DES MOINES, Iowa — The meeting began with a prayer. Heads bowed and eyes closed. Then the members of “We Are Church Confessing,” a group of liberal faith leaders and activists from greater Des Moines, got to work. It was a midweek morning in May, and the Iowa Democratic caucuses felt at once far off on the calendar and also, somehow, already here.
Several presidential candidates had swept through town in recent days. The primary season was underway, and the group of pastors at Plymouth United Church of Christ had a full agenda. An asylum-seeker needed help at an upcoming appointment with federal immigration officials. Summer meetings needed to be scheduled. There was talk of staging a “die-in” in front of the state capitol to call for more state spending on public education, environmental programs, transgender health care services, an implicit bias training program for police, or preferrably some combination of all of the above.
When the meeting was over, the conversation turned to progressive politics and religion, and how the two fit together.
“There’s a saying: ‘Religion is always political but never partisan,’” said Nikira Hernandez-Evans, the pastor at Plymouth Church. Hernandez-Evans said she’s comfortable preaching about specific issues, but isn’t planning on discussing 2020 politics with her congregants. As the pastor of a “progressive Christian congregation,” she added, “it is not ever my job to tell people what to believe.”
In Iowa, a starting assumption is that the Democratic faithful are majority Christian. The data bears that out. Two-thirds of Iowa’s Democratic voters are Christian; in the 2016 general election, that was 411,528 voters, to be exact. In a break from the past, a growing number of them identify as progressive Christians. But as the 2020 election draws closer, the state’s Christian community — both progressive and moderate alike — is searching for answers to a complex set of questions.
As liberals, how should they blend their spiritual faith and political activism? How should Democrats running for president talk about religion? In Donald Trump, the party’s 2020 nominee will face a president who defies virtually every political norm, including those tied to faith. During the 2016 Republican primaries, Pope Francis said Trump’s anti-immigrant worldview made him “not a Christian.” Trump responded with a statement on Twitter predicting that the Islamic State group would attack the Vatican. He also called the Pope “disgraceful” for questioning his faith. Nevertheless, his policies and judicial appointments have kept him popular with white evangelical voters — the group with the loudest voice in the national religion-and-politics debate, and the one that helped install Trump in the White House.
“When people say ‘Christian voters’ they mean white people and they mean conservatives” who likely oppose abortion and gay marriage, said Natalie Harwood, a member of the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines. Harwood works at a Planned Parenthood clinic and is a diehard supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders. She’s also a person of faith. Given her values, Harwood said, “‘Christian voters’ is a very alienating term. I fall into those categories. But I don’t feel like I’m a part of that, even though I’m Christian.” As Connie Ryan, the executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, put it: “a lot of times, progressive people of faith are left out of the conversation.”
So religious activists in Iowa’s Democratic circles are talking amongst themselves. Their dialogue on faith and activism, and what it means to be Christian and progressive, is robust, and their community is larger than perhaps most people realize. In more than two dozen interviews, clergy, religious activists and other liberal Christian voters said they felt they haven’t been at the forefront of progressive politics, leading the charge, in a long time, if ever.
In the 2016 general election, 63 percent of Iowa voters who supported Hillary Clinton were Protestant or Catholic. She won 33 percent of the vote among Iowans who said they attend religious services one or more times a week. Clinton managed to win 25 percent of the white evangelical vote — far less than Trump, whose overwhelming support from conservative evangelicals helped him win Iowa by a wide margin. But it was nonetheless a surprising showing by a candidate who supports abortion rights in a state where Christianity predominates, and where eight in 10 people say religion plays an important role in their lives.
The exit polls highlighted the Republican Party’s overall advantage with religious voters in Iowa. Among Republican voters in the state, 78 percent self-identify as Christian and white; less than two-thirds of Democrats view themselves the same way.
Nobody expects that to change in 2020. But Clinton’s performance in Iowa also served as a simple reminder that many religious voters don’t automatically back the candidate with an R next to their name.
