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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Do the Democrats have a Religion Problem?


On October 28, the Boisi Center hosted its last panel event of the fall semester, entitled, “Do the Democrats Have a Religion Problem?” The panel featured Mark Silk of Trinity College, Peter Skerry of Boston College, and Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter, with M. Cathleen Kaveny, of Boston College, moderating.

Kaveny began the discussion by asking the title question, encouraging the panelists to define precisely what that problem is. Silk and Skerry both argued that the Democrats do indeed have a religion problem, approaching their explanation of the problem by describing the ways certain groups traditionally vote. They noted that white, evangelical Protestants overwhelmingly support the Republican Party, while black, Hispanic/Latinx, and non-religious white voters favor the Democratic Party. Silk referred to this difference as the “God gap”—an ongoing phenomenon that those who attend church services regularly are more likely to vote Republican. Skerry acknowledged the changing American religious landscape, though, noting the increase of those who identify as “nones” (meaning, they identify as having no religious affiliation) and who often vote Democrat. Skerry contended that this rising population will become more politically salient since “nones” are highly educated and heavily engaged in political activism. Lastly, Skerry pointed out that the Democratic Party has demonstrably offered their support of the “nones” and will continue to do so in the future, exacerbating what Silk calls the “God gap.”

Winters argued, on the other hand, that the Democrats do not have a religion problem. Instead, he believes, the Democrats have a political problem with religion. Reading the question broadly, Winters pointed out that the Republican Party also has a problem with religion: they contort religion to support their political agenda. However, Winters acknowledged that the perceived problem that Democrats have with religion is of their own making. Winters cited either ignorance of religion or a lack of commitment to their own faith among elite Democrats, “intellectual flabbiness,” and endorsements from large corporations—like Planned Parenthood—that are perceived as anti-religious in the eyes of the American public. He argued this is all viewed as unreligious behavior and indicative of a “lukewarm” faith. Winters concluded by reflecting on how, at least numerically, the Catholic vote is important, but because Catholics mirror the broader culture with regard to political party membership and their views on particular issues, there is no longer a “Catholic vote” as there once was. 

Kaveny asked if there is a solution to this religion problem. Silk saw that reducing the “God gap” was the only path forward. In a similar vein, Skerry hoped that the Democrats would be more tolerant of people with religious views and that they would invest their time in attracting religious voters, especially progressive ones. But such a path forward is not without its challenges. Distinct from what the Democrats could do to woo religious voters, religious Republican voters, Skerry indicated, are prepared and able to act on their faith because the Republican Party integrates their worldview into their political platform. Winters argued that Catholics need to be more “stiff-necked” and consistent on matters of faith, unafraid to speak of the role religion plays in their own lives as their Republican counterparts do.

The panel concluded with a Q&A session in which audience members asked about, among other things, how Israel and the Middle East play into American politics, how the left could realistically integrate religiosity, possible plans to change the role religion plays in politics, and the future of the Catholic Church in light of its deep, internal political division.