Who cares about religious minority candidates?

Short answer: I do, and I think maybe you should too!

Hi and welcome back to Unelectables! I’m super pumped and grateful at the opportunity to join my friend Chelsea and our other awesome collaborators here to talk about the roles and fates of religious minorities in the 2012 elections. With this campaign season really just starting to heat up, I think I can afford to take a few minutes and devote my first post to a Big Question: just why do we care whether religious minorities (that is, people who aren’t mainstream Christians) get elected to public office? To some of us it seems pretty much self-evident that candidates’ electability should have very little to do with their religious affiliations. But let’s just say that others may disagree. I know this post won’t resolve that disagreement, but it should at least let you know just where I’m coming from when I write about religious minorities in politics. It should also lay the groundwork for my future discussions of the legal challenges, policy considerations, and electoral dynamics at the riotous intersection of faith and American politics.

To date, most of my thinking on electability has focused on racial minority candidates (with Matthew Platt‘s guidance, I wrote my undergrad thesis on racialized campaign messaging and legislative activity among black House members). This post will lean heavily on ideas from that branch of political science scholarship. A lot of the minority representation literature talks about “descriptive representation,” where a group defined by some characteristic (e.g. transgender identity, Korean ancestry, Team Jacob tattoos) is represented in the public decision-making process by someone who shares that characteristic. The benefits of this type of arrangement can generally be divided into two categories: policy benefits and non-policy benefits.

Let’s start with the policy benefits of descriptive representation. The idea that you can make good legislative or executive decisions for an identity group if you’re a member of that group makes some intuitive sense…but, perhaps unsurprisingly, applying that idea to any particular group quickly gets tricky. First, it can be hard to define what’s in a group’s interest: does it make sense to try and determine Exactly What’s Good For Black People or Exactly What’s Good For Women? Certainly not in an exclusive sense, because both those categories include very diverse people. Indeed, even those of us who like to think of ourselves as crazy-progressive, it can take a lot of careful attention to think about women’s policy interests or black policy interests without relying on a reductive notion of what it means to be a black person or a woman. It’s not impossible to come up with a rationale for unified group interests; for example, I think Tommie Shelby‘s done a terrific job of laying out why it might be in most any black American politician’s rational self-interest to try and address the lingering effects of historical injustices that harm some black people (even if the politicians in question have in large part managed to transcend those effects themselves) instead of focusing solely on continued institutional racism. But, clearly, it can be tough to define group interests in every case. And if you can get a good sense of what’s good for ____ people, then do you have to have a ____ person in office to put those ideas into practice? I wouldn’t necessarily assume so, at least not in every case. I would say that if you have a group with fairly well-defined interests, then it seems like a representative member of that group is as good a person as any to give voice to those interests, since that member can use their own self-interest as a guide.

To bring it back to our particular brand of unelectables, those in the religious minority: Identifying the policy benefits for non-mainstream-Christian citizens of electing non-mainstream-Christian officials seems like it should be relatively easy. If the defining characteristic of an identity group is a set of ideas about history and morality, you’d think it’d be pretty easy to work out that group’s policy preferences. Of course it’s not that simple; not every religious text takes a crystal-clear stance on the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate. And even on issues that have come to be defined in large part by the religion-intensive debates around them, two practitioners of the same faith won’t always come to the same conclusion. There is something to be said for the idea that a member of a religious minority might have a bit of extra incentive to defend what he or she sees as free practice and freedom from establishment of religion, but beyond that it’s hard to generalize too much.

So maybe it’d be a good idea to move on to a discussion of the non-policy benefits of having religious minority officials around. Aside from having someone who generally agrees with you calling the shots, why might you want somebody who believes or unbelieves what you believe or unbelieve in office? To some extent, it depends on the societal status of your religious or non-religious group. In general, it seems like having a government whose demographic makeup roughly matches that of the governed is a good sign that the electoral system is functioning properly; if certain significant groups of people are dramatically underrepresented in the ranks of the ruling class, it suggests pretty strongly that the group’s political opportunities and/or aspirations are somehow systematically limited. That can create or intensify social resentment and political withdrawal among members of the underrepresented group. Descriptive representation, on the other hand, helps combat that alienation; it’s been shown to promote feelings of political efficacy and satisfaction with policy outcomes, motivate people to get informed about their representatives, and even increase voter turnout.

Although the effect undoubtedly varies for members of different groups, there are certainly religious minority citizens who could benefit from a boost in feelings of political security. I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration for Chelsea to describe atheist politicians as practically “unelectable” considering the representation gap at the federal level: the roughly 6% of Americans who believe that there is no God or other universal higher power are represented by about 0.002% of Congress (his name is Pete Stark). And then there are American Muslims, who get slightly better representation (two MCs!) but also have to put up with rampant distrust from such diverse parties as presidential hopefuls, home improvement empires and, well, about half of everybody else. I for one would be very happy to see the political fortunes of Muslim candidates and other religious minorities match the majority’s a little more closely.

So. There’s a not-so-brief outline of what all I’m doing here. I recognize that it’s by no means a complete account of the benefits of religious minority politics, but if you think I’ve made any particularly egregious omissions or errors, please please comment away! If you’ve made it this far, Happy MLK Day, and see you next time.

[Housekeeping: In my dreams I blog like a cross between Nate Silver (with fewer numbers) and Ari Ezra Waldman (with fewer law degrees), plus a bit of Ryan North thrown in for color. But my blog muscles are a little rusty (see? that chatty little metaphor was all kinds of mixed). It’s been a while since my LiveJournal days, after all, and most of that while has found me writing college papers or reading legal memos. So I hope you’ll bear with me (and let me know in the comments!) if I get too wonky or otherwise underentertaining every once in a while. In the meantime, I’m just looking forward to spending from now till November in fun and exciting conversations with my collaborators and, if I’m lucky, even a few readers.]

Sean Cuddihy is a real estate practice assistant living in Washington, DC. He spends his days helping attorneys help companies manage their affordable housing investments, and his nights mentally preparing himself to apply to law school (a.k.a. watching Netflix with his partner) or exploring his new city (a.k.a. trying to figure out where to buy a grocery cart). Before that, he was a student at Harvard College, where he wrote a thesis on race in Congressional campaign advertising, argued with fellow members of The Crimson’s editorial board, and played baritone horn with his friends in the (undefeated!) Harvard University Band. Before that, he was an Eagle Scout from a big public high school in Orlando, and in some ways he probably always will be.


3 thoughts on “Who cares about religious minority candidates?

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