Amid a rise in Christian nationalism, the overturning of abortion rights, threats to LGBTQ+ rights and democracy itself, progressive religious leaders are pushing a message that a faith-based vote is not the sole domain of conservatives.
In a webinar Sunday called “Liberate Democracy: Vote the Just Vision” hosted by the Middle Collegiate Church in New York City and attended by Political IQ, clergy and other religious faithful strategized ways to elevate their voices ahead of the midterm elections.
The Challenge of Diversity
Individuals representing a broad array of religions, races, cultures, sexual orientation and gender identity participated in the webinar. And that, according to Rabbi Joshua Stanton of East End Temple in New York City, poses one of the progressive-leaning religious faithfuls’ greatest challenges.
“How do we go about building coalitions? Because the strength of the right-wing extremists is that their coalitions are pretty homogenous and so it’s fairly easy to form,” he told the webinar. “How do we find enough common ground to become an effective voting bloc in a way that we haven’t?”
Social Scientist and Education Practitioner Khyati Joshi, a Hindu, added that non-Christian faiths are “constantly told that we are statistically insignificant to gather data on.”
For example, a recent poll on how different faith groups view immigration separated out white Catholic, Hispanic Catholic, Black Protestant, white mainline Protestant, and white evangelical Protestant—but it lumped together “non-Christian” as one homogenous group.
Adding to the challenge, said Joshi, there can often be a language barrier. The priests at the Hindu temples, for instance, “They know the Sanskrit shlokas,” but most don’t speak English.
The right, meanwhile—conservatives if not extremists—appear well aware of their political strengths.
“We’re better organized across the country and have 50 times more staff in the states than we have in Washington, DC,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Christianity Today. “Conservatives are more engaged in local politics…Conservatives are better equipped to fight a multi-front battle than liberals are.”
And activist Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition is among dozens of conservative nonprofits that have each raised tens of millions of dollars in get-out-the-vote efforts since the Supreme Court’s dissolving the Constitutional right to abortion in its June 24 Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health decision.
Catholics & Evangelicals Not All-in Against Abortion
That said, Pew Research found Catholics are “split down the middle politically” and not likely to break heavily Republican or Democratic this midterm election. That’s because when it comes to specific issues like abortion, Catholics are more often aligned with their political party than with Church teachings.
Among evangelicals, a Morning Consult poll from July 10 found 41% support an abortion ban with no exceptions, but for most it was not a top priority.
Many conservative religious organizations, like Reed’s coalition, continue to push for a state-by-state approach to abortion legislation despite Sen. Graham’s call in September for a national ban.
However, Marjorie Dannenfelser, President of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “[If] candidates support laws that permit abortion all the way up to birth, they are out of step with the American public, and Republicans should not be afraid to call them out on it.”
This gets at one of the progressive faithfuls’ complaints. “Why is it that conservative Christian America gets to define the moral questions of our country?” asked Joshi. She noted the webinar had brought up issues of poverty, clean water and financial justice. “So why is it that it’s abortion and the lives of our LGBTQ+ community members?”
Pastors Push Back Against Christian Nationalism
Despite the establishment clause in the First Amendment, Christian nationalism, the belief that the U.S. is a “Christian nation” and should be governed by Biblical law, is gaining influence within the Republican Party.
As Pew Research predicts that the number of Americans who identify as Christian could fall below 50% within the next few decades, a University of Maryland poll from May found that 61% of Republicans versus 17% of Democrats and 36% of Independents said they would favor the U.S. officially declaring itself a Christian nation.
Progressive Christian faith leaders have been pushing back, saying Christian nationalism is “not our faith,” and adding that just because you might lean conservative, it doesn’t have to be your faith, either.
One such faith leader is Pastor Doug Pagitt, Director of Vote Common Good. He’s been traveling with members of his organization by bus across the country, and he spoke to the webinar from outside a church in Milwaukee.
“So many people feel that their political identity and their religious identity got welded together,” he said. “Maybe they want to vote for a Republican, I don’t know, but they don’t want to feel like they have to.”
His group goes to churches by invitation, based on where Pagitt believes “working with predominantly white Catholic and white evangelical voters can have the most impact” and where elections will make the biggest difference nationwide. So far, they’ve traveled to Texas, Arkansas, Iowa and Wisconsin. Next up, Vote Common Good heads to Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.
“What we’re hearing out here is that people want to find a way out of the anger and a way out of the separation. They want to be called to something more than just the partisan fight,” said Pagitt. But more than that, he added, “We are hearing that they’re really terrified by Christian nationalism and what we saw in the [January 6] insurrection. People are really fearful for this democracy. People are really fearful for their own safety.”
Church Groups Team Up Against Threats
In fact, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is warning about reported threats against election workers, particularly in battleground states like Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. FBI Director Christopher Wray said the Bureau has also received reports from Colorado, Michigan and Nevada. The officials said they’re happening amid disinformation campaigns launched by foreign entities.
Church groups are safeguarding themselves against any potential trouble when folks go to vote.
Jeanné Lewis, interim CEO at Faith in Public Life (FPL) in Washington, DC became a precinct worker after a bad voting experience in Florida during the 2000 Presidential election. She said it’s taught her that most misinformation by poll workers hasn’t been malicious; it’s come from “gaps in knowledge or ignorance.”
Until today, that is. “Sadly now, what we see has been a rise in intentionally racist and violent and malicious acts by individuals across our democracy. From elected officials to individuals at the polls who are seeking to threaten and intimidate.”
To that end, FPL has convened a “national faith table” of more than 25 faith-based organizations serving as a “strategy and rapid response hub” to prevent political violence and counter misinformation. “We have to speak the truth boldly and courageously,” she said.
Democratic Political Strategist Paul Devlin offered tips for staying safe at the polls.
Vote with a friend, he told the webinar. “Less violence occurs when multiple people are together.”
Also, “All polling places have site coordinators on site. Check with them.”
Finally, Devlin added, “Don’t get distracted.” He mentioned a recent election in Virginia where he experienced “pick-up trucks with big Confederate flags driving by trying to intimidate voters” and advised, “You just have to look away. You just have to stand in line and participate in our democracy. Just make sure to be careful at all times, but there’s no reason to run away from it.”
If you want to report concerns about your polling place, you can call the voter protection hotline: 1-866-OUR-VOTE.