(RNS) With many Americans — Republicans included — horrified at the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, Democrats have a chance to win more votes from white evangelicals, a core GOP constituency.
So goes an argument circulating among strategists, activists, and other political minds as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and running mate Tim Kaine talk about how their faith informs their political priorities.
In spite of highly touted endorsements from religious right icons like radio personality James Dobson and Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., many influential evangelicals remain passionately opposed to Trump.
Clinton must shore up her support among key Democratic constituencies and independent voters.
She will have much more success energizing ethnic minority voters, women, and nonreligious Americans than winning over churchgoing white conservatives who have been taught to despise her for the past 25 years.
Any concession to evangelicals would come with significant risks and costs among her base. Clinton can solidify and broaden her coalition without alienating core Democratic constituencies.
If I were advising Clinton politically, I could not in good conscience recommend that she focus on evangelical outreach.
But as a citizen, here’s why I wish she would.
For one thing, we need a better debate about culture-war issues. If Clinton and leading Democrats had a real dialogue with social conservatives, they might make significant progress in understanding each other’s policy aims and priorities.
Both sides ratchet up their rhetoric and fundraising appeals based on uncharitable portrayals of the other’s extremism. But where is the debate about how they propose to reduce the number of abortions sought and performed each year?
Clinton could invite evangelicals to support policies that are proven to reduce the demand for abortions. In turn, social conservatives could ask her to accommodate their desire to run their institutions in accordance with their beliefs about marriage and sexuality.
And while most conservative white evangelicals in the United States break with the global ecumenical Christian consensus about the state’s responsibility to provide public welfare for the needy, there are many issues on which Democrats offer significantly more to advance evangelicals’ priorities than Republicans.
White evangelicals are now serious about addressing racial disparities, environmental protection, criminal justice reform, and sensible policies on migration that blend secure borders and compassion.
For years, Republicans in Washington have squandered numerous opportunities to make progress on these and other policy areas. They think evangelicals will never leave them. So far, they are right.
But evangelicals’ instincts for justice cut against the Republican Party’s calculation that it will fare best as a nativist, white Christian party. Clinton and the Democrats have a chance invite them into a coalition that could make quick and meaningful progress on issues evangelicals say are important to them.
Some evangelicals, mindful of church-state separation and religious liberty, have stood against the anti-Muslim voices in their party and media.
But progressives have dismissed social conservatives’ religious liberty concerns, thwarting conscience protections and religious opt-outs in the name of advancing women’s and LGBT rights.
Both sides are talking past each other. Our democracy would benefit greatly from a Clinton dialogue with evangelicals fearful of losing accreditation and government-backed scholarships in their colleges.
Trump is clearly not an evangelical. Neither is Clinton. But as a Yale-educated former senator and top diplomat, she has the intellect and sensitivity to at least hear and validate their concerns.
Politically, she has little to gain and a great deal to lose. But from the standpoint of democratic discourse, the time is ripe for a Democratic leader to challenge evangelicals’ loyalty to Republican politicians.
At a minimum, Clinton must ask evangelicals, “Even if you don’t vote for me, are you going to support Trump’s agenda by electing Republicans to the House and Senate?”
She may not move the grizzled culture warriors, but she could make a dent with the younger generation. And by weakening the decades-old equal sign between evangelicalism and Republican politics, she would be doing them a favor even if they begrudge it at first.
Clinton often quotes the old Methodist saying, “Do all the good you can in all the ways you can to all the people you can as long as ever you can.”
It would take some courage, but imagine what she could do for and with evangelicals if only she tried.
(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown)