WASHINGTON, D.C. — A panel discussion on “Faith and the Faithful in U.S. Politics” is “so needed … in our polarized world,” said Jesuit Father Kevin Gillespie, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Washington, while introducing the speakers.
That was a point affirmed in the ensuing conversation among four panelists who represented conservative and liberal viewpoints and a research center that examines religious viewpoints. The March 26 discussion drew a capacity crowd of hundreds of people to the parish’s Trinity Hall.
“The place of faith and the faithful in U.S. politics is often misunderstood and neglected” and that role is changing and challenging both political parties and religious communities, said John Carr, founder and director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, which co-sponsored the panel discussion.
The event also was sponsored by Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service at the McCourt School of Public Policy and by Holy Trinity Parish, with support from the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation that describes itself as “working to ensure our political system is able to withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people.”
Carr noted that the U.S. Catholic bishops have emphasized that “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in civic life is a moral obligation.” He added that Pope Francis in his 2015 address to a joint meeting of Congress had underscored the need for political leaders to defend human dignity and work together for the common good.
Moderator of the discussion, Carr said a key question to consider for people of faith engaged in U.S. politics is, “How are we to live our faith in the world’s most powerful democracy?”
Panelist Jocelyn Kiley — an associate director of research at Pew Research Center who has focused on U.S. public opinion, politics and polarization — noted, “A lot of the dynamics we see in religion and politics are a continuation of long-term trends.”
For more and more Americans, their religious identity is increasingly aligned with their political identities, she said, noting that a majority of white evangelicals are now members of the Republican party, while a majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans are Democrats. About one-third of Republicans are white evangelical Protestants, and about one-third of Democratic voters are religiously unaffiliated, she said.
“One of the things we’re seeing is the religious profile of the two parties is more distinct than when we started tracking this 25 years ago,” Kiley said.
The researcher said that while Catholics tend to be equally divided between the two parties, more Hispanic Catholics tend to be Democrats, “and white Catholics have tipped more Republican in recent years.”
The Democratic Party draws the support of most African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans, and among members of minority religious groups such as Muslims, she said. The researcher noted that more than three-quarters of white evangelicals are registered Republicans or lean to that party. That subset of religious voters, she added, tends to be white, older, more likely live in rural areas and less likely to have a college education.
Panelist E.J. Dionne noted a trend that “should be a cause for soul-searching among religious institutions”: The fact that about 40 percent of millennials are religiously unaffiliated.
Dionne is a Washington Post columnist, a professor at Georgetown’s McCourt School, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and the author of books including Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith in Politics.
“It’s a real split with faith,” he said of that group born after 1980, who have come of age in the new millennium.
Dionne noted that Republican voters as a group tend to be “almost uniformly white Christians” and older, while Democratic voters are younger and more diverse in their backgrounds and religious views. He believes that Democrats are more hesitant to talk about religion “because of the nature of their coalition.”
Both parties, he said, face real challenges among religious voters, and he noted a recent op-ed column by New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, who criticized the Democratic Party’s support of legal abortion and opposition to school vouchers or tax credits, which the cardinal said alienates many Catholics from that party.
Representing the conservative side was panelist Peter Wehner — a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and director of its Faith Angle Forum, and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era.
“I do think Democrats have a problem with religion,” Wehner said. “It’s a party that’s increasingly secular.”
Dionne, who often supports progressive causes in his columns, countered by saying, “Democrats are not a secular party. Most Democrats are part of a religious tradition.”
Wehner noted that the Democratic Party remains a minority party, with Republicans controlling the White House, both houses of Congress, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures, but he added that he thinks Democrats will likely take control of the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2018 mid-term elections.
Several panelists addressed what they described as a steady embrace by many Christians, especially white evangelicals and their leaders, of President Donald Trump, even when his personal life, his words, actions and policies sometimes seem to conflict with Christian values.
The president’s strong opposition to abortion, support for religious liberty and his appointment of conservative judges have helped galvanize his popularity among Christians who voted for him.
But the panel discussion was held one day after “60 Minutes” interview with a porn actress, who, like a Playboy model, has alleged she had an extramarital affair with Trump 12 years ago. Trump also has been criticized for his statements and policies toward immigrants and minorities and for making various claims later proved false.
Also on the panel was Joshua DuBois, former executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under the Obama administration. He is now CEO of Values Partnerships and a CNN contributor.
DuBois said he worried that “a broad swath of Christianity wrapping its credibility around this leader” could have a devastating long-term impact on American Christianity and the influence of Christian witness in this country.
“People need the good news,” he said, expressing concern that Christians’ support for Trump could in the long run diminish their ability to share their faith with others.
Said Wehner: “I have been my entire life an evangelical Christian. We are seeing an absolute and wholesale discrediting of white evangelicals.” He said conservatives who said “character matters” when criticizing then-President Bill Clinton in the 1990s should have that same view now.
“I think he (President Trump) is engaged in a full-out assault on truth, an annihilation of truth,” said Wehner, who criticized what he perceives as the president’s sometimes “cruelty” and “appealing to the darker impulses of the nation.”
Panelists also discussed the importance for people of faith and religious institutions to address racism and its long-term effects, and the need for immigration reform.
Abortion and the Democratic Party was raised by a member of the audience. As a young woman, she said, she came to Washington to work as an intern for a Democratic member of Congress.
“As someone who is becoming Catholic, it’s hard to be in a party that seems to be shutting the door to anyone who is pro-life,” she said. “The vitriol directed toward people who talk about life is extraordinary in a country with 1 million abortions a year.”
DuBois, who earlier had noted that there’s “very little incentive for common ground space on abortion for either party,” praised the woman for her courage in bringing up the issue. “We have to create more space for people of faith from across the ideological spectrum in the Democratic Party,” he said.
He said people need to find common ground on that issue to reduce the number of abortions and to help women so they are not faced with that choice.
“I think the abortion conversation needs to be quieter and more thoughtful,” he added.
Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.