Faith in democracy is 'spiritual belief'

Religion isn't as narrow as Matt Taibbi thinks.

Most Americans get their information about politics from the press corps. Members of the press corps prefer easy binaries in communicating to their audience. Therefore, most people tend to think politics has two sides. There’s a multiverse of sides, though. Only after opening one’s mind to the possibilities does politics actually make sense.

Take, for instance, “messaging.” Here’s a commonplace critique of the Democratic Party—why can’t they speak forcefully? For one reason, they are not Republicans. The GOP is more or less streamlined, racially, economically and religiously. When one Republican speaks, he (most of them are indeed men) tends to speak for all. The Democrats, however, are a Big Tent. When one of them speaks, they do not, and cannot, speak for all. The party is racially, economically and religiously diverse.

Politics has a multiverse of sides. Only after opening one’s mind to the possibilities does it actually make sense.

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When the Republicans talk about faith, they can be explicit. That’s the entitlement of a religiously conservative political minority that (now) controls and benefits from the country’s counter-majoritarian institutions (the Senate, the Supreme Court, the Electoral College, etc.). When the Democrats talk about faith, they are not explicit, because they won’t risk alienating one of the many forms of religious adherence that constitute the Democratic Party’s base. Remember the Democrats have religious conservatives in their ranks. The Republicans, however, don’t have religious liberals. They speak with one voice whereas the Democrats, as it were, speak in tongues.

When you put a thing that’s in focus next to a thing that’s not in focus, the thing that’s in focus will naturally get more attention than the thing that’s not. Moreover, the thing that’s in focus, by dint of getting more attention, ends up defining the thing that’s not. To wit: When the Republicans talk about faith, they attract the press corps’ attention, because their expression is explicit. The Democrats don’t, because theirs is not.

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Moreover, the Republican notion of what counts as religion, generally, overrides the Democratic notion of the same. One of the insidious outcomes of this binary way of thinking is the mistaken belief that the Democrats don’t know how to talk to religious Americans. Another is that religious Americans are exclusively found among the Republicans. The GOP is the party of religion, the Democrats of something else.

That the Republicans prefer this binary way of thinking should not be surprising. It is, and has always been, to their advantage. What is surprising, however, is the critics of the Democratic Party echoing those preferences. Here’s Matt Taibbi, of Rolling Stone, shortly after Election Day: “The lack of a religious tradition, even among parents, has created a new kind of Democratic voter who has embraced politics as a replacement for their spiritual beliefs,” he said. “They are talking about things, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or environmentalism, they sound like religious people when they speak.”

Taibbi is almost certainly projecting here. He’s a product of bourgeois affirmation and comfort, and of elite institutions on the east coast. He’s also hostile toward faith. He moves among like-minded leftists who view religion, as Karl Marx did, as the opium of the people. When he says the Democrats don’t have a “religious tradition,” that’s a good thing. What’s bad is treating politics as a replacement for “spiritual beliefs.”

In the process, however, Taibbi ends up giving credence to the Republican allegation that the Democrats worship at the altar of partisan power. He seems to think he’s helping liberate the minds of the people but, being as captive to binary thinking as the press corps is, he’s mostly confusing them. To reiterate: there’s a multiverse of sides. Only after opening one’s mind to the possibilities does politics actually make sense.

Here’s what makes sense. One, the Democrats are a party of religious people. It includes Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, religious conservatives and religious liberals. Saying they don’t know how to talk to religious people suggests that you don’t know the party—or, like Taibbi, that you define “religion” from the right.

Two, the right’s definition of religion is too narrow for a party as diverse as the Democrats are. Religion can be just God Talk, but it can also be belief in our ability and duty to make America a better place for all people, and then committing to collective actions realizing that belief. It can be, in other words, something like Black Lives Matter and environmentalism. Taibbi is right in saying some Democrats lack a “religion tradition.” He’s wrong, however, in saying politics is a replacement for “spiritual belief.” That, after all, is the root of all Democrats’ faith in democracy.

John Stoehr