No Longer Red or Blue

Progressive religious voters played a large role in the 2008 election, proving that faith can transcend political divisions.

Experts convened for a discussion about the role of faith in the 2008 election. (CAP)
Experts convened for a discussion about the role of faith in the 2008 election. (CAP)

It’s no surprise that religion played such an important role in the 2008 presidential election; all of America’s most important social movements have had a “spiritual underpinning,” noted Terrance McKinley. McKinley is a minister to young adults at the Greater Allen AME Cathedral in New York, and he spoke at an event hosted by the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative of the Center for American Progress and co-sponsored by Beliefnet.

CAP Senior Policy Advisor Sally Steenland moderated the panel discussion, which focused on the role of religion in the 2008 election and beyond. Steenland challenged the audience to think about the role faith communities have played in the progressive movement, and how they can continue to be a prophetic voice, advocating for policies that advance America’s common good and moral standing in the world.

Joining McKinley as panelists were Paul Raushenbush, associate dean of religious life at Princeton University and moderator of the Progressive Revival blog at Beliefnet; Shahed Amanullah, award-winning journalist and editor-in-chief of; Burns Strider, founding partner of the Eleison Group; and Alexia Kelley, executive director and co-founder of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

The panelists discussed whether it’s appropriate to scrutinize the pastors of political candidates, how Muslims and Islam were treated during the campaign, how religious and secular Americans can work together toward progressive goals, and how the demographics and political opinion of religious voters are changing.

Raushenbush observed that the political scrutiny of pastors is a fact of life, and that pastors will always have political opinions because their jobs involve the most important elements of what people believe and how communities interact. He added that religious leaders have a moral obligation to condemn political activity that violates their principles, and this sort of moral criticism should be taken as constructive rather than divisive. Raushenbush said he feared that a negative consequence of pastor scrutiny would be that politicians will “vet” the churches they attend, seeking those that are innocuous and safe.

Amanullah said that Muslims were demonized during the presidential campaign, but that there was an upside to the negative treatment. American Muslims became active players in the political process like never before, with Muslim voters and communities involved in grassroots organizing for both parties.

Strider stressed that substantive, inclusive conversations about the role that religion can play in public life is a blessing. Religious values can help shape progressive policies regarding climate change, poverty, and human rights abuses. McKinley agreed, noting that in the 2004 and 2008 elections, faithful Americans were learning how best to articulate the moral basis of progressive policies. Kelley emphasized that religious and secular progressives can work together as key allies even on divisive issues like abortion.

Young religious voters have also taken on a greater role in recent elections, especially in the African-American community. McKinley pointed out that the Millennial generation is both more religious and more politically active than their parents. This shift accounts for some of President-elect Barack Obama’s comparative success with religious voters over that of Senator John Kerry four years ago. Kelley noted that within the Catholic community, two-thirds of younger Catholics support increased government services, while only half of older Catholics support such measures.

Likewise, Kelley advised religious groups not to identify too closely with a particular political party, because this may force them to sacrifice their moral voice for political influence. Instead, she argued that faith groups should hold politicians from both parties accountable to moral principles.

By continuing a substantive and inclusive dialogue about the role of faith in public life and the way in which religious values underpin progressive policy, Strider said that we can let our “better angels soar.”

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