Finding Their Religion

Jeff Alworth

It took a long time--and a lot of lost elections--but the Democrats have finally abandoned their reluctance to talk about religion.  Jesus Camp, an intentionally scathing documentary about a Christian summer camp, opened this weekend in Oregon.  Letter to a Christian Nation and The God Delusion are on bestseller lists.  Even Bill Moyers is back on TV talking about God

For a party that has related to religion through JFK's famous statement--"I am not the Catholic candidate for President; I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic"--this has been no easy task, and the early steps have been awkward and unsure.  Some of the faithful like Jimmy Carter and Jim Wallis have tried to decouple God and country, while secularists marvel at mega-churches, the Left-Behind novels, and Pat Robertson.  There is a tension between the Democratic Party's natural inclination toward inclusiveness and a very real fear of the threat of unyielding zealots in the GOP.

I recently got a review copy of one of these products, Robert Lanham's The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right, which perfectly reflects this tension.

On the one hand, Lanham does a serious job of documenting the leaders and power bases that form the nexus of the GOP and evangelical Christianity.  This part is serious and impressive.  On the other hand, it's written in satirical, sarcastic prose, like a Jon Stewart bit.  Lanham wants to instruct, but doesn't have the confidence to play it straight.  You end up with descriptions like this:

Pentacostals and Charismatics.  The fastest-growing branch of Christianity, which includes many denominations, such as the popular Assembly of God.  These are the "spirit-filled" ones who speak in tongues, hear voices, TiVo Benny Hinn, and think the graffiti on the building down by the old creek is the work of a demonic coven.  Pentastoal and Charismatic churches all have a resident born-agian Deadhead who used to work at a headshop named Scarlet Begonias until life became meaningless when Jerry Garcia died.  In backwoods towns, it's the Pentacostals who are known for burning records and handling snakes, the latter being a religious ritual we wish Falwell would warm up to."

People who know where the facts end and the snark begins won't need to read this; people who don't won't get a sense of who evangelicals are or what they believe. 

Sinnersguide There are serious issues here. The New York Times in in the midst of a four-part series describing the consequences of linking up churches to the social safety net.  Churches providing child care, for instance, aren't subject to state inspections.  Churches aren't subject to civil rights laws, don't have to provide trained staff, and don't have to account for food preparation.  Is this good policy?  How much do these policies result from the influence of, say, the Leadership Institute, which as Lanham reports "recruited, trained, and provided job placement for over forty thousand 'family values' leaders, including Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, and dozens of Congressmen"? 

What is the effect of the politicization of the churches?  Have the health of denominations suffered as a result of the influence GOP-entwined church leaders wield?  Lanham's most interesting chapter details the "emerging church" movement--churches that offer a cultural and political refutation to popular evangelical churches in the Dobson mode.  According to Lanham, leaders in this branch, like 36-year-old pastor Rob Bell, believe that Biblical truth is alive and "emerging."  They are orthodox Christians, yet rather than reside in certainty, authentic Christian faith "has been the searching and struggling and doubting... the people who are considered the heroes of the Bible have deep, kind of ache-of-the-soul questions before God."  Is this a serious trend or just an oddity?

Instead of a more cohesive examination of these issues, Lanham tries to lure the "sinners" in with funny line drawings and snappy patter--apparently hoping they'll pick up some important information along the way.  And there is important information, possibly even enough to justify picking up a copy.  But I wish he'd recognized that the subject warranted more than a tongue-in-cheek presentation and given us a little more serious discussion. 

But perhaps those are to come, as liberals gain confidence in talking about God publicly.

  • Sandra (unverified)

    I saw Jesus Camp this weekend and highly recommend it. Even though it is "intentionally scathing" I believe it will (or at least should) escape the kind of criticism drawn by Michael Moore's films. The film lets the Evangelicals speak for themselves. Highly recommend it.

    As for this issue, the place of religion in politics and elections, it's hard for me to jump on the bandwagon that claims the Dems need to organize in the same way the GOP has with regard to Christian churches. While Dems shouldn't discard religion or the role that one's religious path may play in their political identity, we don't need to act like Republicans to win the next election.

  • Joe12Pack (unverified)

    Careful you don't paint all evangelical christians with the same brush. Jesus Camp portrays a fringe element of that bunch, but is it representative of so-called evangelicals? What about Jim Wallis and the like? Last I checked, Jimmy Carter is a practicing Southern Baptist.

