On God and Democrats

Shortly before the 2000 presidential race started, Gertrude Himmelfarb, the aging Athena of neoconservatism, found herself struggling to express what she felt were the core values differences between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. What she came up with was that America had become "one nation, two cultures." "One is religious, puritanical, family-centered, and somewhat conformist," wrote The Economist in describing her vision. "The other is tolerant, hedonistic, secular, predominantly single, and celebrates multiculturalism. These value judgments are the best predictor of political affiliation, far better than wealth or income."

By the time the 2000 election was over, however -- even though Himmelfarb's candidate eventually won, with a little jurisprudential help -- her "two cultures" idea looked pretty poor as a description of what divides her friends from ours. True, just as she said, 91 percent of George W. Bush's voters had freely identified themselves as "religious" to pollsters -- but so had 81 percent of Al Gore's. And while Himmelfarb's reviled "seculars" did make up a fifth of Gore's support, they'd also been one in 10 of Bush's -- hardly the signs of a black-and-white divide. But when it comes to faith-and-politics issues, unfortunately for the talking classes, polarity has always been far too simple a frame.

This year, religion is back in the news, and, not surprisingly, so are a lot of the same tired arguments -- on both sides of the political fence. Himmelfarb herself has been missing, but absent her presence, and facing a president who drives liberals insane by invoking the Almighty every chance he gets, many of those same liberals have been worriedly wondering what's going on as the Democratic candidates stumble over themselves and one another in what seems at times a hell-bent rush to assure voters that they've "got religion," too. What, some ask, has come of separation of church and state? Is this the end of tolerance? Is there a spiritual inquisition ahead? Salem witch trials, anyone?

Just what sort of faith, and how much of it -- and how good that is for the Democrats and the country -- has not been an uncontroversial topic this season. Shortly after Christmas, The New York Times, for example, ran an op-ed by liberal evangelical preacher Jim Wallis, who chided that the Democrats running for president still weren't getting the issue right. He cited Howard Dean's admission, for one, that the former governor had quit being an Episcopalian to become a Congregationalist after the Episcopal diocese of Vermont refused to sell land for a lakeshore bike path. This struck Wallis as just the sort of "faith-lite" story that too many Americans associate with Democrats and God -- and a key reason why Democrats come off as so irreligious to many voters.

Wallis' editorial provoked a rash of letters to the Times -- and must have prompted a conversation among the editors, because, less than two weeks later, they published an op-ed rejoinder of sorts, headlined "One Nation, Under Secularism." In it, former journalist Susan Jacoby warned darkly that "[i]n Campaign 2004, secularism has become a dirty word." Avoiding mention of Wallis by name, she, too, took aim at Dean -- not for his bike-path-provoked conversion but for telling Iowa voters that he prayed daily. Jacoby called the admission "comically opportunistic." The Democrats, it seems, can't catch a break on this issue from anyone this year.

Bush, of course, shows no confusion of any kind about his God. It's the Democrats who take the beating -- from conservatives, naturally, but as the Wallis and Jacoby pieces (and hundred of others in the past several months) indicate, from a surprising array of liberals with very different agendas. In a year when Iraq and the economy top the list of matters most important to voters, type the words "religion and Democratic presidential candidates" into Google; the bounty retrieved seems to run the highway all the way to heaven itself. Go search Lexis-Nexis and the same thing happens. Little of it is complimentary.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that religion is at play in American politics. Yet exactly which aspect of that vast subject is supposed to be up for grabs this year, why it's important, and what the Democratic candidates should be thinking or doing or saying about it (if anything) remains devilishly elusive.

But there's a bottom line here that some might find surprising: Yes, the right wing will carry on about the Democrats being the party of the godless, and the media will serve as its amplifier. But at the end of day, a sizeable percentage of religious Americans -- the ones who tend not to make much noise or hanker for public demonstrations of devotion -- will vote Democratic anyway.

This is not to say that Democrats still shouldn't think hard about what they're up against. Obviously the Iraq War and September 11 have played their unsettling roles here. As this unilateralist administration has charged headlong into not one but two wars -- wars it's insisted aren't about Islam but about terrorism -- it has convinced almost no one that's what it really means. After initial post-9-11 talk about the "crusade" America would lead against its satanic enemies, Bush backtracked, and, ever since, he and his administration have meticulously sworn that they see a huge difference between "Islamic fundamentalists" (always bad, it seems -- unlike, say, "Christian fundamentalists") and "Islam" (good, especially when it's the faith of key U.S. allies in the Middle East and Asia, not to mention a billion people on the planet and several hundred thousand Michigan voters). But that need to show tolerance and discernment after 9-11 eventually clashed with a new conflicting need: to stoke war fever over Iraq. And convincing Americans that invading Iraq was necessary has fed darker fears -- 44 percent, according to Pew polls, now think Islam itself promotes violence. Left alone, that sort of bias would constitute its own potential weapon of mass destruction in the days and years ahead.

