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The Democratic convention's most surprising argument: Christianity is a liberal religion

The party embraced the religious left, patriotism, and family values — without abandoning diversity.

Democratic National Convention: Day Four
Delegates react to a speech from the Reverend William Barber at the Democratic National Convention.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

A lot of what seems inexplicable about Hillary Clinton often makes more sense when you realize her formative years in the public eye were largely spent in front of a religious right that spent a large portion of 1992 making television character Murphy Brown’s decision to be a single mother a national controversy.

Needless to say, there wasn’t much love for Hillary Clinton.

Everything from the title of her book to her supposedly wild and liberal political stances was dragged out for mockery. In some circles, she was trusted so little that essentially any goofy conspiracy theory that could be dreamed up attached itself to her with very little effort.

I have always taken this to be why the Clinton I first knew — the one who burst onto the scene in 1992 — has been replaced by a more halting and timid figure, who cloaks her progressive stances in what she believes is possible, and who seems intent on proving to everyone that she’ll be the toughest there is on questions of national security.

She developed into someone who didn’t just harden herself against conservative attacks but co-opted those that she could in real time. Even more than her husband, she was a walking example of triangulation.

But her mostly good nomination acceptance speech was as full of progressive bromides as any she’s delivered in years. The entire Democratic National Convention was. And what was remarkable was that the whole DNC seemed intent on one thing and one thing only.

It was going to reclaim everything from Christianity to family values to patriotism from the Republicans. Those, the Democrats argued, are our values now — and we’re rebranding them for a more diverse America.

This was an explicitly religious convention — and often an explicitly Christian one

Just think about how filled with forthrightly religious moments this convention has been, especially compared with previous Democratic conventions. Or think of how Christian it’s been, and how the convention tried to argue for Christianity as fundamentally liberal.

Yes, there’s always been a Christian left, largely dominated by Jesuits and the black church. But the Christian left has been positively anemic in influence since the end of the civil rights era.

And yet representatives of the black church spoke on everything from police violence to systemic racism at the convention, often cloaking their speeches directly in religious metaphor and text. Vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine himself explicitly said the reasons for his progressivism stemmed from his time with Jesuits.

Religion was everywhere at the DNC, but it rarely felt overpowering, or even explicitly Christian. There was time for powerful speeches from Muslims, too, and a tacit acknowledgement that “faith” can mean something very different for just about everyone — including its lack.

But there was still something weird for someone who came of age during the culture wars of the 1990s to see the Democrats so aggressively displaying not only faith but a parade of speakers associated with the military at a Democratic convention — and have almost the exact opposite at the Republican convention. And I’ve already written about how the Democrats tried to position themselves as the party of family values.

In particular, the almost complete absence of the religious right was felt at the earlier convention, which was angrier and maybe even crueler because of it. Say what you will about George W. Bush, but he at least made the attempt to look like a caring Christian man in person. (Whether he lived that out in his policy is another matter.) The same was true of Mitt Romney’s expressions of his Mormonism. Trump’s convention seemed to have no religious influence whatsoever — unless narcissism counts as a religion.

The Democrats are gambling that they are the party that most looks like America right now, so they’ve made the single biggest claim of either party to the sorts of values central to America’s conception of itself at their convention.

Should they be proven wrong, it could look disastrous. If they’re proven right, I wager it rewrites electoral politics for years to come, sending the GOP into a defensive position it’s not yet accustomed to.

And what’s remarkable is that the Democrats aren’t especially pivoting rightward. Again, Clinton’s speech was as progressive as she’s made in recent years. And the whole convention itself was an argument that supposedly American ideals like faith, family, and country can be wedded to the America that will be — one of diversity as a strength, not a series of dividing lines — rather than hoarded carefully as part of the America that was.

Is this Barack Obama’s most lasting accomplishment?

I will be honest and say that I don’t know how long a coalition as big as the Democrats appear to be trying to build (in essence, it’s “everybody who’s not a white nationalist”) can hold together. In particular, the party’s foreign policy will always be more hawkish than the beliefs of many within its own constituency.

And the conventions are less about the world either party will ultimately create than the one they want us to dream we live in. It’s basically assured that the second Clinton took office, she would be beset by Republican opposition that would keep her from achieving the more progressive parts of her speech, thus further rankling a left already suspicious of her, if not outright hostile toward her.

This is true of the right as well. In the US, there is probably always going to be a need for a strong party representing traditionally conservative ideas like the rights of the individual, or a decreased tax burden.

There are just too many of us who were raised in the traditions of those who first came here to escape governments of other countries, then kept moving toward the wilderness when this government grew stronger and stronger. It’s part of our national DNA.

And the success of Bernie Sanders’s candidacy also suggests the American left, largely moribund for more than a generation, is waking up and wants more than pittances when it comes to domestic and economic policy. I can’t imagine either of these groups forever being happy with whatever a prospective Clinton presidency looks like.

But I’m still a little blown away to live in a world where the party of the center left — not the party of the right — is the party that is claiming that Christianity and patriotism and family values are directly compatible with things like LGBTQ rights, or a woman’s right to choose, or building a coalition that reflects the nation’s diversity.

In retrospect, this might end up being Obama’s signature achievement. When he first appeared on the national scene, the fact that he spoke in a manner obviously influenced by the black church seemed like an interesting novelty.

Now, however, that’s the mode that all Democrats — even wonks like Hillary Clinton — aspire to: a little poetry, a little religiosity, and a big belief that the US is stronger as a plurality, rather than a singularity.