Panel Discusses Religion and The Democratic Party

The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life hosted a panel to discuss the role of religion in the modern Democratic Party on Monday. Mark Silk, a professor at Trinity College; Peter Skerry, a professor at Boston College; and Michael Sean Winters, a writer for the National Catholic Reporter, came together to debate.

Their discussion touched on issues ranging from abortion to the rise of non-religious voters within the Democratic Party. There was no general consensus among the panel—Silk and Skerry argued that Democrats do have a religion problem while Winters said that Democrats do not have a religion problem.  

Silk’s arguments focused on what he called “the God gap,” or the growing difference between Democratic and Republican voters’ church attendance. He cited a 1990 statistic that stated that, on average, Republicans attended weekly religious services at a rate 5 percent higher than Democrats, which grew to 20 percent over the next decade.

“I think one would say, because of the rise of the religious right as a permanent fixture of American society and its capture of religious folks, this gap has become increasingly important,” Silk said.

Silk spent the rest of his time speaking about the work of prominent Democrats since 2000. He brought up then-President Bill Clinton’s support of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and Clinton’s assertion that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” both of which religious voters generally viewed favorably. 

Despite these efforts, the God gap only widened over the ensuing decades, according to Silk.

Skerry’s arguments focused on the lack of religious people within the Democratic Party. He said that 14 percent of Democrats identify as non-believers as opposed to 5 percent of Republicans. 

Skerry spoke about the rise of “nones,” or people with no religious affiliation. He stated that the rise of “nones” across the country has pushed the Democratic Party to make more secular appeals. He said that this trend may hurt the Democratic Party with non-white voters in the coming years by alienating Muslim and Hispanic voters, both of whom are traditionally religious, socially conservative, and a reliable Democratic vote. 

“I wouldn’t suggest that they [Democrats] don’t have a religion problem, but maybe not as bad as some may think but perhaps likely to get worse.” 

Winters was the only voice of dissent within the panel. He said, instead, that the problem in the intersection between American politics and religion falls not upon the Democrats but upon the Republicans, specifically white evangelicals.

“White evangelicals have a religion problem,” Winters said. “They have sold out large portions of the Gospel in order to adhere to Donald Trump’s presidency—that’s a religion problem.” 

Winters said that Democrats’ reluctance to speak out about religion creates a perception of a religion problem. He cited the ill-fated presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Hillary Clinton as examples, saying that both declined to talk about how their faith has shaped their values.

“The Democrats have a political problem with religious voters but that’s not the same as having a religion problem,” Winters said.

There is no clear source of liberal or progressive religious thought in the American political process, he said.

“[Religious Democrats] give to the homeless shelter but they will not give to the intellectual postulates or publications,” Winters said. “Conservatives, if you’re a young graduate student and you’re conservative and you’ve got some talent, someone will swoop in and you will have a career path, [which] does not happen on the left.”

The Boston College Law School’s Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF) hosted a Day of Service on Sept. 7 that brought together faculty, staff, and students to celebrate the new school year. The event was a recent programming addition held in response to increased interest in the foundation’s work.

As they did in PILF’s spring day of service, volunteers went to Friday Cafe, Cradles to Crayons, Allston Brighton Food Pantry, and Y2Y, and around 20 volunteers partook in a Charles River cleanup. 

Alyssa Rao, BC Law and GSSW ’21, who is the community events director of the student-run organization, explained that PILF tries to make it possible for students to take public interest internships over the summer.  

“Most internships with a non-profit or a judge or with the government are unpaid, so by doing different fundraising events and community events, we’re able to sort of facilitate the vast majority of those internships with stipends,” she said.

Featured Image by Jonathan Yee/Heights Senior Staff  

November 3, 2019