Foreign policy isn't the only source of political God talk nowadays. Bush's almost daily invocation of the deity -- brought up in relation to the war on terrorism, prison reform, the future of the family, gay marriage, or drug problems among pro athletes -- has been the other visible force driving religion to the top of the news this season. Stealing a page from Ronald Reagan (though notably not from Bush père), Bush fils has, rhetorically at least, made front-and-center faith a rallying cry in the GOP's ongoing home-front holy war against the Democrats, as well as its guarantor of ultimate victory in the terrorism wars abroad.

Keenly aware that Republicans were once again grabbing the "faith thing" away from them, Democratic Party strategists this year, desperate to hold on to at least a competitive position on any issue they can, have urged their candidates to fight back, to make sure that voters know there's more than a letter's worth of difference between "G-O-D" and "G-O-P." Yet as the criticisms of Dean from sacred and secular Democrats alike suggest, and as the failed campaign of Joe Lieberman only underscores, knowing what voters who practice a faith that isn't hard-right evangelical want to hear about the faith issue is no easy trick.

It's hard to start any discussion on religion and politics these days without someone pulling out the now familiar Gallup Poll data showing that for over half a century, more than 90 percent of Americans have said they believe in God. Somewhat more disquieting to some, America is also a "Christian" country -- in Gallup's terms, that is, of citizens' professed religious identity (practice remains another matter), because that's what more than 80 percent of Americans say they are. Yet given those astonishing levels of apparent homogeneity, after that, anything remotely approaching religious majoritarianism in America disappears -- and is why these two majoritarian facts about faith have long mattered far less than one might think.

But then what does matter about religion in politics this presidential year? Here, as a starting place, are a few suggested themes worth thinking about:

1. The religious landscape does relate to voting behavior. There are three big denominational blocs in America, each representing roughly a quarter of the population: Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelical (or fundamentalist or Pentecostal) Protestants. When it comes to politics, the first bloc leans Democratic, the second leans Republican, and the third is, simply, Republican -- and proud of it. African-American Protestants are another 10 percent of the landscape, and while theologically evangelical, they're clearly far more Democratic than white evangelicals are Republican. Seculars make up more or less another tenth, and vote 2 to 1 Democratic, while among the remaining 5 percent to 8 percent of Americans, Mormons vote GOP, but Jews, other Christians, and other non-Christians all go Democratic.

In 2000, Protestants made up 48 percent of Gore's vote; Catholics, 23 percent; seculars, 19 percent; and Jews and others, 10 percent. Bush's vote was 41 percent evangelical, 22 percent mainline Protestant, 21 percent Catholic, 11 percent secular, and 5 percent Jewish and others.

2. The geography of religion matters, but is not just about religion. Evangelicals have historically concentrated in the South, with smaller populations in the Midwest, and their location -- no surprise -- tracks remarkably closely nowadays to the states where the GOP has won heavily in recent years. In the Northeast, the Southwest, and parts of the Great Lakes Midwest, Roman Catholics are the biggest bloc in most places -- and it's been these states that Democratic presidential candidates most often win, especially when African-American Protestant turnout has also been strong and mainline Protestants have been persuaded to tilt Democratic along with them.

3. Where is the Christian right? For 20 years, first Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority and then Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition seemed everywhere, the scourge of liberals and liberal values, the embodiment of what the preachers bemoaned as "secular humanism." Yet the fact (not always noticed at dinner parties when secular or religious liberals gather) is that the Moral Majority has been nonexistent for 15 years (after going bankrupt), and that the Christian Coalition is almost gone now. Robertson resigned as its leader three years ago, Ralph Reed (its Machiavelli or Richelieu, depending on your taste) left well before that, and 90 percent of what was once the coalition's $26 million budget has gone with them. Robertson and Falwell, of course, still show up regularly on cable TV with their fire-breathing attacks on gays, feminists, and the general overall satanic perfidy of those whom they merely dislike. But it's not clear just who's paying serious attention to them. The Christian right exists now as a voting bloc within the Republican Party, but not as a successful separate group of extra-party organizations the two preachers can claim is still leading disillusioned southern Democrats to the promised conservative land.

4. The "compassionate conservative" conundrum of the GOP. All of Bush's warm-and-fuzzy "faith-based" talk was designed to pull moderates toward him in 2000. But then and since, it has also served double duty as a way to manage the religious-right bloc that's so essential to the GOP's future (that is, where the media hear the "compassionate" part, other ears delight at the second word). Yet the new "compassionate conservatism" also represents an admission of a core set of intermingled paradoxes facing the GOP this year and beyond.