    You see, not all "people of faith" are nutjobs, just as many Democrats don't align themselves with the crackpots over at

    Seems to me that there are just as many atheist or agnostic types in the Democratic party as there are religious wacko's in the republican party. I know plenty of christian democrats as well as several republicans who can't stand the infiltration of the so-called religious right.

    Anyway, though an interesting documentary, Jesus Camp no more represents republicans than does the Revolutionary Communist Party represent Democrats.

    I'd like to think we can at least agree on the following: RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM BAD! COMMUNISM BAD! Both concepts would be an affront to the founders of our nation.

  • Peter Bray (unverified)

    If someone told me about some far-off religion where its adherents drink the blood of their god, eat his flesh, believe that the dead will walk the earth again, and have Stephen Baldwin advising you that Bono = Satan, well, I'd ask you in what weird far-off century that craziness happened?

    To be honest, instead of coddling these superstitions, we should strive to foster a culture of reason, and science, and faith in human society. This meme that "faith" is somehow paramount, or that religion = good, or that religion can do things gov'ts cant is sickening.

    The aggressive marketing of religion as something "cool" and urban and hip is extremely depressing. I see these "cool" kids for Jesus at the hip new church that meets at 32nd just past Music Millenium. Read this to learn about this crazy for Christ stuff. And look at this branding and marketing for God crap.

    Frankly, we need an anti-missionary movement in the US... a group of non-bookwormy atheists who can anti-preach. They might start by recommending Dawkin's The God Delusion (though that would be kinda bookwormy).

  • BlueNote (unverified)

    Democrats don't need to play the religion card to win, but they also need to avoid being portrayed as the anti-religion party. For better or worse, the USA is a largely Christian country and any party that actively rejects Christianity (in the big tent sense of the word) is going to lose the next 30 or 40 elections.

  • William Taylor Sr (unverified)

    True Christianity vs. Their Religion

    Their need to be a biblical clarification of a TRUE Christian since this title is so loosely used these days by, Mormons, Catholics, Jehovah Witnesses, Conservatives, Liberals, Modernists, Progressives, Calvinist, Armenians, Baptist, Charismatic, Reformed, Pentecostal, Masons, Shriners, New Age (Christ consciousness), 7th Day Adventists, Sinners, you name it.

    According to the Holy Scriptures there is only one voice that speaks the truth about Christianity, Jesus Christ the Messiah. All true followers (disciples) of Jesus speak the same thing he does. All other voices that proclaim to speak for Christianity are either ANOTHER GOSPEL, ANOTHER JESUS, or ANOTHER SPIRIT. Jesus said in John 14:6, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me

    The “truly” born-again (By the Spirit of God) Christians follows Jesus who said: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. We live by the laws of God kingdom not this earthly kingdom. We love our enemy even to our own detriment even death. We love our brothers (these are those who do the will of the Father); we love our neighbors (who ever they may be). We bless them which persecute us, we bless and curse not, we recompense to no man evil for evil, we provide things honest in the sight of all men, we avenge not ourselves, but rather give place unto wrath, if our enemy hunger we feed him; if he thirst we give him drink, we overcome evil with good. (Note: the above does not neglect the commands from scripture to reprove, rebuke and expose sin and wickedness all in love of truth for the SAVING OF THE SOUL: Luke 17:3, 1 Timothy 5:20, 2 Timothy 4:2, Titus 1:13, and 2 Timothy 2:15).

    This earthly kingdom is not ours the same as it was not our Lord Jesus Christ when He walked this earth. Jesus utmost concerns WERE NOT POLITICAL and ECONOMICAL ISSUES during His ministry here on earth and shouldn't BE THE TRUE BELIEVERS either. His concern was His everlasting kingdom being established and manifested to his subjects now whereby we may by His grace and tender mercies serve Him here and forevermore. Our duty is to pray for those in authority of this earthly kingdom regardless of who they are: that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this [is] good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour. The Sovereign God gives kingdoms to even the abase of men for His Sovereign purpose. The Holy Scriptures declare that God is the origin of power, and the supreme Governor of the universe, he delegates authority to whomsoever he will; and though in many cases the governor himself may not be of God.

    We that are "truly" born-again are to take up our cross daily fulfill the great commission. Preach the gospel in order that some men would repent, believe and be saved from an ETERNAL HELLFIRE. Revelation 21:8, But the fearful, and UNBELIEVING, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake, which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

    Beware of those who claim to be Christians but follow another Jesus, another spirit, and another gospel as the Apostle Paul was referring to in 2 Corinthians11: 4.