There’s no data on the religious views of people who participate in the Iowa caucuses, or even data on the total number of people who caucus, for that matter — the Iowa Democratic Party doesn’t release a figure. But the available evidence points to an abundance of religious liberals taking part in the first-in-the-nation nominating contest. They’re out there. All Democratic primary candidates have to do is reach them.
With the February caucuses still more than seven months away, candidates have time to hone their stump-speech lines about faith, and Iowa’s liberal Christian voters have plenty of time to decide who they’ll support. Some Democrats, like South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, have already found their rhythms. Meanwhile, local leaders like Sarah Trone Garriott are working to determine what role they’ll play in the election. Trone, who works at the Des Moines Area Religious Council, left her ministry at Faith Lutheran soon after Trump took office in order to get involved more directly in community organizing.
What religious progressives don’t have heading into the 2020 race is a political blueprint that appeals to liberals from a wide range of Christian denominations, as well as Democrats from other faith backgrounds. This is true nationally, not just in Iowa. Factor in liberal voters who don’t identify with any religion at all, and it becomes easy to understand why Democrats tiptoe around the faith discussion.
It’s a classic Big Tent conundrum, a trap Democrats couldn’t escape in 2016. Include enough different people, enough interest groups and issues and viewpoints, and eventually the overarching message starts losing focus. Deep down, everyone walks away feeling slightly unsatisfied. The question is, will Democrats avoid the same trap this time around? Or can they find a way to make the diversity work to their advantage?
Progressive Christians will be the first to admit that, under Trump, they’re still figuring out how to mobilize politically. But that kind of challenge doesn’t seem insurmountable to people predisposed — through natural optimism, or belief in a higher power, or a combination of both — to see the glass as half full. In Iowa, at least, the religious left does have some things working in its favor, starting with a remarkably consistent attitude about the role faith should play in public life. This shared perspective was clear on a mid-May afternoon at Lucca, a trendy Des Moines eatery, where Rev. Naomi Kirstein, a local pastor, had convinced three of her congregants to meet me to talk religion and politics.
The place was filled with business people and government workers in suits. The state attorney general sat a few tables away, enjoying a quiet meal. It was pouring outside, setting the mood for a discussion on the two topics you’re never supposed to discuss with strangers. At the pastor’s table near the back of the restaurant, her son Nathan Kirstein, an attorney and one of the people she had invited to lunch, was trying to explain the importance he places on the faith background of candidates running for president.
“I don’t care what a candidate’s faith is,” said Kirstein, who works at an organization that advocates for people with disabilities. The more important question for him, Kirstein said, was whether a candidate’s platform matched up with his own faith principles of fairness and compassion. “Whether you’re Muslim, Hindu, atheist, it doesn’t matter. What are your values?”
Heads started nodding around the table. “Values and character and moral compass are important to me, and rise above electability,” said Deborah Svec-Carstens, a state government lawyer who is pursuing a master’s degree at the Iowa School of Theology. The group’s pastor agreed. “My faith informs me,” Naomi Kirstein said. A candidate “doesn’t have to say ‘I’m Christian’ for me to vote for them. But I want to hear how their issues — because of my faith — connect to the poor, the oppressed, taking care of the earth.”
The conviction that faith informs politics came up again and again in interviews with liberal clergy, lay people and others progressive activists in the state. So did the importance of maintaining a separation between church and state, though the issue has a different meaning for religious liberals than it does for conservatives.
On the right, that separation is typically framed as a question of religious liberty, and based on an argument that the government does not have the right to force people to obey laws that violate their religious beliefs. On the left, the argument for a church-state divide is based on a libertarian insistence that religious freedom is absolute, and the state should never pass policies based on religious grounds. Tellingly, when Vice President Mike Pence, a deeply religious evangelical Christian, came up in conversations, Iowa’s liberal faith leaders tended to raise the separation of church and state issue first, before mentioning his conservative stance on abortion and other issues. (“My impression of Pence is that he’s a theocrat,” said Patti McKee, the director of the Catholic Peace Ministry in Des Moines. The remark was not meant as a compliment.)
