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Religion will play a role in the 2020 presidential race, but not in the way many typically think — or hope.
Here’s a typical view. The liberal columnist Frank Bruni recently wrote a column criticizing all the Democratic presidential candidates for not talking about religion.
That’s not smart, Bruni argues, because religion is so much a part of American life. Those Democratic candidates’ strategy cedes religion to the Republicans.
He quotes Mike McCurry, Bill Clinton’s former press secretary and now a seminary instructor, who calls this avoidance “such a misreading of what the political DNA of America is. We have had religion woven into our political structures and our political debate from the very beginning.”
Religious talk, in this view, can be a unifying force, a means of talking about moral behavior that highlights Trump’s immorality and hypocrisy, and counters partisanship.
There is good reason to think that both Bruni and McCurry are wrong, and that the gang of Democratic hopefuls knows what they are doing when they avoid the subject.
Let’s start by taking a more careful look at the link between religion and politics.
As Michele F. Margolis shows in her recent book, “Politics In The Pews”, religiosity (religious involvement and commitment) is part of peoples’ life cycles.
Religiosity is fluid, changing as a person’s life changes. In virtually all religions across the board regardless of how pious their families were, young adults become less attached to religion and less likely to attend religious services.
This changes as people get older and have children. They tend to return to the fold. But the key thing to understand is that at the very time they get less attached to their past, another kind of attachment that’s more stable happens.
And that is party identification — the elephant, or for that matter, donkey, in the room. The political party you identify with in young adulthood is typically the one you will identify with the rest of your life.
A conventional view about religiosity and politics is that people have a set of beliefs and then shop for parties and candidates that are consistent with these beliefs.
Margolis’ research shows that in today’s political context it’s the other way around. Your partisanship determines your religious attachment.
The weight of these two life cycle adventures vary by time and circumstances. At certain times, say America in the 1950s, religion was neither a visible nor contentious political issue.
Today, religion is an extraordinarily important political issue.
Margolis says, “The corresponding cleavage between religious Republicans and less religious Democrats is one of the most profound sociocultural political divisions in American politics today.”
Extreme social and political sorting. Distrust and denigration of people with opposing political beliefs.
Religious institutions are not just places to pray. They are places where social groups form. They talk about stuff, do stuff together and, considering America’s social and political polarization, share ideas with people who think the same way they do.
Believing that arguments about God or morality will be effective against Trump is wishful thinking.
Non-religious people, like so many Democratic voters, form social groups elsewhere. They are just as homogeneous. Like-minded Republican friends in church versus like-minded Democratic friends in lots of places, but not likely church.
“When other nonreligious identities, including partisan identities, are stronger?” Margolis says. “They are more likely to impact future religious decisions.”
That’s where we are as the 2020 presidential race gets hotter.
That means God talk will not transcend partisanship in the presidential race. It will further polarize. Republican voters are likely to view religious talk through their partisan lenses and interpret it accordingly.
At the same time, Democratic voters for good partisan-shaped reasons will look suspiciously on candidates who talk about their faith. (You can see this in some of the pushback against Bruni’s piece in the readers’ comments.)
With that in mind, here are four key facts about religion in the 2020 race.
First, forget about religious strategies that bring people together. Not this time, my friends. Religious campaigning will mobilize Republicans but have little effect on Democrats except to increase their distrust.
Second, you misunderstand conservatives who continue to support Donald Trump, particularly Evangelicals, if you view them as hypocrites.
How’s that framing working for you after dozens of pundits have pointed this out hundreds of times? At its roots this religious support is about partisanship and making religious attachments that reinforce these political beliefs. Pointing out moral inconsistencies will simply strengthen their beliefs.
Third, it’s not at all clear that even those precious, pivotal swing voters are swayed by the kinds of religious arguments that Bruni wants to hear.
It’s true that the president has lost some support because of his behavior, but it’s not clear at all whether those crucial Obama to Trump voters are affected by arguments about morality and piety.
Fourth, so far, the public’s attitudes toward impeachment have maintained this polarization pattern more than changed it. There has been an increase in the percentage of people who want to see impeachment go forward, but the main dynamic — the difference between Democratic and Republican voters and the remaining solid strength of Evangelical support — remains the same.
Look, I am not making any prediction here about the 2020 outcome, and I am definitely not making an argument against religion.
I am saying this: believing that arguments about God or morality will be effective against Trump is wishful thinking.
So Mike McCurry is right when he says that religion is part of America’s DNA. He just misunderstands how DNA works.
DNA is an intrinsic, important part of our bodies, but the impact of a person’s DNA is affected by a whole lot of other things. Intrinsic does not always mean powerful.
What’s true for DNA in human biology is also true for the role of religion in political life.
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