I’ll start with this bit of heresy to both the left and right: I voted for Hillary Clinton because I am a Christian.
After every election cycle, we hear about the Christian vote, particularly the white evangelical Christian vote. These voters, it is said, vote for Republican candidates because their faith dictates that they must. Certain issues – particularly abortion and gay marriage – make it nearly impossible for a Democrat to break through with evangelical voters. Indeed, 81 percent of self-identified evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in this election, compared to 16 percent for Hillary Clinton. And this phenomenon is not limited to evangelicals. Trump won 56 percent of all voters who attend religious services on a weekly basis compared to Clinton’s 40 percent.
This imbalance confuses many with respect to Trump. How, they wonder, could a thrice-married, avowed philanderer win the support of a large majority of deeply faith-based voters?
It’s an interesting question, to be sure, but the answer is simple: The Republican in this election got a huge percentage of deeply faith-based voters because the Republican in every election gets a huge percentage of deeply faith-based voters. Mitt Romney and George W. Bush, for instance, both won the vote of those who attend worship weekly by at least 20 percent.
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The question, then, is not, “How was Donald Trump able to win faith-based voters en masse?” but instead “How do all Republican candidates win faith-based voters en masse?”
There is no single answer, but one fact strikes me as obvious: Democratic candidates – nearly all of whom profess to be religious – rarely, if ever, discuss the intersection between their faith and their policies.
Democrats’ reluctance to talk about their faith makes sense. Religion and politics can be dangerous bed-fellows, as evidenced by conservative Christians who use the Bible as a bludgeon against the marginalized. It is therefore best practice, many liberals believe, to check one’s faith at the door before entering the political arena.
But this segregation, while well-meaning, comes with a number of costs.
First, the candidate loses the opportunity to personalize herself. For example, Clinton was asked about her Methodist faith in a town hall in January, and her answer was both eloquent and intimate. About the Sermon on the Mount, she said, “(I)t sure does seem to favor the poor and the merciful and those who in worldly terms don’t have a lot but who have the spirit that God recognizes as being at the core of love and salvation.” And about herself, she said, “I am by no means a perfect person, I will certainly confess that to one and all, but I feel the continuing urge to try to do better, to try to be kinder, to try to be more loving, even with people who are quite harsh.” It was one of the last times that she publicly talked about her faith, and I can’t help thinking that many voters would have welcomed more like it.
Even more importantly, the absence of faith in the Democratic message cedes the mantel of Voice of the Faithful to the Republicans without opposition. No one really believes that Donald Trump is a man of deep Christian convictions. But they believe exactly that about other Republican politicians, men like Mike Pence and Ted Cruz who hold up the Bible to justify tax cuts for the rich, discrimination against gays and minorities, and, of all things, the death penalty.
Sure, Democratic candidates vehemently disagree with the positions of these Republicans. But they refuse to fight on what they see as enemy turf. This sends a message to voters that one of these parties is the party of God. It’s a short walk from there to deciding that the other party is the party of itself, or of nothing at all.
Which is not to say that Democrats should mimic Republicans and adopt what is effectively a religious test for entrance. Quite the opposite, in fact! Our view of Christianity welcomes with open arms our Muslim, Jewish and atheist sisters and brothers. Just like Jesus did, in fact.
But once, just once, I would like to see a Democratic candidate like Hillary Clinton – a woman whose faith I have zero doubt is as deeply-held as Mike Pence’s – look her opponent in the eye and ask him to square his policy positions with Jesus’s words: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for me.”
Luke Honeycutt Everett is a lawyer and member of First Presbyterian Church in Durham.