    By, William Taylor Sr. Bondservant of the Lord Jesus Christ

  • LT (unverified)

    There are active Democrats who attend church regularly and don't like being told they must wear their religion on their sleeve in order to win elections.

    People know genuine faith when they see it. People of faith are in all denominations, and it is always refreshing to see a candidate in a debate say "in my religion, we take stewardship very seriously" or something like that. Don't forget how many votes Kerry got in 2004 (more than Reagan in 1984 as I recall) and that no poll has ever said that all those votes came from people who never see the inside of a house of worship. The insides of that famous "the more likely you are to attend church regularly, the more likely you are to vote Republican" turned out to say that actually, it depended on the denomination one attended.

    There have always been liberals who could talk about God openly, but they have too often been ignored. And of course, that depends on the definition of the word "liberal". John B. Anderson, former Evangelical Layman of the Year, was an independent candidate for president after losing the Republican primary in 1980. He was often considered a liberal Republican. There have been Democratic members of Congress who were clergy (incl. Bob Edgar, the head of the National Council of Churches). In Oregon Chuck Lee, Catholic School administrator and House Dist. 25 Dem. nominee, often sounds like Hubert Humphrey who was the definition of liberal for a generation.

    There has been a false dichotomy that people attending church and Democrats were 2 different groups. Not in every town in America, although some would like to make it sound like that. There are lots of fundamentalists, evangelicals and others who are getting tired of religion being politicized. Remember there are lots of people who don't fall into the megachurch category or who don't see the need to talk to politicians about their religion.

    I did like this quote about that book: " I wish he'd recognized that the subject warranted more than a tongue-in-cheek presentation and given us a little more serious discussion. "

    There are a number of Democrats who have written about their religious beliefs as part of an autobiographical or other book. One of those is Gary Hart's A GOOD FIGHT which includes a section about his education. It discusses religious history as well as political subjects. The way it is written my not be appealing to some as it is modeled after THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS, a book the author admires. It was written in the early 1990s.

    Debates over such topics have been out there for years for those who wished to become involved. People of strong religious faith question some of the underpinnings of what goes on with evangelicals--from those who say Billy Graham should be the role model and Falwell, Robertson, Dobson come across as fools to those academics who raise serious questions. Mark Noll wrote some excellent books including "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" which he says is that evangelicals are not as intellectually rigorous as the rest of society and it harms their movement.

    It is good to bring up this topic as long as there are no sterotypes of how people view the issue. For many this is a very personal question about them as individuals, not what group they belong to. Don't assume that people who attend church are always going to vote straight Republican, because that is far from the truth.

    People with a religous grounding who are active Democrats can just say things in conversation to cause other people to think. And I mean quoting the Sermon on the Mount or asking why negative ads aren't violating the Commandment against bearing false witness. I have encountered someone of the "proud to be a Christian" philosophy (not what many of us thought Jesus had in mind) and said "Glad to hear that. What is your favorite Beatitude?". Amazing how that stumps some people. Of course to ask that question one must be able to answer it as in "my favorite is Blessed are the peacemakers because..."

  • Brandon Rhodes (unverified)

    As someone within the evangelical community (getting a Master's at Multnomah Seminary, actually), I want to encourage everyone that there is a massive shift in the younger generation of evangelicals. It's part of that "emerging church" movement that the article mentions. It's 20-somethings who are sick of a faith that is equated with the American Dream rather than the downward-mobility, courage, and love captured in the Way that Jesus taught and lived. They've got an increasingly inclusive and holistic value set that isn't limited to two issues.

    Many of them hear Democrats talking so disparagingly about them and don't know what to do. They wind up either not voting, or voting R, when they'd really like to vote D! The Democrats have a HUGE opportunity to win evangelical votes & aide -- if they can stop being so smug toward them.

    And there's a delicious hypocricy from everyone, I think: liberal smugness toward Christianity without recognizing its political diversity is just as unfair & false as evangelicals and others smearing all of Islam as a violent/fascist religion without due nuance. Both groups need to be more charitable to those that most freak them out.

    As an historical reflection, let's remember the accomplishments of Christians in American progressive history: Civil rights, end of slavery, child labor laws, labor rights, and many other accomplishments in American democracy were only achieved with a core of committed and public Christians. (Think MLK) We're not a Christian nation, but a lot of progress has only been made with the help of Christians.

