role of religion in the parties, too. White evangelical Christians do not constitute the whole of the Republican Party. (Mormons and traditional white Catholics are also important.) But white evangelical Christians, especially in the age of Donald Trump, are so influential that the Republicans, when they talk about religion, talk about religion as if they were the party of twice-born Christianity. Indeed, there’s very little daylight in today’s GOP between ultra-orthodox Christian faith and politics.

A consequence of this seamless merger is the ability among Republicans to portray the Democrats as opposing religion as much as they oppose Republican politics. They can portray the Democrats, moreover, as as being so anti-religious their efforts to combat racism and other forms of institutional prejudice are about cynical politics, not morality. Consider what Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told Fox News this week. The answer to systemic racism wasn’t policy, he said, but “loving God,” but that’s hard to do when “we’ve been working really hard, particularly on the left, to kick God out.”

Hit the tip jar!

More on that in a moment.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, is as religiously diverse as it is racially and economically diverse. The party also boasts a bloc of evangelical Christians, but they are black and Latinx. Jews vote Democratic by huge margins. So do liberal (white) and nonwhite Catholics. The parties tend to split mainline Protestants—Episcopalian, Methodists, Presbyterians, and so on—though I’d guess they lean Democratic these days. When the Democrats talk about religion, they talk about religion with all this diversity in mind, and as a consequence, they sound less forceful than Republicans.

The party is more liberal than the GOP, obviously, and being liberal means it makes room for a spectrum of religious views, including quite conservative ones. For this reason, the Democrats tend to focus on, when they talk about religion publicly, less on religious identity and more on universal principles applicable to public affairs that all the world’s religions have in common. There’s less emphasis on loving God due to the variety of ways of imaging what God is. And anyway, what’s loving God got to do with exercising faith in public life? There is more emphasis, however, on loving each other.

They are marching to exercise their religion, but you wouldn’t know it. They are largely invisible in press corps reporting.

The loving-each-other part, or the Golden Rule, is key to understanding the role of religion in each of the parties, and it’s key to understanding why bothsiderism distorts political reality and thus undermines citizen participation in American democracy. Fact is, the massive public protests demanding justice for the murder of George Floyd have featured dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of members of the clergy from an array of religions. They are marching for equality. They are marching for peace and the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings. They are marching to exercise their religion, but you wouldn’t know it. They are largely invisible in press corps reporting.

There’s no shortage, however, indeed there’s a glut, of reporting on the president’s pandering to white evangelical Christians. That’s understandable given its importance to his reelection (and given how ironic it seems that people who hated Bill Clinton for his infidelity love a world-class philanderer like Donald Trump). But whitewashing religious experience from the Democratic Party inadvertently gives the impression that only Republicans care about religion in public life, especially religious freedom.

Bothsiderism ends up favoring the Republicans politically by making them appear to be champions of religious freedom while the Democrats appear to be champions of secularism as if religious freedom and secularism were oppositional. They are not. The Democrats do champion secularism, of course, but not to “kick God out” of the country, as Dan Patrick and other evangelicals would have it. It’s to protect religion.

It’s to make space in public life for all religions to compete in our national political discourse and in the “marketplace of ideas.” Patrick’s accusation, in fact, is a perversion of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. It privileges one sect of one religious tradition above all others, but you might not know that by reading the Times.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

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