Why Democrats Should Reclaim the Language of Christianity

Today, Christianity is a decidedly conservative force in American politics. Witness the xenophobia of the Christian Right, the homophobia of televangelists, the dazzling spectacle of megachurches, the Republican Party, the Creation Museum, the Westboro Baptist Church — and so on.

We may trace this suite of images to 1980, when Ronald Reagan held forth a platform of free enterprise and personal responsibility en route to sweeping the White House, staking Republicans’ claim to the white Christian electorate. Reaganism proved a timely antidote for a country fresh off an international hostage crisis, prolonged military defeat, and a decade of stagflation, powerfully restoring Americans’ sense of a special relationship with God. Since then Democrats have avoided challenging Republicans’ religiosity, seeking instead to maneuver over against the Christian Right. In my view, it’s time for a new strategy.

For so many Americans, the gospel of Christianity still has a powerful and evocative timbre. As many as 75% of Americans identify as Christian, some 250,000,000, covering a far greater swath of the electorate than the 60,000,000 who vote Republican. As the rest increasingly disapprove of the current Republican showrunner Donald Trump, Christianity’s power to reconcile a diverse set of believers into a single moral framework could be harnessed by Democrats, to bolster support for a platform of social welfare and equality. It’s time for the Democratic Party to set forth a new religious imaginary, one that eclipses Republican individualism with community and solidarity.

In many ways, Christianity’s rapid growth from the 1st through the 4th centuries may be linked to its radical teachings. The Christian gospel of love and self-sacrifice contrasted powerfully with the paganism of the Greco-Roman world, whose many gods were indifferent to earthly affairs. Early Christians offered shelter to the poor and medicine to the sickly, Christian and non-Christian alike, boldly reimagining human relations in a world of deep suffering and alienation, as Professor Rodney Stark has argued. In this way, Christianity was from the beginning imbued with a social radicalism, a legacy which has rippled across the ages, influencing radical thinkers from Luther to Kierkegaard to King.

One need not strain to find examples of Christian radicalism. In 1524–25, peasants in Germany took up arms against church and state, demanding civic and religious freedoms from an entrenched aristocracy. The German Peasants’ War, part of the budding Reformation, saw peasant radicals redeploy scripture to challenge the entrenched power structure of the Holy Roman Empire, foreshadowing a turbulent 16th century. Elsewhere in Europe, Anabaptists sought rights for women and avenues for upward social mobility, shaking the status-quo of European polities and winning thousands of converts.

Closer to home, the Civil Rights Movement, perhaps the most famous social movement in American history, was steeped in the language of Christianity. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. found in religion a message of equality and forgiveness well-suited for his politics. Professor Paul Harvey has observed that the Civil Rights Movement “deftly combined the social gospel and black church traditions,” drawing on a long-standing legacy of the American church as an institution of social change.

In light of this history, then, one can appreciate how Christianity may offer the Democratic Party a useful framework for social change. Through its universal narrative, it could integrate believers along a single political axis and cut into a long-standing domain of Republicans. Sociologist G. William Domhoff has argued that, to affect progressive change in America, social movements “should be framed from the start as a conflict over power and values, not as a struggle between social classes.” In this way, reclaiming the language of Christianity may well persuade ordinary religious Americans to identify with liberal, egalitarian values— not by appealing to science and expertise, but to power and values. Christianity lends itself to both categories.

Of course, such a movement must be inclusive, welcoming into its fold Muslims, Jews, atheists, and everyone in between. I’m certainly not calling for a theocracy, or a movement centered on Christianity — rather, I’m arguing that Democrats should rediscover Christianity as a liberal political force.