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Friday, November 5, 2004

Against all-or-nothing arguments about 'moral values.'

A lot of liberals are really overreacting to the proposals being made by us "pro-religious" Democrats. The goal is not in any way to yank the Democratic Party over to the right. Nor is it a misbegotten attempt to convert hardened Evangelical activists into liberal Democrats. (As the Mad Hatter says to the White Rabbit, "Don't let's be silly!") The people we are trying to reach are simply church-going Americans who pay an average amount of attention to the political process and who have managed to pick up the impression that the Democrats are indifferent to or hostile to their faith commitments.

Maybe this seems obvious to a lot of people, but I think it can't be emphasized enough: Many moderate voters — who share Democrats' concerns on a wide range of issues — have been led to believe that good Christians don't vote Democratic. Those voters are the people the Party needs to reach.

From a religious perspective, of course, there are other things we religiously committed Democrats need to do — especially because some of us look for all the world like we have mistaken the Democratic Party platform for the gospel. But that's a subject for another post. For now, let's just be clear about the fact that the Democrats — and especially their fired-up brighter-than-thou activists — have not yet learned to communicate sympathetically with a lot of Democratically-inclined churchgoers. We're talking about millions of people here.

And before anyone complains that the world is sharply divided into enlightened secularists and benighted fundamentalists, please first review Beliefnet's "Twelve Tribes of American Politics."

(Posting will be light this weekend; I'll be attending the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship's "Revival 4" conference in Worcester.)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 5 November 2004 at 8:22 AM

Previous: Liberalism reframed.
Next: Real live Jeremiah.




Jeff Wilson:

November 5, 2004 10:16 AM | Permalink for this comment

I want to add a comment about why many liberals may feel upset by the calls of some to move the Democratic party into a more religious mode. Simply put, religion is a major part of what whomped us on Tuesday, what contributed to the wasteland of the last four years, what took away the Congress, what pushes hateful legislation like the gay marriage bans. Many liberals feel they are already suffering from an excess of religion; the very last thing they could possibly want is to have to be steeped in it in the party to which they've fled as a refuge from irrationality and evil. Much of the argument being made on this blog for "reframing" the debates and capturing the hearts of middle American voters is an appeal to the use of emotion as persuasion. Fair enough, but one needs to recognize that the people who push back against religion in liberal politics do it for emotional reasons too, since they have been given cause time and time again to regard political appeals to religious sentiments as scary, dangerous, and inherently opposed to progressive thought. Before you can convince middle Americans that Christians can indeed vote for Democrats, you need to convince many Democrats that one can indeed safely, pleasantly, intelligently fellowship with Christians. The people who oppose your call for more religious language in the Democratic party have very good reasons, based on personal experience, to feel wary about such ideas. You need to wrestle with the attitude "What good has Christianity ever done for me?" They certainly know what bad it has done for them.

As a historian of American religious history, I know that religion (mainly Christianity) has been an important player in most of the major advances in society that liberals would point to over the course of our nation's history. However, during my own lifetime (1975-2004), Christianity on the national scale has almost exclusively been linked with reactionary, intolerant, close-minded, hurtful political and social developments. Liberal Christianity hasn't given us a single major good thing that I can think of off the top of my head (I won't assert that this closes the book on the subject). In fact, since the end of the civil rights era (well before my time), it has been anti-religionists who advanced the cause of liberal society. The women's movement, the gay rights movement, etc, all have a strong base in the efforts to push religion out and recapture a space within which people gain rights by escaping oppressions originating in religious views of ontology. Again, as a historian, I know the situation is far more complicated, and that religious people and groups (like the UUA) have always played a part in social advances (after all, my own political liberalism is deeply rooted in my religious views). Nonetheless, it seems undeniable to me that liberal Christianity in the USA long ago ceased to be a net exporter of ideas to progressive liberals, and now functions in a subordinate role. Conservative Christianity, on the other hand, has during my lifetime become a tremendously powerful net exporter of ideas into the political realm. It's important to keep in mind that most Americans don't have a long historical memory (especially for things that happened before their birth), and that the golden days of liberal Christianity reshaping America are decades in the past, a foreign land to voters under the age of 35 or so and an ever-dimmer memory to those over 35.

My point: liberals who oppose your proposals are not over-reacting. Rather, you are trivializing their heartfelt reactions, which are based on the hard evidence of personal experience. I don't intend that in a mean way. What I mean to do is wake you up to the fact that you're fighting a far harder battle than you imagine, and you have a lot more work to do to convince your fellow liberals of the value of your proposals before you can start to go out and try to convince your fellow Christians of the value of liberal politica. You need to do more than suggest that if people wounded by political Christianity would only allow their beloved safe haven to be radically infused with religion, that they could thereby capture the votes of some of the people who just used those values to re-elect the worst presidency in living memory. Can you see why that isn't a very appealing idea?

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