Another constant was the deeply held view that government should provide a strong social safety net for people who need help. Most Democrats feel that way, but secular liberals don’t usually talk about government in spiritual terms. In Iowa, progressive Christians are as openly religious as their conservative counterparts. And both sides invoked the same scripture, even when they were promoting policies on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Consider the opposing views of Ron Heideman, a liberal activist who lives in Indianola, Iowa, and belongs to a Unitarian church there, and Steve Scheffler, the president of the Iowa & Freedom Coalition, one of the state’s leading conservative faith groups.
“When I look at the Republican Party, and what Jesus says in the Bible, I see no similarity at all,” Heideman said. Scheffler felt the same way about Democrats. “As a bible-bleeding evangelical, I believe the scriptures are not open to interpretation,” Scheffler said. Progressive Christians “don’t preach the gospel. They preach a social doctrine of whatever fits their personal agenda.”
Liberal and conservative Christians are having “totally different conversations” about religious freedom and the government’s role in society because the two sides think about key concepts like responsibility and sin in such different ways, said Jennifer Harvey, a religion professor at Drake University in Des Moines. Christians on the left view society’s ills through a “collectivist” lens, she said, while those on the right typically see the same problems in individualistic terms. Of course, liberals have argued for decades that the conservative position ignores systemic racism and other forms of structural inequality.
“We cannot just say it’s a level playing field. The playing field is hardly level,” said Rev. Frederick K. Gaddy, the pastor of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Des Moines. “It’s hard to say, ‘Pull yourself up from your bootstraps,’ when someone’s stepping on your neck. It’s like, ‘Well, take your boot off my neck and then let’s talk about that.’”
For Democrats talking about faith on the campaign trail, the conventional wisdom is that it’s risky, at best. If a candidate ignores faith completely in stump speeches and interviews, they risk alienating voters whose lives are centered on religion. If they take the opposite approach and lean in, talking in detail about their places of worship and belief in the Almighty, they risk scaring off secular voters who don’t want to listen to God stuff.
Faced with that kind of impossible decision, nearly all campaigns do the logical thing and aim straight down the middle of the lane, without putting any fancy English on it, hoping to score a solid-feeling seven each frame, or maybe even an eight. Sure, the strategy might result in the occasional split, leaving pins at both extremes feeling lonely and abandoned. But it reduces the odds of a damaging gutterball (see: Obama, Barack, trying to explain the economic frustrations of rural Pennsylvania voters during the 2008 primaries: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion.”) Nobody wants to be that guy.
But sometimes, in rare cases, that strategy pays off. Obama, after all, also won praise for speaking directly about race and religion in a speech that addressed his relationship with the minister of his church in Chicago, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. That speech proved to be a highlight of his campaign, the kind of viral, star-affirming moment that has so far eluded numerous high-profile 2020 Democrats languishing in the polls. What if the conventional wisdom is wrong — what if playing it safe on religion is no longer necessary for Democrats running for president in 2020?
Today’s Democratic Party is not what it was a decade ago. In 2008, Democrats were debating things like the Iraq War vote. The party was less attuned to economic inequality and climate change. Twitter was a toddler. It was a moment of calm before the global financial crisis and the Great Recession set in, before the fight over Obamacare. Pre-tea party. Pre-Occupy Wall Street. Pre-Black Lives Matter, pre-#MeToo. Pre-@RealDonaldTrump, pre-AOC.
A decade later, the conversation on the left around many of these issues has changed. More broadly, the country looks and prays differently than it did when Obama first ran for president. In 2008, 54 percent of Americans identified as white and Christian, according to data from the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, which tracks religious attitudes in the United States. In 2018, just 41 percent identified that way, a fairly stunning 13-point drop in only 10 years.
