When you think of Christian nationalism, Republican social conservatives probably come to mind, and for good reason. In 2020, President Trump won 59% of those who attended religious services at least monthly. Among white Americans, that number jumped to 71%.
Although infamously impious himself, Trump made a point of pandering to evangelical Christians as much as possible. Prior to the 2020 election, he told evangelicals he would put prayer back in public schools and elevated Christian conservative Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Christian nationalism played a major role in the January 6th insurrection, with several of the rioters claiming they were answering God’s call. Christian nationalists are fighting to put Christianity back in public institutions. Trump support is dominant in these communities, as nearly 8 in 10 white evangelicals voted Republican in the 2020 Presidential contest.
Republicans’ embrace of Christian nationalism is dangerous because it is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. A Christian nationalist believes that America is a Christian nation and that the Christian God should be placed in the center of public institutions—a belief in irreconcilable conflict with a pluralistic society in which all groups, including other religions and the nonreligious, have an equal right to compete for power under the same rules. In fact, a Christian nationalist would believe that any rule that does not result in white Christians dictating the country’s political and cultural norms should be thrown out by any means necessary. It’s the kind of logic that could lead to the disintegration of democracy—or maybe even a violent insurrection.
But are Republicans the only Christian nationalist party in America?
The Democratic Party has a reputation of struggling to connect with religious voters. That may be true of white religious voters, who overwhelmingly support Republicans. But strong majorities of Black Americans and Latino Americans support Democrats, and both of those groups are highly religious.
Democrats were once the party of socially conservative, rural voters, a demographic they’ve lost over the last few decades. The party has been especially sensitive to criticisms that they have issues with religion, with observers as early as 2006 claiming Democrats have ‘a God problem.’ Democrats’ fear of being seen as nonreligious likely has roots in the Cold War. The Soviets were disdained in America not only for their communist economic system but also for their lack of religion. “Godless Communists” is a term that has stood the test of time. Social conservatives have long attempted to associate cultural progressivism with communism and a lack of patriotism. Opponents of civil rights once cast Martin Luther King, Jr. as a communist. Modern Democrats appeal to social and racial justice, but still want to avoid associations with communism and want to be seen as patriots.
Now add the fact that the country is rapidly secularizing and the left is increasingly nonreligious, though still not by a large enough margin to bring home elections on their own, and you have a party with a problem. Caught between the seculars they have and the religious they still need, Democrats have to decide which side requires a pander.
There’s no contest. In order to be seen as “religious enough” and as patriotic Americans who understand rural voters’ cultural sensibilities, the Democratic party embraces prayer and Christian symbols and language. They show up at the National Prayer Breakfast. They reliably end their speeches by saying some version of “God Bless America”—ever since Ronald Reagan made it the done thing.
None of which does much to represent the growing segment of the public, mostly Democrats, who hold strong secular values and convictions.
I should offer some proportionality here. Yes, Democrats embrace Christian symbols, practices, and imagery, and they don’t reach out nearly enough to nonreligious Americans who are disproportionately Democratic. But they are by no means the same as Republicans. The Republican Party has embraced a political program that essentially calls for Christian supremacy. The Republican Party wants Christians alone to be the decision-making class in America, and they’ve thrown their support behind a former President who has fought to end American democracy as we know it.
But Democrats’ consistent embrace of Christian symbols and prayer still suggests a party that sees not only religion generally but Christianity specifically as the cultural norm.
Christian prayer was a prominent aspect of the 2020 Democratic National Convention. In the closing ceremony, Catholic Sr. Simone Campbell called for the “Divine Spirit” to “stir our hearts and minds that we might fight for a vision that is worthy of you and your call to honor the dignity of all of your creation.” During the 2020 Democratic primaries, candidates rushed to prove their religious bona fides. Elizabeth Warren regularly quoted Matthew 25:31-46 in her stump speech. “That passage is not about you had a good thought and held onto it. … No. It says, you saw something wrong,” Warren said at a CNN town hall. “You saw somebody who was thirsty. You saw somebody who was in prison. You saw their face. You saw somebody who was hungry, and it moved you to act. I believe we are called on to act.”
Pete Buttigieg also regularly talked about his faith on the trail. “[My faith] instructs me to identify with the marginalized and to recognize that the greatest thing that any of us has to offer is love.” he said at a town hall meeting. After again winning the House in 2020, Democrats continued the historical trend of opening the new Congress with a prayer. When Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II made headlines by ending the prayer with a nod to the record number of women in the House, saying “amen and a-woman,” social conservatives feigned outrage that Cleaver had focused on gender. Absent was any outcry at the glaring unconstitutionality of the House Democrats opening Congress with a sectarian prayer. Democrats also remain a fixture at the National Prayer Breakfast, even after the events’ leaders embraced Trump’s lies about election fraud.
Whether by conviction or pragmatic necessity, the Democratic Party still positions itself as a Christian party and wants its leaders to adhere to those norms. Even though the party doesn’t believe in imposing its religious views on the public as Republicans do, it still leaves tens of millions of secular Americans disregarded and unrepresented.
Twenty-nine percent of Americans now identify as nonreligious, a higher proportion than any time in American history. That number is up from 22.8% in 2014 and 16% in 2007. It’s a bloc that is disproportionately young and leans heavily towards the Democratic Party. They place a high value on human rights, equality under the law, and separation of church and state. Although they support many of the values that the Democratic Party professes to champion, Democrats have largely held the secular community at arm’s length. Few members of Congress are openly nonreligious, and Christian identity (or at least religiosity) remains an unspoken requirement for party leadership positions or in high profile campaigns for Senate, governorships, or the presidency.
Instead of pretending that this secular bloc does not exist, Democrats should be openly courting them and pursuing political goals that align with their interests. Instead, there is a cynical calculus: religious voters could defect to the Republicans, but secular voters are thought to have nowhere else to go—so they are safely ignorable.
It may not be safe for long. As the proportion of those with “no religion” in the US approaches one in three, that assumption could prove fatal to the party. After three generations leading the youth vote, Democrats are now in third place with younger Millennial atheists (27%), running behind both Republicans (28%) and Other (30%).
With Democrats taking them for granted, nearly a third of secular Millennials did find somewhere else to go. Just as many have done with religion, they went to “none of the above.”
Yes, the Democratic coalition still includes a large religious base, including crucial Black and Latino voters, and yes, those voters deserve attention—but not at the exclusion of the secular bloc. Democrats need to rise to the challenge of being inclusive towards those who are religious and those who are secular. No need to choose one or the other. The equality and opportunity that secular Democrats embrace aren’t any different from the equality and opportunity that Black and Latino Democrats want. By focusing on issues that both groups favor, such as protecting the rights of marginalized groups, including religious minorities, and addressing the climate crisis, the party can embrace these divergent demographics at the level of shared values.
Instead of making Christian symbols and prayer the norm within the Democratic Party, party officials need to reach out to the growing group of secular Americans and make them feel like they have a role in shaping the party. As this group continues to grow nationally, they will increasingly demand that Democrats take them seriously. Getting ahead of the ball isn’t only the right thing to do from a moral point of view, it could also pay electoral dividends later. In order for the country to grow and fully represent secular Americans, the religious default of the Democratic party will have to change.