Martin Marty is wondering in his current Sightings article why people think the Democratic Party is just now “finding” religion. In Pious Parties, he shows that faith in the Democratic party goes back to the first part of the 20th century.

To review the history: After Woodrow Wilson’s overplaying of the religious hand, Republican presidents Harding (Baptist), Coolidge (Congregationalist), and Hoover (Quaker) added little to public discourse about public religion. But in World War II Roosevelt began to restore such discourse, manifesting and promoting the life of prayer, demonstrating a kind of Episcopal serenity when facing crises.

Then there was Truman, to whom I paid attention while living briefly in his Washington. “I am not a religious man,” he would say, “Mrs. Truman takes care of that.” He despised what he thought was the political use of religion, but evidenced a Baptist Sunday School-boyhood grounding in biblical knowledge and did some public praying, without advertising or fuss. During the interregnum, Eisenhower said, “I am the most religious man I know.” But back to Democrats, our subject today: LBJ, a member of the Disciples of Christ (Christian) Church was at ease with faith, while JFK (Catholic — did you notice?) found his religion a public subject, whatever his personal faith might be. Jimmy Carter? How can mass communicators think and act as if the new candidates are inventing religious language in public life? Bill Clinton—like Carter, a Baptist—was a regular worshiper, and was accused of hypocrisy when he took a Bible to church, as most Baptists do. He was at home with it. And one year we heard of Reverend Jackson; Mondale, from a ministerial family; and ex-seminarians Gore and Hart and who knows who else running.

Why the perception of non-religion among people of that pious party? 1) Maybe things have changed, and there’s been a secular take-over, causing religious amnesia in the party. 2) It could be that in reaction to Nixon-Reagan-Ford-Bush-Bush styles of public piety and the perceived “use” of religion, Democrats backed off. 3) If there were signs of verbal ungainliness in the pious sections of last Monday’s CNN show—Peter Steinfels found them in the three candidates’ words…— it may be because the planners of the program (Jim Wallis and company) wanted to stress how specific religious convictions do or should affect policy (for example, on poverty). Having to be creedal and confessional and pious does make many, including many of us who are not candidates, a bit nervous. Diffidence here is less a matter of faith than style.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other theologians have counseled some restraint in public God-talk. Since both parties’ candidates are Bible folk, maybe some of them are responding to Sermon on the Mount text: Matthew 6:1, 5-8. You could look it up. Baptist scripture memorizers Truman and Carter and Clinton wouldn’t have to. And while the Bible is open, note how Isaiah 58 shrieks out at a “prayerful” nation.

No one policital party has the monoply on the Christian religion in the United States. Both parties are also guilty of sins the Bible condemns. Thank you Dr. Marty for showing that faith in the Democratic party has been there as long as faith in Republican party, and that candidates in both parties have respected religion and abused it.

(Hat tip to Street Prophets)