Religious Freedom in the Liberal State


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It was a midweek morning in May, and the Iowa Democratic caucuses felt at once far off on the calendar and also, somehow, already here. Several presidential candidates had swept through town in recent days. The primary season was underway, and the group of pastors at Plymouth United Church of Christ had a full agenda.

An asylum-seeker needed help at an upcoming appointment with federal immigration officials. Summer meetings needed to be scheduled. When the meeting was over, the conversation turned to progressive politics and religion, and how the two fit together. In Iowa, a starting assumption is that the Democratic faithful are majority Christian. The data bears that out. In a break from the past, a growing number of them identify as progressive Christians.

As liberals, how should they blend their spiritual faith and political activism? How should Democrats running for president talk about religion?

Political Liberalism, Separation and Establishment

Nevertheless, his policies and judicial appointments have kept him popular with white evangelical voters — the group with the loudest voice in the national religion-and-politics debate, and the one that helped install Trump in the White House. I fall into those categories. Their dialogue on faith and activism, and what it means to be Christian and progressive, is robust, and their community is larger than perhaps most people realize.

In the general election, 63 percent of Iowa voters who supported Hillary Clinton were Protestant or Catholic. She won 33 percent of the vote among Iowans who said they attend religious services one or more times a week. Clinton managed to win 25 percent of the white evangelical vote — far less than Trump, whose overwhelming support from conservative evangelicals helped him win Iowa by a wide margin.

But it was nonetheless a surprising showing by a candidate who supports abortion rights in a state where Christianity predominates, and where eight in 10 people say religion plays an important role in their lives. Among Republican voters in the state, 78 percent self-identify as Christian and white; less than two-thirds of Democrats view themselves the same way.

Nobody expects that to change in But the available evidence points to an abundance of religious liberals taking part in the first-in-the-nation nominating contest. All Democratic primary candidates have to do is reach them. Trone, who works at the Des Moines Area Religious Council, left her ministry at Faith Lutheran soon after Trump took office in order to get involved more directly in community organizing.

This is true nationally, not just in Iowa.


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  • Include enough different people, enough interest groups and issues and viewpoints, and eventually the overarching message starts losing focus. Deep down, everyone walks away feeling slightly unsatisfied. The question is, will Democrats avoid the same trap this time around? Or can they find a way to make the diversity work to their advantage? In Iowa, at least, the religious left does have some things working in its favor, starting with a remarkably consistent attitude about the role faith should play in public life. This shared perspective was clear on a mid-May afternoon at Lucca, a trendy Des Moines eatery, where Rev.

    Naomi Kirstein, a local pastor, had convinced three of her congregants to meet me to talk religion and politics. The place was filled with business people and government workers in suits. The state attorney general sat a few tables away, enjoying a quiet meal. What are your values? Heads started nodding around the table. But I want to hear how their issues — because of my faith — connect to the poor, the oppressed, taking care of the earth.

    The conviction that faith informs politics came up again and again in interviews with liberal clergy, lay people and others progressive activists in the state. So did the importance of maintaining a separation between church and state, though the issue has a different meaning for religious liberals than it does for conservatives. On the right, that separation is typically framed as a question of religious liberty, and based on an argument that the government does not have the right to force people to obey laws that violate their religious beliefs. On the left, the argument for a church-state divide is based on a libertarian insistence that religious freedom is absolute, and the state should never pass policies based on religious grounds.

    The remark was not meant as a compliment. Another constant was the deeply held view that government should provide a strong social safety net for people who need help.

    Historic Second Annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom - United States Department of State

    In Iowa, progressive Christians are as openly religious as their conservative counterparts. And both sides invoked the same scripture, even when they were promoting policies on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Scheffler felt the same way about Democrats. They preach a social doctrine of whatever fits their personal agenda. Of course, liberals have argued for decades that the conservative position ignores systemic racism and other forms of structural inequality. Conservative evangelicals have been active in Iowa politics for decades.

    Frederick K. Gaddy, the pastor of St. If a candidate ignores faith completely in stump speeches and interviews, they risk alienating voters whose lives are centered on religion. Faced with that kind of impossible decision, nearly all campaigns do the logical thing and aim straight down the middle of the lane, without putting any fancy English on it, hoping to score a solid-feeling seven each frame, or maybe even an eight. Sure, the strategy might result in the occasional split, leaving pins at both extremes feeling lonely and abandoned. But sometimes, in rare cases, that strategy pays off.

    Obama, after all, also won praise for speaking directly about race and religion in a speech that addressed his relationship with the minister of his church in Chicago, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.


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    That speech proved to be a highlight of his campaign, the kind of viral, star-affirming moment that has so far eluded numerous high-profile Democrats languishing in the polls. What if the conventional wisdom is wrong — what if playing it safe on religion is no longer necessary for Democrats running for president in ? In , Democrats were debating things like the Iraq War vote. The party was less attuned to economic inequality and climate change. Twitter was a toddler. It was a moment of calm before the global financial crisis and the Great Recession set in, before the fight over Obamacare.

    Pre-tea party. Pre-Occupy Wall Street. A decade later, the conversation on the left around many of these issues has changed. More broadly, the country looks and prays differently than it did when Obama first ran for president. In , 54 percent of Americans identified as white and Christian, according to data from the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, which tracks religious attitudes in the United States.

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