  • ws (unverified)

    Jesus Camp. I haven't seen this documentary or read any of the books mentioned except the bible, and the latter with a great deal of discretion. Religion in society seems to be a reality, something like second-hand smoke, so it seems to make sense to avoid its effect as much as possible in managing a healthy government that supports the relatively free democratic society the U.S. continues to aspire to be.

    The W and the republican crew used his so-called born again personae to coax the christian herd into supporting this righteous illusion manifested in reality by the semi-apocolypse taking place in Iraq. If this is the bountiful result of religion meeting government, it would seem we'd all be wise to work a little harder than we have to bolster the seperation of church and state.

    Not everyone on is a crackpot. Such a cheap statement demeans the service that website provides to many commenting there who are obviously younger people working to identify their values and find their voice. Being of a decidely liberal and even radical persuasion, they don't take kindly to some of the conservative crackpots who find an opportunity to express thier opinions on this weblog. But don't take my word for it.

  • 17yearoldwithanopinion (unverified)

    I am a proud democrat who works hard to elect democrats but I go to one of the most conserative churchs there is in the state. Pretty much every person, no matter what age, is a republican. I go to the high school service at night and see 200 to 300 kids who in a few years will be voting for republicans. Now you might ask me why I say that? This is thier stance on politics, I could never vote for a democrat so I will vote for republicans because democrats are inmorale. I kid you not people there have said those exact words. Since somewhere around 80%(I read this once in the newspapers) of oregonains are people that call themselves religous then democrats must have people of faith like me among them and be proud of it. Groups like ACLU and such have hijacked the party by making having any influence of GOD of in goverment a sin. Peter Bray sorry to burst your bubble but you kind sir are a radical in our nation. I urge democrats to embace some form of religion. Lets not forget that Madison, Jefferson and the other founding fathers men of faith and were very proud of it.

  • Buckman Res (unverified)

    “Not everyone on is a crackpot. “

    Maybe not everyone, but when the site is dominated by blogs concerned with chem-trails, cop-hating rants, and endless conspiracy theories about everything from Diebold machines to 911, just to name a few, I’d say the percentage of crackpots has to be up in the high 90’s.

    But it is a great site to visit for a few laughs.

  • (Show?)

    Brandon, thanks for writing. I feel a lot more hopeful after hearing what you have to say. You're exactly right about the history of progressivism and Christianity. It was the prairie populists, led by William Jennings Bryan, who first stood up to the elites following the Gilded Age. I think that's one reason why Dems have been flummoxed about how some evangelicals have used religion to target them as "immoral."

    Things go in cycles, and maybe the cynical politics of the GOP will give Dems an opportunity to turn the wheel again.

  • LT (unverified)

    17 and Brandon,

    If you don't know about the West Virginia v. Barnette Supreme Court case already, you should read about it--very important case in 20th century history. A school board and parents in a tangle over religous expression. Justice Jackson's opinion says that no official high or petty shall say what is orthodox in religion, politics, or other matters of opinion (that isn't the exact quote, but close).

    I have never been smug to a person of a different religion. I am a former member of the Dem. State Central Comm. and a Dem. National Convention delegate--for a candidate who had graduated from a religious college. A retired clergyman once ran in the Dem. primary for state rep. in my district.

    The ACLU is not a part of the Democratic Party. The ACLU is a lobbying group. The Democratic Party is made up of precinct people who elect county officers (chair, secretary, etc.) and delegates to District and State Central Comm. and the Platform Convention (or whatever they call it these days) write the state platform which is the only thing that can fairly be described as "what Democrats believe" as Steve Bucknum so ably noted in another topic not that long ago.

    There are rude and unthinking individuals in every walk of life who have said things that cause offense--whether it be taken as offense to one's religious beliefs or whether someone in the stress of the campaign says to a volunteer "You stupid @#%&*! how could you do that?"

    If you have examples of individual actions which caused offense, please let us know about them. But as someone with a church music director and a retired clergyman as inlaws and active church members in my family (not all of the same denomination) I assure you that not everyone who has ever worked on a Democratic campaign is smug towards people with strong religious beliefs.

    If someone in another state or another county or a lobbying group did something which gave offense, there is really nothing that people who knew nothing about that encounter can do --esp. if they never knew it happened.

    So please don't "broadbrush" everyone who has ever been a Democratic volunteer as smug. I hate smug people at least as much as you do.

