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This past Sunday, a prominent Dallas religious organization invited major-party candidates in five local races to a forum so the candidates could share their positions on a range of issues important to the organization. Hundreds of voters came to the event, filling the church sanctuary where it was held. Organizers distributed tiny U.S. flags as people filed in. But only one party’s candidates showed up: the Democrats.
The Republicans’ absence challenges stereotypes about Dallas, where the relentless Trump-booster Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, is a well-known figure. It also reveals something about how Republicans want to frame the relationship between religion and politics.
Dallas Area Interfaith (DAI), a nonpartisan group that counts about two dozen churches, synagogues, and schools among its member organizations, hosted the forum at Christian Chapel Temple of Faith, a venerable African-American church in North Dallas. Ten cushioned, dusty-rose chairs were set out on the floor, beneath a high bank of choir risers. There was one chair for each major-party candidate in each of five closely-contested local elections: Texas’s 32nd Congressional District (where I live), and four state legislative districts. Each of the Democratic candidates took a seat. Next to each one was an empty chair with a sheet of paper siting on it that read, “UNACCOUNTABLE.”
This meant the Democrats got the chance to voice their support for DAI’s positions–greater funding for public education and job training, Medicare expansion, repeal of the state law that bans sanctuary cities, and preservation of DACA–and earn loud cheers from the attendees. (Full disclosure: I belong to a DAI member church and have participated in DAI actions before.) In a city that’s sharply segregated by race and class, the forum was a rare example of cohesive pluralism. What united the diverse attendees was that they all shared some religious affiliation and some commitment to using the political process to improve the lives of their neighbors and fellow congregants.
The point of the forum wasn’t simply to give candidates a chance to win applause. It was also to get their positions on the record, so that the people DAI represents can hold them accountable. At the end of the forum, each candidate was asked if they would meet regularly with DAI if elected. Each one said yes.
The Republicans’ decision to skip the forum accomplished two things for themselves. First, it spared them from having to tell constituents to their faces that they will not expand Medicaid or preserve DACA. Second, and more important in the big picture, it preserved the mythology that “religious voters” equal “political conservatives.” Church- and synagogue-goers who favor public spending that benefits the poor and marginal don’t fit the Republican paradigm. Rather than face that cognitive dissonance, perhaps it was simplest for the party’s candidates to ignore these voters altogether.