Main content | Sidebar | Links

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Democrats need some 'thick we's.'

So much of the chatter about why Democrats need to pay more attention to churchgoers misses the most important point. The Democrats don't need to sound like the Moral Majority and they don't need to bother trying to pry votes away from the Christian right. (After all, those dyed-in-red-wool traditionalists account for a mere 12.6 percent of voters.) How liberals talk matters a lot — just not quite so much as panicked secularists who are anxious about the prospects of a Democratic altar call have led us to believe. From a political standpoint, it's not the lingo or the credo that matters; it's congregational life itself — communities of people who know each other, share commitments, interact regularly, and influence each others' choices — that makes religious communities powerful and that made Republican religious outreach so effective this time around. You might say that while Democrats were finessing "message," Republicans were working the coffee hour.

What Democrats need to do is recognize the importance of "thick we" voluntary associations in which people invest their time and generate social capital — and churches, synagogues, and other religious communities are perhaps the most enduring examples of the associations in which many Americans find themselves part of a "thick we."

Lizabeth Cohen hits a bulls-eye in her American Prospect essay on why Republicans' associational habits paid off in the last election. She puts it autobiographically:

Let me start with myself as one type of Kerry supporter to illustrate the problem. I’m not proud of it, but my husband and I spend most of our waking hours working, leaving little time for any associational life. Free time is reserved for our two teenage children. We participate in no organized religion, belong to few organizations outside of professional ones, and barely sustain ties to the town we live in. Our political activism mostly involves writing checks to liberal groups; our community consists of friends, co-workers, and family. We are charter members of Robert Putnam’s “bowling alone” crowd.

How did it pay off for Republicans? She explains: "The historic Republican discovery in this election season was that all the sophisticated segmented marketing mattered less than face-to-face interaction with real members of a community." She writes:

[I]t may be less significant that Republican voters have a corner on religious faith and “moral values” than simply that they go to church. In rural and small-town America, churches are part of a network of viable community institutions and organizations — gun and garden clubs, PTAs, functioning neighborhoods — that are fast disappearing with the more hectic pace of life in urban and suburban America. The erosion of Democratic-oriented labor unions in these communities, then, is not only damaging to Democrats in and of itself; it is indicative of a larger decline in associational life in the heart of Democratic turf.

Where does she see opportunities for Democrats?

Democrats must give more attention to mobilizing voters within whatever local organizations still matter. Continuing to push unionization of the growing ranks of low-wage workers who did vote for John Kerry is a must. In particular, labor unions can provide a counterforce to more conservative pulls on Latinos, who fill many low-level service jobs. Even military families struggling with deteriorating conditions in the armed services might rally to Democrats trumpeting their plight. Furthermore, if busy working parents have time for any activity, it often revolves around their children’s schooling, making grass-roots coalitions for better education promising. And when aging baby boomers like me eventually have more time on our hands, who knows? We might start joining organizations and meeting our neighbors.

Memory is short! What's not on this list? You could also try going to church. That's right, folks: Although every religious community has its share of odd characters and peculiar habits, the fact is that there are probably more tolerant and friendly churches (or synagogues) in your area than you know. Church-shopping can be daunting, but for many reasons that go beyond the chances for a Democratic revival in 2008 or 2012, it's not just good for you: It's freedom of association in a powerful, community-building way. You might even find that being part of a religious community helps anchor and sustain your liberalism.

("Voting Alone," Lizabeth Cohen, American Prospect 12.6.04, sub req'd)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 12 December 2004 at 10:23 PM

Previous: Emergent shul?
Next: What's wrong with this survey question?




December 13, 2004 09:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

It continues to amaze me that they're not getting this simple piece of the message.


December 28, 2004 03:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

I can tell you that finding a progressive church within my tradition has made a life altering difference. I am emboldened, strengthened - have taken leadership positions within and outside of church where I speak, and more importantly, live my liberal philosophy and theology. Prior to finding this anchor point - I was silent, demoralized - now - even in the face of the last election - I'm empowered, vocal, constructively engaged.

I encourage anyone interested enough in this to have read this far to check out The Center for Progressive Christianity - - lots of good information including books like "Skeptic in the House of God" - written by a non-believer who, nonetheless - is extremely active in a church community to the benefit of both himself and the church.

And here is a way to find some progressive congregations in your area. Most UCC congregations are liberal in their thinking - enough that the national UCC can run the ads that have made news lately. I really enjoy their approach.
The Unitarian Universalist will suit some who want a less traditional approach , but my own denominational home remains the United Methodist Church - a good way to find progressive UMC congregations to (The Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) is a growing movement of United Methodist individuals, congregations, campus ministries, and other groups working for the full participation of all people in the United Methodist Church.) RM is focused specifically on GLBT issues - but if a church has worked through those issues enough to be publicly affiliated with RM, one can be pretty sure they're a very welcoming and thinking kind of place on a host of other issues as well. My own congregation hasn't taken the public steps yet - but we're working on it - so there are certainly more progressive churches out there than these resources list, but it's a start. Grace and Peace.

Comments for this entry are currently closed.