  • ws (unverified)

    Founding Fathers that were men of faith. Well that's true, many were. Yet those Founding fathers, despite the religious faith they had, were intelligent enough to realize that keeping their religion separate from the workings of government was essential for enabling government to work as free as possible from religious bias.

    Some politicians today seem to have a completely different perspective on that. They feel entitled to use their religion to direct the voting tendencies of the public rather than solid constitutional argument that supports or finds fault with issues of public concern. Maybe I'm just repeating myself here.

    I'll retreat somewhat from my earlier expressed aversion to religion by recognizing that many faith based people, supported by their faith in decisions related to society and government, have made very worthy contributions to the American society as provided by the U.S. constitution. It's only those that contrive to deliberately use their religion to manipulate the function of government, by the people, as Bush and many republicans have, that deserve thorough criticism.

    Re; It stands to reason that anybody not disposed to giving any worthy consideration to a website offering viewpoints different than theirs, would remember only the drek that such a website offers, in addition to material of value found there. In recent months on that site, there has been thoughtful, balanced opinions expressed on such topics as; urban planning related to condo towers proposed for downtown, Goose Hollow and Mississippi Avenue. There has also been thoughtful balanced opinion spread amongst some extreme viewpoints, expressed in regards to the pattern of violent citizen deaths of questionable justification at the hands of law enforcement of various jurisdictions in the metro area.

    Of course, if all you're after in life is a cheap laugh, by all means head for the tin-foil hat rants and the cop hater items. You don't even need to go to indy for that. Just blow your brains out on talk radio.

  • LT (unverified)

    Yes, the Founding Fathers were people of faith--mostly Unitarians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians.

    And there is all sorts of back and forth about religion--some of it intelligent, some of it not. Those bashing Howard Dean because he chose to become active in a church other than the one he grew up in gave religion in politics (or in punditry in some cases) a bad name.

  • BOHICA (unverified)

    "One man's theology is another man's belly laugh." -From the notebook of Lazrus Long.

  • Bill (unverified)

    One of my new favorite "Founding Father" quotes (drawn from Richard Dawkin's excellent bestseller, "The God Delusion")...

    "The priests of the different religious sects...dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight, and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subdivisions of the duperies on which they live."

    • Thomas Jefferson

    Or as Mark Twain wrote, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so!"

    I'm still looking for a party that respects evidence-based approaches to reality, and rejects "faith-based" (i.e., evidence free) intrusions into science and other areas of public policy (e.g., "my imaginary god says gays can't marry and a zygote has feelings so let's change the US Constitution").

    And if you can't back up your religious beliefs/prejudices with facts (and I'm not talking works of fiction that you might claim - without a shred of evidence - were penned by Jesus, Mohammed, Yahwe, Zeus, Hades, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or a spinning celestial teapot (as Bertrand Russell once favored)), you are of course welcome to nurture them, state them, and assemble to discuss them.

    But the rest of us should quit respecting them, and quit encouraging their survival by our silence about the unsupportable ridiculousness of these prejudices, these beliefs, especially when actions based on them are often violent, reduce health care options and civil protections, and impede legitimate and useful scientific research.

    So sure, indulging evidence free religious prejudices will probably gain some Democrats a few votes in the short run, but Enlightenment values of free inquiry, and evaluation of evidence beats the influence of somebody's usually nasty imaginary god on American public policy any day...

  • Danny Haszard (unverified)

    I was born raised Jehovah's Witness,they are a hard core fundy and abusive cult from the get-go.

    Danny Haszard Kingdom Hall Jehovah's Witnesses Rockland Massachusetts

  • Danny Haszard (unverified)

    I was born raised Jehovah's Witness,they are a hard core fundy and abusive cult from the get-go.

    Danny Haszard Kingdom Hall Jehovah's Witnesses Rockland Massachusetts

  • Mister Tee (unverified)

    I kind of think as Liberalism as a religion.

    Speaking of preaching to the choir: Commissioner Randy "Do Something" Leonard will introduce an anti-war resolution for the City Council to vote on.

    <h2>It appears to be a non-binding resolution of the "must be running for reelection soon" faction of the Party Formerly Known as the Democrats. If they don't bring our troops back home, will the PPB invade Washington D.C.? Maybe we should refuse to spend their Federal pork barrel checks? Rubbing salt in the wounds of the Feds wouldn't make anybody treat Oregon differently, would they?</h2>

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