Earlier this week, here on the blog, I reviewed the 2016 Republican Party's platform, concluding that although it certainly is a political document, it's also a theological statement that voters should think about as they decide between the Trump-Pence and the Clinton-Kaine tickets.
Today I want to share some thoughts after having read the 2016 Democratic Party's platform through my theological lenses. (This Religion News Service piece and this blog post by religion scholar Mark Silk offer something similar if you find you don't like my conclusions -- or even if you do and want to see what others are saying.)
Even the Preambles of both platforms give a sense of how the two parties now differ in their approach. The GOP begins by declaring a belief in "American exceptionalism," a term that carries with it at times the idea that God has anointed the U.S. to be a special nation in the world. By contrast, the Democrats begin by saying that they are in harmony with "the same basic belief that animated the Continental Congress when they gathered here 240 years ago: Out of many, we are one." It's an approach that seems to emphasize the inclusive nature of the party, with the implication that people of different faiths -- and none -- are welcome under its umbrella. The GOP platform, by contrast, seems much more Christian-centric.
If you simply look for faith-based words in each platform, the Republican platform is considerably more marinated in such language. The Democrats' document mentions God three times, compared to 15 for the GOP. The Democrats use the word "religious" 11 times, compared to 50 uses by the Republicans. And Democrats use the word "faith" 10 times, not always in a religious context, while the GOP use it 26 times, also not always with a religious meaning.
But as I said in writing about the GOP platform, merely counting words doesn't tell you much.
So let's dig a bit deeper.
The differences between the two parties on one hot-button issue could not be more stark -- same-sex marriage.
The GOP declared that "Traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society and has for millennia been entrusted with rearing children and instilling cultural values. We condemn the Supreme Court" for its ruling making same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
The Democrats, by contrast, said this: "Democrats applaud last year’s decision by the Supreme Court that recognized that LGBT people—like other Americans—have the right to marry the person they love. But there is still much work to be done."
You may have to dig a bit to discover that both positions have their roots in theology, and particularly in how one reads and interprets the Bible. The fading belief that the Bible views homosexuality as a sin underpins the GOP position. The growing view that the Bible says almost nothing about homosexuality and should not be used as a weapon in this debate, seems to be at the root of the Democrats' position. For my own essay on what the Bible says about homosexuality, click here.
Another issue on which the parties differ -- an issue with plenty of ties to religion -- is the environment. As Mark Silk notes about the GOP platform in the piece to which I've linked you above, "Without actually denying climate change, they have set forth a blueprint for doing nothing about it." By contrast, the Democrats, he notes, are very much in harmony with Pope Francis and his 2015 Laudato Si encyclical on the environment when they put this in their platform: "Climate change is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time." The silent assumption in the Democratic document and the quite obvious conclusion in the pope's encyclical is that the Earth is God's creation and humans have a responsibility to be good stewards of it.
On the relationship of religion to immigration, Donald Trump, infamously, has suggested at least a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. The Democratic platform dismisses that idea: "We reject attempts to impose a religious test to bar immigrants or refugees from entering the United States. It is un-American and runs counter to the founding principles of this country." The Democrats say something similar when describing their commitment to fighting terrorism: "As we prosecute the fight against terrorism, Democrats will repudiate vile tactics that would do us harm. We reject Donald Trump’s vilification of Muslims. It violates the religious freedom that is the bedrock of our country and feeds into ISIS’ nefarious narrative."
For the last four or five decades, Republicans have been much more closely identified with a religious base -- Christians who would call themselves conservative or evangelical -- than have the Democrats. In fact, in many ways Democrats have struggled to figure out how to appeal to people of faith and have been pretty awkward at it. Which is why you find this kind of broad language of faith support in the 2016 Democratic platform: "Democrats know that our nation, our communities, and our lives are made vastly stronger and richer by faith in many forms and the countless acts of justice, mercy, and tolerance it inspires. We believe in lifting up and valuing the good work of people of faith and religious organizations and finding ways to support that work where possible." The "where possible" language makes room for Democrats who (wrongly) find any connection or cooperation between government and religion a violation of constitutional principles. Democrats would do well to remember that the church-state separation concept was intended to keep government out of religion, not to keep religion out of the public square.
Democrats also have recognized that a lot of Americans (by last count, almost 25 percent of adults) are religiously unaffiliated. And many of those folks vote, too. So the trick is how to appeal to them while also appealing to people of faith. One way is to speak about essentially secular matters but use faith language that most unaffiliated people would not find objectionable.
For instance, this: "Democrats know that Americans’ right to vote is sacred and fundamental." Both "sacred" and "fundamental" are terms of art drawn from the world of religion. But here they are used as synonyms for "really, really important." It's an interesting rhetorical technique, but the continued use of such faith-based terms in secular contexts tends to hollow out any remaining religious meaning they might have. (If everything is "awesome," pretty soon nothing is.)
Naturally, you'd expect to find substantial differences between Republicans and Democrats on the issue of abortion, given that the position many voters take on it is often reflective of their religious views.
So the GOP platform says this, among its 35 different references to abortion (compared to six in the Democratic platform): "The Democratic Party is extreme on abortion. Democrats’ almost limitless support for abortion, and their strident opposition to even the most basic restrictions on abortion, put them dramatically out of step with the American people." By contrast, the Democrats promise this: "We will appoint judges who defend the constitutional principles of liberty and equality for all, and will protect a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion. . ." And this: "We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion. . ."
To support the concept of legal abortion, some Catholic Democratic politicians (Joe Biden, Tim Kaine, among others) adopt positions that reject church social teaching.
There are many other differences between the two platforms, perhaps a prime example being what they have to say about gun safety and control.
But in general, the language used in the Democratic platform is considerably less reliant on religious imagery and concepts than the words the Republicans chose to use in their document.
As I said when I reviewed the GOP platform a few days ago, the task for voters is to read and digest these platforms but, while they're at it, to pay attention to the theology woven through the documents. It's there. Don't miss it.
(Finally, while we're on this topic, here is a Religion News Service story that describes how many of the delegates to the Democratic convention are people of faith and happy to be identified that way.)
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A MASS-IVE NUMBER OF YEARS
Pope Francis just celebrated a Mass in Poland that commemorated the 1,050th anniversary of Catholicism's coming to that country. Does that make the Poles the true Millennials?