“Young, white Christians leaving the church and becoming religiously unaffiliated are turbo-charging the change,” Robert Jones, the institute’s CEO, said in an interview. Religiously unaffiliated Americans are still outnumbered, however. In Iowa in 2016, just 15 percent of voters said they were religiously unaffiliated; 75 percent said they were Catholic or Protestant. And the focus on the total number of white Christians ignores an important phenomenon taking place among the many millions of voters who still call themselves Christian: a hollowing-out of the political middle. The shift is pronounced in Iowa, where religious Christians on the right skew very conservative, and ones on the left increasingly skew very liberal.
The shift mirrors the growing divide in national politics. The Democratic Party overall has moved significantly left, in response to a vocal progressive wing that is not down with incremental change. Democrats in and out of Congress don’t want the government to spruce up the safety net. They’re asking for a gut reno. Free or partially free public college, the big banks broken up, a higher minimum wage to help the working poor, some sort of a national health care system (the ideas are many and the concrete details few), sweeping climate change action, and much, much more, mostly paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
These are exactly the kind of proposals coming out of church meetings and roundtable discussions in Iowa. The specifics differ at times. The broad themes — helping the needy and most vulnerable, protecting the earth — are exactly the same. The candidates aren’t quoting scripture left and right, but they don’t have to. When Senator Elizabeth Warren says the rich should “pay their fair share,” or Sanders claims society has a “moral responsibility” to take on climate change, voters of faith recognize the symbiosis.
“People of faith that I know are not going to need Bernie Sanders or Warren to say their conviction about [specific issues] comes from a particular religious place. They’ll feel a resonance,” said Carmen Lampe Zeitler, the co-pastor of Wellspring Community Church.
This link between faith and policy goes a long way in explaining why candidates who could be branded by conservatives as “liberal coastal elites” might appeal to Democrats in the heartland with much different lived experiences. It’s an important part of the reason why a self-described democratic socialist from Brooklyn can draw big crowds in Des Moines.
So then why not embrace religious Americans? In Iowa politics, faith “is a pretty important aspect, and Democrats shouldn’t shy away from talking about it,” argued Jeff Link, a veteran Iowa-based Democratic strategist. Many progressives credited Trump for pushing more liberal religious leaders to speak up.
“Progressive Christians were already there” before Trump came on the scene, Harvey said. But “the explicit nature of his nationalism and his racist rhetoric has been an inflection point.”
As a result, the lines between faith and politics on the left have started to blur. You can catch up with someone at a liberal protest rally on Saturday, and bump into them at church the next morning. In Iowa, liberal Christians don’t exist on the margins of the grassroots left. They are the grassroots left. They’ve been waiting for a long time for their churches and political leaders to catch up to them on progressive issues. Now they’re finally starting to get on the same page.
Appearing to be on the same page and actually being on the same page can mean two very different things, however. Some issues seem settled. Reproductive rights, civil rights, criminal justice reform: check, check, check. Climate change? Forget about it — liberal Christians are among the fiercest proponents for taking bold, immediate steps to save the planet. (They’re being joined by a growing number of conservative Christians, a strange-bedfellows story rooted in spiritual ideas about the natural world and the divine that transcend political ideology).
But not everything they touch checks a box to the left. A debate over LGBTQ rights, which is currently playing out in liberal churches across Iowa, offers a prime example of the challenges of adapting to changing social mores.
Susan Jellinger, a retired librarian, has been a member of the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines for three decades. It’s a Universalist Unitarian church, arguably the most liberal wing of the Christian left. In an interview at the church this month, Jellinger, who is a lesbian, recalled with pride when First Unitarian’s pastor at the time, Mark Stringer, made national headlines in 2007 by officiating the first same-sex marriage to be legally recognized in the state of Iowa. But Jellinger sensed pockets of unease in the congregation. “Some people said they were OK with it at first, but they really weren’t,” Jellinger said.
Attitudes since then have evolved, but not quite as fast as Jellinger had hoped. “I would say we had more L, G, B’s coming first and not a whole lot of T’s,” she said. Qs weren’t in the mainstream lexicon yet. Over time, “the bogeyman was dispelled. People saw members of my alphabet-soup community as human,” Jellinger said. Even now, however, “there’s still some pushback.”
