D. G. Hart is professor of history at Hillsdale College and the author or editor of more than twenty books on American religion, including From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism, an iconoclastic history of evangelical Christians’ involvement with American politics.
In the aftermath of the 2012 political season, we invited Hart (both as a religious historian and as a political conservative) to reflect on what this year’s election might mean for the future of the American political landscape.
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Evangelicals have a public relations problem. Not only does their brand of religion, which demands belief in Christ, make them look intolerant, but their political activism places them in a party known for favoring policies that preserve the wealth and status of the nation’s one percent. (This combination of relatively unpopular demographic groups within the GOP’s base – religious zealots and rich fat cats – should have given Obama a landslide.) If journalists (minus the reporters and anchors for Fox News) and the general public associate Republicans with the most unappealing segments of the nation’s society, those same people regard the Democrats as the party of the little guy, of the underdog, or minority interests. Changing this dynamic will be hard since, in some ways, it is already over a century old.
Even so, evangelicals could dramatically alter the dynamics of current party rivalries if they simply switched parties. I am no rocket scientist, nor am I even a political scientist, but the last time I checked, the United States was a free country and its citizens could join whatever political party they desired. In other words, there are no legal barriers that would prevent evangelical Protestants from becoming card-carrying members of the Democratic Party – Jim Wallis already is. The switch would at least be entertaining, since we could witness media personalities and politicians talking about “real” Democrats the way the Sarah Palin now talks about “real” Americans.
But beyond the fun, a realignment of evangelicals into the Democratic Party could actually improve the health of American politics. To be sure, evangelicals would have to overcome deep and substantive objections to Democratic Party stances on gay marriage and abortion. But it is not as if pro-life and traditional marriage Democrats do not exist. If evangelicals became as active in Democratic debates as they have since Pat Robertson used the Christian Coalition to integrate evangelicals into Republic grass roots politics, they might actually be able to revise the Democrats’ official positions on abortion and gay marriage. They might actually constitute one of the bigger blocs of minority voting groups within the party. What is more, the ensuing debates over the party’s governing philosophy might actually be substantive compared to the sloganeering that tends to dominate election seasons. Again, I may have missed it, but I am not aware of any law (divine or human) which dictates that Democrats must support abortion and gay marriage. In fact, lots of African-Americans and some Hispanics, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, would likely appreciate white Protestant assistance in changing the party’s platform.
Aside from abortion and gay marriage, though, (which I admit is hardly an aside), what else might evangelicals have to give up if they joined the Democratic Party? In a recent article for The New Republic, John B. Judis described the Democrats this way:
“[Their] philosophy envisages the United States as part of a global marketplace. It seeks to provide Americans with the training to compete in that marketplace, as well as sufficient economic security to cope with the hardship that competition can bring. This vision entails funding education, scientific research, and technological innovation, but also strengthening and expanding the New Deal’s safety net.”
Now if evangelicals were truly political conservatives as opposed to social (read: moral) ones, they might object to this outlook on grounds related to what it means to be a constitutional, federated, republic that has (or at least had) laws designed to restrain a national and centralizing government and the economy that lubricates such a governmental apparatus. But since born-again Protestants seem to regard conservative politics more as a means to promote virtue than as the best way to balance civic order and personal liberty, nothing necessarily prevents them from voting for Democratic candidates.
Nothing, at least, that a few adjustments to the Democratic party platform wouldn’t cure.