Shortly after being sworn in into Congress, first-term Rep. Hillary Scholten of Michigan took to the House floor. Republicans were trying to get through a bill they had promised to vote on quickly, one that would set new regulations for medical care for “a child who survives an abortion or an attempted abortion.“
Scholten introduced herself as a “pro-choice Christian who chose life,” referencing her personal experience with a “complex miscarriage.”
“I believe life is precious, but I reject the idea that if I embrace the sanctity of life, I also must be forced to invite the federal government to regulate it.” She quoted a Bible verse, Jeremiah 1:5, that conservatives frequently cite to argue against abortion.
“So often Christians will rely on that verse to say this means life begins at conception and therefore as a policy matter, abortion should be illegal,” Scholten said. “But what is often so missed about that is the emphasis on placing an individual in the care of the mother, and the elevation of the mother in that role.”
Scholten, a 41-year-old former immigration attorney, was elected to Michigan’s 3rd District on her second try in the 2022 midterms, making her the second woman and the first mother to represent Western Michigan in Congress.
She’s also a devout Christian and a member of the Christian Reformed Church, a Protestant denomination that falls within the broader evangelical Christian movement, at a time when White evangelicals overwhelmingly back the Republican Party and are playing a powerful role in driving the GOP’s agenda. But Scholten says that Democrats shouldn’t give the right a monopoly on faith and concede religious voters to the GOP ahead of 2024. She wants her party to take religious voters seriously, and thinks her district and her win in 2022 can provide a blueprint.
Scholten defeated Republican John Gibbs, an ex-Trump administration official who in the primary beat former Rep. Peter Meijer, who had voted for Trump’s impeachment. The race received national attention mainly due to Gibbs’ espousal of 2020 election denialism, embrace of conspiracy theories and history of inflammatory comments, including on abortion and women’s rights. But Scholten says her 13-point victory wasn’t just a rebuke of Republican extremism but a result of a “strong formula for success” for Democrats in historically conservative areas.
“You don’t win by that margin just because people are rejecting something on the other side,” she said in an interview. “We built something that attracted people to our message that they wanted to be a part of. If people were disgusted by what they saw in the Republican Party and didn’t see a good alternative on the other side, they would have just stayed home. But they didn’t.”
The United States enters the 2024 election cycle ever more polarized along religious lines, with White Christians making up a declining but powerful share of the GOP and the Democratic Party taking in much of the rising population of religiously unaffiliated voters. While many religious voters of color are staunch Democrats, Scholten still wants to carve out another path for her party of appealing to religious voters who may be traditionally conservative but are disillusioned with the modern Republican Party.
Scholten says many of the voters in her district fall into that category. The Christian Reformed Church has a strong foothold in West Michigan and Grand Rapids, making for a “fairly religious district” with higher-than-average shares of both White evangelical and mainline Protestants, said Corwin Smidt, a senior fellow at the Paul Henry Institute at Calvin University, a university and ministry of the Christian Reformed Church which is located in the district.
Western Michigan has long sent moderate Republican men to Congress who embodied “a tradition of compassionate conservatism,” as Scholten describes it, exemplified by former President Gerald Ford. After her first, unsuccessful run, the 3rd District was redrawn to take in more of Grand Rapids, making it friendlier territory for Democrats. And the Republican Party’s dramatic shift toward former President Donald Trump, embodied by Gibbs’ candidacy, gave many voters pause — and gave Scholten an opening.
“Over time, Republicans here have seen the Republican Party completely lose sight of the compassionate portion of that,” Scholten said. “In my district, my openness about my faith has been refreshing to a lot of people. They see what has happened to faith in politics on the other side, and they’ve been really really eager to see something new and different.”
Scholten is pushing her party to take devoutly religious voters seriously and not concede the faith and freedom lane to Republicans. She says her perspective as a devout person of faith is “deeply missing from the Democratic Party today.”
“Our biggest mistake has been completely giving up that lane of faith,” Scholten said. “That’s why I joke so often, ‘Just a reminder, people go to church.’ When I go to the prayer breakfast, it’s basically me, Lucy McBath and Ted Lieu who are the only ones there on the Democratic side. We just need to be engaging more on this issue — faith and freedom are so inextricably linked.”
Christians of color now constitute the largest subgroups within the Democratic Party. Black Protestants overwhelmingly vote Democratic and have far different views and priorities than White Protestants. But while the share of Americans overall identifying as White Christians has steadily declined, the fall has been particularly stark within the Democratic Party: Between 2006 and 2022, Christians went from making up 85 percent to 62 of the Democratic Party coalition, a 23-point drop, compared with just a nine-point decrease within the GOP, from 94 to 85 percent, according to the Pew Research Center and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).
The share of White evangelical Protestants within the Democratic coalition has plummeted from 17 percent in 2006 to 4 percent in 2022, making Scholten part of a shrinking minority.
Though just 14 percent of Americans identify as White evangelicals, they remain a powerful interest group “punching above their weight” in conservative politics in shaping both the political discourse and policy on LGBTQ+ issues and abortion rights, said Melissa Deckman, the CEO of PRRI.
Deckman said Democrats will face “strong headwinds” trying to win back White evangelicals at the national level but could gain ground among what she called the “neglected middle” of White non-evangelical Protestants and Catholics.
“I think you could pull off some religious voters who maybe are more of the swing constituency in presidential elections,” she said. “I just don’t see it happening with White evangelicals anytime soon.”
President Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic, has framed his reelection campaign on a message of bolstering economic and personal freedom. Religious Latinx voters are also a critical swing constituency in 2024. Both political parties will fight to win over Hispanic Catholics and Protestants, most of whom identify as independents or Democrats.
The state of Michigan, which Biden carried in 2020, will again be crucial to his chances of winning a second term. Both Scholten’s youth and population shifts within Michigan from the East to the West side of the state, Smidt said, could make her a key figure in Democratic politics for years to come.
“There’s a lot of opportunities for her — she could be a fairly unifying figure,” Smidt said. “I think she has a potentially bright future ahead of her.”
Scholten has linked faith and freedom with her advocacy for gun safety legislation and abortion rights in Congress, frequently invoking parental rights and the sanctity of life to argue against abortion restrictions.
Scholten believes above all, Democrats shouldn’t attempt to monopolize religious voters or to claim their political agenda best serves a particular religious end, but instead, make space within the party for all voters’ individual relationships with their faith.
“I think one way that Democrats have really gone astray is by responding to the Republican message of ‘this is what the Bible says we should do’ by saying, ‘no, this is what the Bible says we should do, it’s the exact opposite’ in trying to claim a political end for Jesus,” she said. “And I say all the time: Jesus was not a Republican or a Democrat. Nobody gets to claim him. He’s nobody’s Jesus, because he’s everybody’s.”