Recently, Erin Gingrich, the church’s associate minister of social justice, has started introducing herself at church services by saying her pronouns are she, her and hers. A few members of the congregation responded by going out and buying label makers so that everyone could join in; the idea was for people to print labels with their preferred pronouns and wear them to church. Gingrich said she received a lot of complaints after that from congregants in their 70s and 80s. Some expressed genuine confusion; others simply refused to participate. “We are coaxing them into it,” Gingrich said, but “it was surprising, people just not understanding how welcoming that could be.”
Other left-leaning clergy in Iowa said the coaxing process on LGBTQ rights has barely begun in their churches. “That’s not our issue. We’re not having that debate right now,” Gaddy said of his black congregation at St. Paul AME. He added what sounded like a hopeful note. “As people get used to it, it’ll get better. But that conversation is still early for us.”
There are other important divides on diversity and who belongs. The 2016 presidential election exposed a racial chasm on the religious left, according to Harvey, who is a prominent figure in the progressive Christian movement at the national level as well as in Iowa. Trump’s support during the election from white nationalists forced white liberal churchgoers to confront Christianity’s historical ties to racism and white supremacy, Harvey said. After Trump won, said Harvey, who is white, many African Americans and Latinos on the religious left in Iowa looked around at their white Christian peers and demanded to know whose side they were on. The prevailing feeling was: “You either take a stand now or you don’t,” Harvey said.
Many liberal groups and churches answered the call by striving to become more intersectional. Nearly three years later, the effort in Iowa has never faded. If anything, it intensified over time, and appears to have gone into overdrive in recent months as an ever-growing number of 2020 candidates travel the state, sounding the alarm about a second Trump term.
Back at the meeting at Plymouth Church, the diverse group of Des Moines faith leaders hopscotched from immigration to health care to criminal justice reform, and a myriad of issues in between. Afterwards, Emily Ewing, a social justice minister who had offered to help with the asylum-seeker’s case, defended the group’s sprawling mission — an approach both inclusive and diffuse.
But others in the group said they felt less sure of their place in the liberal order. By traditional standards of Christianity, “I certainly think of myself as a progressive Christian,” said Nathan Williams, the pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in West Des Moines. But in the distinct context of American politics, of caucusing and party registration, “I want to identify as a moderate,” Williams said. He paused and then added: “My politics used to be pretty center. I’m not sure if they’re center anymore, because I’m not sure where the center went.”
A few hours later, in her office on Drake’s campus, Harvey, who had helped run the meeting, considered the dilemma. “Maybe it’s not that we do too many things, but that we don’t do them well,” she offered, then stopped. Harvey is as well-versed on the topic as anyone in the country, yet even she seemed perplexed. She started over. “Maybe it’s that we’ve claimed intersectionality…” But her voice trailed off as she searched for an answer that maybe no one on the left has.
If a Democrat wanted to specifically target the liberal Christian vote in Iowa, who would they try to speak to?
The 63 percent of Iowa Democrats who happen to be Christian also happen to be a lot of other things. Men and women and people who are non-binary, people who are black and white and multiracial, rural folks and urbanites, rich and poor — there’s no limit to the categories and Democrats would likely argue there shouldn’t be. That’s mirrored in the field itself, a sprawling group of 24 that runs the gamut on age, race, background and political experience.
On the political left there isn’t really any equivalent to the right’s white evangelical voting bloc, even in states like Iowa. Progressive Christians there cannot match the religious right’s level of grassroots political activism, said Scheffler, the president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. Numerous progressive Christian leaders said in interviews that they did not think it was right for them to engage in partisan politics at all. But conservatives had a different perspective.
Bob Vander Plaats, the president of The Family Leader, an influential Iowa-based conservative group, said in an interview that many conservative pastors don’t share that reluctance. “If they really believe strongly that their church needs to be guided, it’s up to them,” he said.
As one conservative evangelical pastor in southeast Iowa, Joseph Brown, put it: “I would never tell people how to vote specifically. But I would tell people when we come to the voting booth, we ought to remember our biblical principles.”
