Can the Democrats find religion?

Democrats encountered a controversy prior to their 2012 national convention, when the party platform eliminated all references to God. At the last minute, however, delegates added in a line about “God-given potential.” The 2012 convention featured prayer and speeches from prominent religious leaders, despite the fact that the Democratic Party has often been portrayed as hostile to religion.

Members of the Democratic Party acknowledged during the 2012 campaign that for undecided voters in swing states, religion made a difference. When President Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 2012, his speech contained several religious references, including those to his own faith.

He was re-elected in 2012, supported in large part by the religiously unaffiliated and nonwhite churchgoers. From 2008 to 2012, he lost votes from white evangelicals and Catholics, according to Pew research data.

The party is taking seriously election exit polls that showed religious voters – those who say their faith directly influences their ballot choices – voted overwhelmingly Republican.

Obama has started discussing his economic policy in terms of his religious beliefs, explaing that sharing responsibility mirrors Jesus’ teachings. And following the December 2012 shooting massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, the president quoted scripture when addressing the nation.

But are these actions enough? Many politicians and scholars say that unless Democrats change the way they relate to religious voters – learning to meaningfully address religious issues and candidates’ personal faith – they cannot hope to recapture the religious vote from the Republicans.

Why it matters

If the Democrats want widespread support for their candidates, their legislative proposals and their stances on judicial nominees and other matters, they must reach beyond the secular population.

Questions for reporters

  • Can the Democrats learn to approach religious issues and voters as successfully as Republicans have? What should they do to reach out to religious voters?
  • Will voters buy the party’s religious fervor? Or will they see it as a ploy to capitalize on their religious beliefs?
  • Do the Democrats have a hope of reaching evangelical Christians? Or should they focus instead on reaching members of mainline, African-American and Catholic churches?

National sources


  • Russell Arben Fox

    Russell Arben Fox is a political science professor at Friends University in Wichita, Ks. On In Medias Res, a blog of his writings, he has written that the Democratic Party has abandoned religious progressives. He has called for transformation of America’s political and party system.

  • Geoffrey Layman

    Geoffrey Layman is chair of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame and co-editor of the journal Political Behavior. He wrote The Great Divide: Religious and Cultural Conflict in American Party Politics.

  • Bruce David Forbes

    Bruce David Forbes is a professor of religious studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, specializing in religion in America and religion and popular culture. He is co-editor of Rapture, Revelation and the End Times: Exploring the ‘Left Behind’ Series. Forbes also co-edited the book Religion and Popular Culture in America.

  • Melissa Harris-Perry

    Melissa Harris-Perry is a professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans, host of MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry” and author of Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought (Princeton University Press, 2004).

  • Corwin E. Smidt

    Corwin E. Smidt is a research fellow at the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics and a professor of political science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is author, editor or co-author of books on religion and public life, including In God We Trust? Religion and American Political Life; Pulpit and Politics: Clergy in American Politics at the Advent of the Millennium; and The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Clergy.

Political analysts

  • Michael Barone

    Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner and co-author of The Almanac of American Politics 2012. He has said Americans increasingly vote as they pray or don’t pray.

  • Amy Sullivan

    Amy Sullivan is a contributing writer for TIME magazine and a former editor for Washington Monthly, where she wrote of the Democrats’ need to reclaim religion from the Republican Party. She is the author of The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008).

Influence organizations

  • Stephanie Summers

    Stephanie Summers is CEO of the Center for Public Justice, a Christian-based policy research center.

  • Richard Cizik

    The Rev. Richard Cizik is president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. He seeks to bring evangelical Christians, researchers and policymakers together to work on issues such as climate change, economic justice and national security.

  • Joseph Loconte

    Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York City. He is the author of a 2001 book about the Bush initiative, God, Government and the Good Samaritan: The Promise and the Peril of the President’s Faith-Based Agenda.

  • Melody Barnes

    Melody Barnes is vice provost for global student leadership initiatives at New York University. She previously served as President Barack Obama’s domestic policy adviser.

  • David Saperstein

    David Saperstein is an American rabbi, lawyer, and Jewish community leader who served as United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom from 2015 – 2017. He previously served as the director and chief legal counsel at the Union for Reform Judaism‘s Religious Action Center for more than 40 years and as a Commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.  He Is one of the founders of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network. The network seeks to build mutual trust and respect among faith leaders through civic engagement, authentic relationships, and honest dialogue leading to resilient, compassionate, and flourishing communities.

  • C. Welton Gaddy

    The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is president of the Interfaith Alliance and author of numerous books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State. Gaddy serves as pastor for preaching and worship at Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, La. The alliance is based in Washington, D.C.

    Contact: 202-238-3300, 202) 466-0567.


  • John C. Green

    John C. Green is a senior fellow at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, specializing in religion and American politics. He also serves as interim university president, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and distinguished professor of political science at the University of Akron.

Political activists

  • Al From

    Al From is the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council in Washington, D.C.

  • Kristen Day

    Kristen Day is executive director of Democrats for Life of America, an organization that works toward the election of Democrats who oppose abortion.

  • Sojourners

    Sojourners magazine is a progressive evangelical magazine in Washington, D.C. Its commitment is to faith in action for social justice. Jim Wallis is CEO and editor in chief of Sojourners.


Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Erin Splaine

    Erin Splaine is pastor of the First Unitarian Society of West Newton, Mass., which describes itself as a church of “liberal faith.”

  • Samuel Abrams

    Samuel Abrams is a political science professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. He is the author of Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America.

  • Elaine Kamarck

    Elaine Kamarck is a lecturer in public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. She was a senior policy adviser to the 2000 Gore campaign for president and worked in the Clinton-Gore administration.

  • Dale Kuehne

    Dale Kuehne is a professor in the department of politics at St. Anselm College, a Benedictine school in Manchester, N.H., and focuses on the intersection of religion, politics and sexuality.  He also is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church of America and is the founding director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

  • Gerald Zelizer

    Gerald Zelizer is a Conservative rabbi and pastor of Neve Shalom in Metuchen, N.J.

    Contact: 732-548-2238.
  • James Forbes Jr.

    The Rev. James Forbes Jr. is senior minister emeritus at Riverside Church in New York City.

    Contact: 212-870-6700.
  • Louis H. Bolce

    Louis H. Bolce teaches a course on religion and politics at Baruch College in New York City. Bolce’s research interests include what he calls the anti-Christian fundamentalist factor in contemporary politics, and he and Gerald De Maio (also at Baruch College) are working on a book about the rise of secularist influence in the Democratic Party.

  • Jennifer A. Marshall

    Jennifer A. Marshall is director of domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., and former director of family studies at the Family Research Council. She has written widely about Republican support of moral issues such as abstinence education, defense of marriage and welfare.

  • Muqtedar Khan

    Muqtedar Khan is an associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware. He has written about Islamic political thought and about the rise of political Christianity, through the Republican Party, in the United States. His books include American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom and Debating Moderate Islam: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West. Khan has said that Shariah is based on the same principles that shape Judeo-Christian values.

In the South

  • Kevin Bumgarner

    Kevin Bumgarner is executive editor of Florida Baptist Witness, a weekly newspaper based in Jacksonville, Fla., and criticized the Democrats’ effort to reach out to religious voters during the 2004 election.

  • Imam Johari Abul-Malik

    Imam Johari Abul-Malik is outreach director for Dar Al-Hijrah in Falls Church, Va., one of the largest Islamic centers in the country. He is also treasurer of the Coordinating Council of Muslim Organizations. He is active with the Muslim American Society, based in Washington, D.C.

  • Laura Olson

    Laura Olson is a professor of political science at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., and is also an expert on women and gender in religion. Her books include, as author, Filled With Spirit and Power: Protestant Clergy in Politics and, as co-author, Women With a Mission: Religion, Gender and the Politics of Women Clergy. She is also co-author of a paper on mainline Protestant congregations and homosexuality.

  • David Dalin

    David Dalin is a Conservative rabbi and a professor of history and political science at Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla. He has written about Jews and American political history and about the influence of Jews on the presidency.

  • Marc Hetherington

    Marc Hetherington is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. He lectures on political parties.

  • Mark Pryor

    Mark Pryor is a Democratic U.S. senator from Arkansas. He partially credits his election to the advice of a political consultant who told him to never give a speech without quoting the Bible. He has said Democrats have trouble with people of faith.

    Contact: 202-224-2353, 501-324-6336.
  • Steven P. Brown

    Steven P. Brown is a professor of political science at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., where he specializes in religion and politics.

  • David P. Gushee

    David P. Gushee is a distinguished professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Atlanta. He is frequently quoted about evangelical perspectives on ethics and was the principal drafter of the Evangelical Declaration Against Torture. He describes himself as a “Christian centrist.” Gushee’s most recent book is Changing Our Mind: A Call From America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church, in which he outlines his change of heart from opposing same-sex relationships.

  • Allen Hertzke

    Allen Hertzke is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where he specializes in religious studies. His books include Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights; Representing God in Washington: The Role of Religious Lobbies in the American Polity; and, as co-author, Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture and Strategic Choices. He is an expert on church-based populist movements.

In the Midwest

  • Carol Moseley Braun

    Carol Moseley Braun, a Democrat, is a former U.S. senator from Illinois who ran for president in 2004. She gave a speech at Claremont McKenna College on religion in the 2004 election. Contact through Renee Ferguson.

  • Abed Hammoud

    Abed Hammoud formed the Arab American Political Action Committee in 1998 in Dearborn, Mich., to consolidate and increase Arab-American voting power.

  • Katherine (Stenger) Knutson

    Katherine (Stenger) Knutson is an assistant professor of political science at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minn. Her focus is on the effect of religious interest groups on American politics.

In the West

  • Christine Sierra

    Christine Sierra is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she also is the director of the Southwest Hispanic Research Institute.

  • Marc Dollinger

    Marc Dollinger is a professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University. His interests include separation of church and state, and Jews and public policy. He contributed an article on Jews and the Democratic Party to the Encyclopedia of American Religion and Politics.

  • Chuck Currie

    Chuck Currie is a United Church of Christ seminarian and advocate for the homeless in Portland, Ore. He is also an active blogger and frequently writes on religion and politics.

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