Making God a Democrat

It may be heresy, but what happens if God has close ties to the Democratic Party? Coretta Scott King’s death was painful because she provided moral leadership after her husband’s death, but it also made me recall that, in the 1960s, the Democrats had numerous ties to religion.

In fact, Jack Kennedy, the first Catholic President, didn’t become generally accepted as the Democratic candidate until he won the primary in Protestant West Virginia. He would puncture anti-Catholic bias by saying no Catholic should vote for him because he is a Catholic. It was generally conceded that a person’s religion didn’t matter so long as he had one.

There were right-wing ministers. They decried “godless Communism.” The blacklisted left-wingers in Hollywood were accused of introducing materialistic propaganda into their films. But nobody accused the Democrats of having no religion.

There were progressive ministers from all denominations who denounced the Vietnam War.

And over the decade, a colossus put his mark on the Democratic Party and its internal politics. Martin Luther King turned his ministry into political force by preaching non-violence. Civil disobedience and passive resistance gave him and the civil rights movement a great moral force. Court rulings undermining segregation gave the movement its legal authority. The God-fearing had many ties to Democrats.

In 1968, it would have been absurd to say the Republicans owned the religious vote. But today, the frequent churchgoers are predominantly Republicans.

Happily this may change. The New York State lobbying group, the Empire State Pride Agenda, is attracting attention with its program enrolling ministers and lay individuals to speak out against right-wing bigots. These people offer reassurance when someone says marriage equality is sinister and will undermine the family. They can answer a bigot who calls lesbians and gays unnatural. In this way, New Yorkers statewide are reaching their neighbors and local media with positive messages to counter odious propaganda.

The National Black Justice Coalition fired a warning shot toward prominent African-American ministers who wanted to play Republican games by trashing lesbians and gays. In effect, the NBJC said you want to mess with our private lives then we can publicly discuss your private lives and even out you. This month—Black History Month—the group has been remembering famous African Americans including George Washington Carver and Alice Walker and saying they are friends of Dorothy.

In other words, the Democrats are no longer conceding the religious vote to conservative Evangelicals and Catholics.

There is no reason to assume that religion will lead you away from charity and helping others. The musical hit “The Color Purple” shows how religion helps people survive racism and sexism. And a new history book on the first half of the 19th century, Sean Wilentz’s “The Rise of American Democracy,” reminds us that the religious revivals were training grounds for feminists and anti-slavery organizers. Religion reinforced progressive trends.

As we look at the moral values question more closely, it is clear that Democrats offer a home for the religious. John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, has studied progressivism and religion. He found that “64 percent said that greed and materialism and poverty and economic justice were the most important moral questions facing the United States.” Although I am an atheist, I bet I would agree with these folk on economic justice issues. Podesta believes, “many people of faith are worried about the coarsening of our culture, but they’re also worried about their children’s schools, about the quality of air we breathe, about the water they drink, about the increase in poverty.”

The Democrats are listening, including Howard Dean, the chairman of the national party. There is a growing consensus that Democrats should press the issue of a higher minimum wage. A majority of the people won’t see their wages raised, but they know that for the worst-paid workers in America wages are simply too low.

Of course, there are problems also. Coalitions require care and feeding because they bring together people who often disagree. The big problem remains marriage equality. Too many Americans are inexorably opposed, but opinion keeps shifting, and it is a hopeful sign that a Florida referendum seems stalled. One group is with us—the young—and that promises that the future is ours. For the first time in many years, youth voted Democratic in 2004. And they also are comfortable with the notion of same-sex love and marriage.

I for one am pleased that gay leaders are helping to make the religious comfortable with the perspectives of our community and implicitly with the Democratic Party. The religious in this country, of countless stripes, must be enlisted to support lesbian and gay causes. One key unifying issue is AIDS. There is a growing recognition that this disease requires government spending. If we can work together on this issue, perhaps we give marriage equality the time to simmer into a fruitful repast.

Note: A mistake made in last week’s column about marijuana arrests undermines my contention that New York City arrests dramatically skew the national figures. I was using figures provided by NORML, the marijuana drug law reform organization—and that created a problem of apples and oranges. The NORML statistics from the federal government include arrests where marijuana was not the most serious offense—for example when a mugger is arrested and found to be carrying a bag of smoke. Arresting that individual is not an example of a proactive, anti-drug arrest policy, as my column suggested.

These are the numbers for misdemeanor arrests, which did not include serious offenses: After reaching a high of 60,543 marijuana arrests in 2000, the arrests fell after 9/11, because the police had more important things to do. There was a 21 percent drop in 2001 to 47,707 and by 2004 the number had fallen 45 percent to 33,145, only to creep up nine percent in 2005 to 35,120. Even the reduced 2005 figure is a six-fold increase over the misdemeanor arrests before Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took office.