By the late 1990s, after the collapse of both the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition, a surprising number of conservative evangelicals began openly questioning the full-bore politicization of their faith. They weren't less conservative, nor were they ready to jump the Republican ship. But as former Moral Majority Vice President Cal Thomas made clear in Blinded by Might, they felt badly used by Falwell, Robertson, and the GOP, which had never really delivered on the social issues that mattered most. Abortion was still legal, and twice as many were being performed as had been when Roe v. Wade was decided. Creationism wasn't making headway either, for all the ruckus they'd raised over it. After hundreds of school-board battles across the country, Kansas -- the only state willing to put it in the curriculum -- had reversed itself 18 months later. The school-prayer amendment drive, vigorous a decade earlier, was dead. And their ongoing, passionate campaign against gay rights -- the latest in a long list of ultimately failed evangelical enterprises -- was doing poorly, as legal, political, and social discrimination against homosexuals kept declining, even in the South.

Candidate Bush in 2000 had promised to reverse all that, even as he packaged himself for the rest of America in the language of compassion. But look what's happened: The White House's much-heralded effort in 2001 to launch a new faith-based social-welfare system has been long on heat and low on light. It quickly turned out that most evangelical congregations weren't really interested in taking government grants -- and that their leaders were more concerned that competitors like the Nation of Islam or liberal Protestant groups never see a dime from the initiative.

The result? The original bill has been bottled up in Congress for nearly three years. And in the White House itself, Bush's whole faith-based initiative has gotten little save rhetorical attention ever since John DiIulio, the president's first appointee to run the program, resigned his post and ripped into the backroom deals and blatant cynicism he found among the "Mayberry Machiavellis" inside the White House. Meanwhile, Bush's unwillingness to make his much-touted (but still unfunded) $15 billion global AIDS initiative contingent on teaching abstinence has further enraged supporters.

Does this mean that the religious right inside the GOP is ready to bolt the party? Hardly -- in part because they've nowhere else to go. Bush adviser Karl Rove swears he's doing a massive voter-turnout drive among Christian rightists, and of course their enmity toward all things Democratic and liberal will drive some of them to the polls to stop Satan's march.

But it does mean that there might yet be a "Dixiecan" revolt one day, akin to the 1948 "Dixiecrat" uprising led by Strom Thurmond that almost sank Harry Truman's re-election. And what about those Republican seculars who made up a crucial 10 percent of Bush's vote in 2000? How long will they choose to keep company with the demands that the religious right keeps placing on their shared party? Rove has no doubt been poring over the data on that critical question.

5. So where's the religious left to match the religious right? It's a good question, with far from simple answers. To begin with, the fact that four out of five Gore voters in 2000 identified themselves as religious answers it -- they're voting for the Democratic candidate. But that's not quite the whole story, obviously. In 1960, John F. Kennedy was a Catholic candidate in a Protestant country that had a 300-year history of distrust for "rum, Romanism, and rebellion." So to overcome his "Al Smith problem," he set out the modern marker for what it means to be a liberal politician. Before a doubtful audience of ministers in Houston, Kennedy declared that faith was a private matter, and that if elected he would not let his religion determine his presidential decisions.

It was a moment of triumph for secularism, it seemed, and for ecumenism -- and it led to the election of the first non-Protestant president in U.S. history. But the aftereffects were more complex. While his election convinced most American elites that the country had entered what the great Yale historian of religion Sydney Ahlstrom called "the post-Protestant era," American voters didn't quite get the message. Kennedy won because more than 80 percent of Catholics voted for him, while a majority of Protestants opted for Richard Nixon. Twenty years later, by the time Ronald Reagan sought the same office, the conservative southern wing of America's evangelical Protestants had had enough of the Democrats who succeeded Kennedy and of claims that faith was "private" -- and so began their now completed exodus to the GOP.

Still, for liberal candidates, there is an immense audience of "faithful" Democrats (and many independents) who aren't looking for a religious left to match the religious right. Unlike evangelicals, they don't feel compelled to use religious tests to guide their voting: Only a quarter of mainliners and a third of Catholics say they frequently or occasionally use faith to determine how to vote (compared with nearly 70 percent of white evangelicals).

