Carrollton, Ga. — Jon Ossoff’s defeat in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District election on Tuesday wasn’t just a sign that Democrats may have a harder time winning in the Trump era than they had hoped. It is a symptom of a larger problem for the party — a generational and racial divide between a largely secular group of young, white party activists and an older electorate that is more religious and more socially conservative.
Put simply, outside of a few progressive districts, secular-minded young activists in the party are unable to win voters’ trust.
Mr. Ossoff, 30, represented this new wing of the party. He said almost nothing about his religious beliefs or the way in which his Jewish upbringing affected his political views — probably because, like many white, college-educated Democratic activists of his generation, religion didn’t shape his political beliefs.
Mr. Ossoff’s secularism would have surprised many American liberals of the 1950s and 1960s, who looked to the moral inspiration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, both of whom saw a religious imperative for social justice. The civil rights movement was grounded so thoroughly in the theology and culture of the African-American church that the historian David L. Chappell has called it a “religious revival.” And the economic views of New Deal and Great Society liberalism echoed the positions of mainline Protestant denominations and the social teachings of 20th-century Catholicism.
In the late 1960s, some white liberals — especially college-age baby boomers — began to adopt a secularized version of liberal Protestant values. Yet even then, the Democratic Party’s leaders retained a connection to those religious traditions, which allowed them to maintain their appeal to religious voters.
Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, the party’s leading antiwar candidates for the presidential nomination in 1968, were practicing Catholics who found inspiration in the church’s teachings. Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist deacon who regularly taught an adult Sunday school class during his 1976 campaign for president.
Jesse Jackson, who won several primaries in 1984 and 1988, was an ordained minister. Al Gore was a Southern Baptist who had attended divinity school. Bill Clinton had deep roots in the Southern Baptist tradition, despite his troubled relationship with some of the conservative leaders of his denomination during his presidency.
Hillary Clinton frequently cited her Methodist faith as a source of her values. And Barack Obama, despite a secular upbringing, learned to speak in the theological cadences of a Protestant Christian tradition while attending a progressive African-American church in Chicago.
Yet now younger, secular Democrats are attempting to separate their party’s progressive values from those religious traditions. Some may belong to a religious tradition or consider themselves to be spiritual people, but they are not able to speak the language of a communally based faith because it does not inform or shape their political views.
This has posed a problem at the polls, because most Democratic voters are not as secular as these activists might assume. While only 47 percent of white, college-educated Democrats identify as Christians, Christianity remains the faith of 81 percent of African-American Democrats and 76 percent of Latino Democrats.
The religious differences between generations are just as stark as the differences between racial groups. While 35 percent of millennials report having no religious affiliation, only 17 percent of baby boomers — and fewer than 11 percent of Americans born before 1945 — are religiously unaffiliated.
The party is thus split between a minority of young, educated, secular white activists and a larger group of African-Americans, Hispanics and older whites whose political values are closely tied to their faith. No wonder candidates like Mr. Ossoff struggled to connect with key blocs of the Democratic coalition.
And it’s also no wonder that the Democratic congressional leadership is still dominated by a graying generation of leaders; they are the only ones who can bridge the party’s religious divide. The median age of House Democratic representatives is now well over 60 — the highest in decades, and several years older than the median Republican age.
All four of Georgia’s Democratic representatives are 60 or older, and most have deep roots in the African-American Baptist tradition. If Mr. Ossoff had been elected to represent the Sixth District, he would have been over 30 years younger than the next-youngest member of the Georgia Democratic delegation, and he would have represented a very different set of cultural values.
What can Democrats do to bridge the divide between young, secular party activists and the rest of voters? Oddly, last year’s presidential run by Senator Bernie Sanders, a secular Jew, may suggest a way forward.
Mr. Sanders’s non-Christian background may have hurt him in the South; he did poorly among African-American voters, despite his consistent civil rights record. But he did what few other secular candidates have done: He won a sympathetic hearing from conservative evangelicals with a speech that gave a religious grounding for his economic views, complete with biblical citations. When Mr. Sanders spoke at Liberty University, he did not pretend to share evangelical Christians’ faith, but he showed respect for his audience’s religious tradition.
To do the same, secular Democrats need to study the religious language of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They need to take the time to learn the religious values of their audience. They need to be honest about their own secularity, but acknowledge their debt to the religious traditions that have shaped their progressive ideology.
Only through a willingness to ground their policy proposals in the religious values of prospective voters will they be able to convince people of faith that they are not a threat to their values but are instead an ally in a common cause.