Last week, President Trump spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, following a tradition continued by each American president since Eisenhower. Through its 66 years, this annual interfaith event has become a national institution, and emblematic of the political sphere’s relationship with religion over the last half-century.
Of course, as is the case with most traditions that have been continued by our current president — not to mention all of those he has done away with — this particular breakfast’s presidential address rang hollow. After extolling the mere presence of In God We Trust on our currency and One Nation Under God in our pledge as indicators of a national commitment to Christian faith, Trump spoke in a rather vague monotone about how “our rights are given to us by our creator,” and drawled on about how “no matter what, no earthly force can take those rights away.”
The hypocrisy at play here is self-evident. This is someone who has not only bribed a porn star to hush up about their affair, used crude and racist language to describe entire nations of people, and boasted about sexual assault and harassment — impious actions by every stretch of the imagination — but who has also made statements and advocated policies that threaten the rights of the LGBTQ community, people of color, women, immigrants, and political dissidents — rights that many would argue are given to those individuals by their creator.
This much about the president is obvious, and roundly shameful. What is utterly confounding, though, is how Trump effortlessly inherited the support of religious voters in the 2016 election, and how through speeches like that of last week he perpetuates the false narrative that the Republican Party alone can claim the mantle of religious leadership in the political world. When exit polls indicated that four out of five evangelical Christian voters cast their ballot for Trump — a greater share than any presidential candidate in history — and that he won over a decisive majority of voters who say they regularly attend religious services, a great concern emerges about the soundness of America’s moral fiber as it is tied to religion.
In spite of this decay, there is still hope that folks advocating policies on behalf of the poor, the sick, and the marginalized will reclaim religious rhetoric. There exists, I believe, a golden opportunity for progressives in the Democratic Party to capitalize on the faith of the American people for the good of their proposed policies and for the good of the country. All it will take is a rejection of the notion that any mention of religious themes in political discourse is out of place, and a willingness to discuss these themes to mobilize moral support.
Twelve years ago, then-Senator Barack Obama gave an address to the Call for Renewal’s Building a Covenant for a New America conference, in which he called on the Democratic Party to reverse its abandonment of religious discourse. He said, “The discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us form effectively addressing issues in moral terms.” Though this address was a step in the right direction, the Democratic Party in the twelve years since has arguably gone even farther in the direction of religious silence then their leader may have intended. The same discomfort that Obama described back then is just as widespread now, with the vast majority of atheists in America identifying themselves as Democrats.
It is easy to understand the qualms of those progressives who see so-called religious morals being co-opted by far-right activists who seek to undo protections for marginalized communities, such as in the case of Kim Davis, a county clerk who in 2015 refused to enforce a ruling of the Supreme Court based on her religious conviction that gay people should not be allowed to marry. It is easy to understand the concerns about the intersection between politics and religion that left-leaning voters might have when politicians like Mike Pence who claim to promote religious liberty support a president who seeks to ban immigrants based on the predominant religion of the nation they come from. It seems that Republicans advocate religious liberty, so long as that religion is Christianity as practiced by evangelical Protestants.
However, if progressives both in Washington and around the country continue to let Republicans own religious discourse in politics, they will remain vulnerable to the arguments that they seek to represent only secular America, ignoring the large majority of Americans who claim belief in a higher power. Moreover, they will cede to right-wing Republicans the ability to talk about political issues from a moral standpoint, as convoluted as the party of Trump’s set of morals may be.
After all, many of the issues that Democrats and progressives talk about are particularly suited for discussion in moral terms backed by religious imagery. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” These words could be a rallying cry for a whole host of progressive policies, from single-payer health care to protections for DREAMers to the establishment of more homeless shelters in major cities. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Anti-poverty programs, women’s rights, and much-needed criminal justice reform could all be tied up under a rationale of righteousness that touches many different parts of America.
There are undoubtedly efforts underway by progressives to engage in this type of messaging. Prominent national Democratic politicians like Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Congressman Cedric Richmond of Louisiana — the latter of whom also delivered an address at the National Prayer Breakfast last week — frequently use compellingly religious, though occasionally overwrought references to support progressive policies. Nevertheless, there needs to be a more robust engagement with moral justifications for policies in order to bring more religious voters into the fold.
And by no means should religious messaging from progressives be solely Christian in nature. Diversity and pluralism should be of the utmost importance in political discourse, and the teachings of justice and compassion from Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and all religions alike should be used as an appeal to the better nature of a diverse American electorate. Ignoring non-Christian religions is one area in which the Republicans show their unabashed hypocrisy, and miss the opportunity to show any sort of genuine commitment to American faith.
But what Democrats are missing out on by largely ignoring religious rhetoric is the chance to prove to religious Americans that they are the party of true moral authority, not the Republicans. It is time for reconciliation between progressivism and religion, and even though it may take time to achieve, it may be necessary to deliver us from the evil of this dark political era.