The reasons for this are hardly new, unlike the triumph of private-faith or multicultural teaching. Well before the Civil War, the nation's largest Protestant denominations -- the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians -- split over two issues: slavery and whether to read the Bible literally. The northerners opted to move toward a "civic religion" that rejected slavery and embraced science, industrial progress, and modernism; their southern colleagues went the other way. That freed the northerners to gradually restructure their faith from a purely denominational construct to one that maintained denominational identity while promoting a civic, governmental ideal in which the state was meant to help achieve John Winthrop's "City upon a Hill." The Social Gospel movement in the 1880s and '90s laid the groundwork for not only the Progressive Era but, soon enough, the New Deal as well. Tolerance, ecumenism, and multiculturalism (though a word of recent invention) were all foreseen then, more than a century ago. (Crucial to real ecumenism, American Catholics were embracing this view in the years just before Kennedy ran, and they accelerated their participation in light-year terms while Pope John XXIII was alive.)

Today, just as there always has been, a religious left is alive in America -- easily seen in Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy, in the Catholic bishops' remarkable critiques of nuclear arms and economic injustice at the height of the Reagan era, in the ongoing battles over domestic issues such as the "living wage" campaigns being fought across the country today (often led by religious coalitions), and most recently in the Episcopal Church's willingness to ordain an openly gay bishop.

But religious-left opposition is also divided within itself. For example, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which speaks for 60 million American Catholics, may find itself working alongside the National Council of Churches, which tries to speak for an almost equal number of more fractious progressive white and black Protestants (and Orthodox) on issues of economic justice or global security. Yet they part ways when it comes to the controversial God-and-body issues of abortion, homosexuality, birth control, and the like. No one has yet figured out how to heal those very real divisions.

Even so, innumerable Washington-based organizations defend and promote religious tolerance, and many speak from a clearly religious commitment. Secular groups such as People For the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union actively cooperate with multidenominational religious allies like The Interfaith Alliance and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which, supported by hundreds of thousands of members, maintain a prominent profile in the nation's capital. At the same time, the Catholic bishops and the National Council of Churches -- and its member denominations -- use their own well-staffed Capitol Hill offices to keep watchful eyes on issues from the impact of Bush's tax cuts on the poor to the size of the defense budget to promoting alternatives to the administration's unilateralist foreign policy.

The problem the religious left faces today, however, lies, ironically, in the crisis of modern Judaism, once the steadfast ally of these progressive Christians. Long distrustful of evangelical Christianity, a notable minority of American Jews -- thanks to evangelicals' rereading of the Book of Revelation, a New Testament portion that most liberal Christians simply ignore -- have begun flirting with an incongruous new alliance that's eating away at the heart of the nation's religious left. Stunningly, there's been a transformation from evangelicals' once commonplace anti-Semitism to a Semitophilicism of an extraordinary sort. In their reading of Revelation, for example, evangelical "premillenarians" have taken the creation of modern Israel as a sign from God that Christ's Second Coming -- and with it, the Final Judgment -- are now imminent. When that chiliastic moment arrives, though, Jews -- like all nonbelievers in Christ's redemptive role -- don't fare well in Revelation's vision. But no matter. What this has produced is an unholy alliance of convenience, in which Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu have embraced the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as a means to win support for their policies, while for conservative evangelicals, a strong Israel is crucial to Revelation-inspired dreams. And for GOP strategists such as Ralph Reed and Karl Rove, it has meant the opportunity to coax Jewish support away from the Democrats -- or at least toward support for a much more conservative Democratic Party less resistant to the GOP's agenda.

As this complicated, fractious, and always messy landscape suggests, American religion can't ever be fitted into boxes as neat as Himmelfarb's "two cultures." Alexis de Tocqueville, the old warhorse on religion and politics, gets trotted out often these days by conservatives who want to use him to support their version of American religiosity's ongoing importance. But Tocqueville never claimed to see any such thing; far from it, he saw the same complicated, fractious, messy landscape we see today. "I even doubt whether religious opinions have as much influence as one at first thinks," he wrote in a letter to a French friend. "The religious state of this people is perhaps the most curious thing ... it's evident that here, generally speaking, religion does not profoundly stir the souls."

What Tocqueville did see was that "the immense majority have faith in the wisdom and good sense of human kind, faith in the doctrine of human perfectibility. ... They honestly believe in the excellence of the government which rules them; they believe in the wisdom of the masses provided they are enlightened. ... Will Deism ever be able to satisfy all classes, especially those which most need the rein of religion? I can't persuade myself of that. ... It's obvious there still remains here a greater foundation of Christianity than in any other country of the world to my knowledge, and I don't doubt but that this disposition still influences the political regime ... ."

Still, Tocqueville warned in conclusion, too much could be made of the whole topic. "That's enough on this subject," he ended his letter, "toward which my imagination draws me continuously and which would end by making me mad if I plumbed it often ... ." It's advice still worth listening to today.

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