Scheffler said his group knocked on 150,000 doors across the state and will target even more conservative voters ahead of 2020, through a combination of door knocks, mail and social media campaigns. “I don’t feel threatened in the least [by progressive Christian activism]. I just figure there’s more people on the right than the left in churches, so we’ve got a much bigger pool to draw from,” he said.
Since that progressive Christian monolithic voting bloc doesn’t exist, the next safest bet for Democratic candidates is to deliver their faith message en masse. So far in the 2020 election, Buttigieg has probably spoken more about his personal faith than anyone else, or at least he has gotten more coverage on the issue than any of his Democratic rivals, which creates the same illusion.
The approach has helped raise Buttigieg’s national profile. Iowa liberals were paying attention in April when Buttigieg, in a speech at the LGBTQ Victory Fund National Champagne Brunch in Washington, D.C., called out Pence for his views on gay people. Addressing the “Mike Pences of the world,” Buttigieg had said: “If you have a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
It was a line perfectly packaged to blow up on social media. Buttigieg also addressed the issue of faith at the Democratic debates in late June in Miami. But Iowans are used to up-close interaction with White House contenders — not just well-targeted tweets and SnapChats. In their campaigns in Iowa over the years, Obama and Clinton made a disciplined effort to reach out to the faith community. Gaddy, who had just started his ministry at St. Paul AME when the 2008 primaries got underway, recalled being surprised at how often surrogates from both campaigns showed up at church on Sundays. “Hillary’s people were there just as much as Obama’s. Sometimes they were both there on the same Sunday.” In other words, showing up matters. “If I don’t see you,” Gaddy said, “you don’t exist. You need to reach out.”
Deciding which churches to visit gets complicated very quickly, however. It’s impossible to hit every single church function, so someone will always feel left out. And the same speech may play one way at a United Methodist church in the mostly white Cedar Rapids suburbs, and another way at a black Baptist church in Des Moines. Knowing the audience is key.
So far, the Democrats running for president have followed the standard playbook on religion. None of them have positioned themselves explicitly as The Faith Candidate, not even Buttigieg, who is still better known at this point as an unassuming small-city mayor who dispenses with the formality of a last name (“Mayor Pete”); as a gay presidential contender; and as a millennial who represents a rising generation of liberal leaders. Nevertheless, Democrats are using rhetoric that would fit right into a church sermon.
Booker frequently talks about a “revival of civic grace” and the power of loving thy neighbor. Senator Kamala Harris of California has framed the election as a “fight for the soul of our country.” Former Vice President Joe Biden says one of the three main reasons he entered the race was to “restore the soul of the nation.” His campaign is centered on the argument that the country needs to regain a sense of morality that was lost under Trump.
For voters who equate morality with religion, and think of concepts like love, grace and the soul in faith terms, the Democrats’ anti-Trump, Make America Moral Again messaging has clear religious meaning. The “connection between religion and morality” is especially critical for Americans age 50 and up, said Jones, the Public Religion Research Institute’s CEO. “Older Americans tend to link these two things. In order to be a moral person you have to be a religious person.”
Who delivers this moral message may be as important as the message itself, because the religion-politics conversation the country has with itself in 2020 will depend on how the Democratic nominee positions themselves in relation to Trump.
The last time a presidential candidate’s faith profile perfectly matched the moment was probably the mid-1970s, when the soft-spoken, devout Jimmy Carter ran as a necessary course correction to the morally bankrupt Nixon years. To many at the time, a straight, white Christian man was the embodiment of faith in America. Who is the 21st century version of that in the age of Trump? Can anyone be?
To Trone Garriott, the pastor-turned-advocate, the left’s cautious approach to blending politics and religion is understandable, as liberal faith leaders who get too political can pay a steep price.
“There’s always the fear that people are going to stop giving money, or coming to church, or you’ll lose your position” as a clergy member, she said. But up against the more organized religious right, the approach is limiting in crucial ways. Trone Garriott has chosen not to hold back; last month, she announced her candidacy for state senate. She’s hoping other liberals of faith will follow.