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Saturday, November 6, 2004

Religious roots of progressive values.

Here are some lengthy excerpts from the liberal Mormon political scientist Russell Arben Fox's much longer assessment of the Democrats' religion problem. His central question — "What if what is necessary is not translating liberal political imperatives into an evangelical or culturally conservative idiom, but rather taking such faith seriously as a legitimate basis for thinking about politics, and drawing progressive concerns from it?" — seems exactly right to me.

Ought the Democratic party try to compete with the Republicans in being a "moral voice"? For many, to invite any sort of immersion in the ethics and habits of the red states is to poison the progressive cause entirely; it is to shake hands with the Ku Klux Klan, apologize to the Confederacy, wink at anti-gay bigotry, hand power over the inbreeds from Deliverance, and generally ruin everything civilization stands for. It is demographic talk like this that leads so many secular progressives to find great comfort in Ruy Teixeira's thesis (which I've never liked, and which doesn't seem to be panning out, so far anyway) that, eventually, all those blue-collar, rural (racist, moronic) Jesus freaks will die out, leaving the future to the secular, urban, multicultural, self-employed, high-tech (enlightened) creative class. (Either that, or it leads them to engage in fantasies about how much nicer America would be if only General Sherman had been more thorough in his march through the South.)

I couldn’t disagree more, though I recognize that the odds of such disagreement being heard when we have only two major parties to choose from, with no Christian socialist or culturally conservative social democrat option in sight, will be a long and difficult haul. And admittedly, the burden is primarily upon religious progressives like myself; one cannot reasonably expect secular liberals and desperate Democrats to take seriously as a ground for argument and actions the particularist beliefs and perspectives of a region of the country, and a class of the population, which has just thoroughly rejected them. . . .

First: there are, there have always been, there will always be, Christians whose beliefs lead them to be social conservatives and economic progressives. (For evidence, look here and here.) We exist, and we have no party to represent us. (The Democratic party once did, back in its working-class heyday, but respect for that kind of traditional authority has been declining ever since the 1970s.) What we need to do is work for the transformation of America’s political and party system, so that more venues can open up, and the death-grip which a warped, half-statist, half-libertarian, decidedly non-communitarian "conservatism" holds over "moral values" in America can finally be loosened. It may not happen in my lifetime, but it's something worth working for, and praying for. Second, and of greater relevance to this discussion: in the meantime, we need to continue to work towards making the Democratic party remember the lesson of Carter and Clinton, the lessons of respect.

After the way Kerry flogged his "faith" to no end on the campaign trail, it might be easy to dismiss this as a lost cause: the Republicans have grabbed religion, so let them have it. (After all, all that fire-and brimstone crap is just for the weak and superstitious, right?) One can point to the example of Amy Sullivan as evidence that there’s nothing new to be said here. I admire the hell out of Amy’s work, and have nothing but praise for it...but, if one honestly wishes to ask what sort of thinking could lead the Democratic party to start putting forward an agenda that shows some respect for the unavoidable fact that they live in a socially and culturally conservative country, then I think it may be worth noting that her primary campaign—to open up religious voters to progressive causes by helping progressives learn to make their case in religious language—may be backwards. What if what is necessary is not translating liberal political imperatives into an evangelical or culturally conservative idiom, but rather taking such faith seriously as a legitimate basis for thinking about politics, and drawing progressive concerns from it? It won’t be a liberalism which gives you abortion rights–but maybe it’ll give you health care. Isn’t that worth something?

Think about Bill Clinton. . . . he didn’t think religion was something he needed to condescend to. He shared that context. The lack of follow-through in legislative content can be forgiven if it at least begins with recognition and respect. Clinton certainly didn't outlaw abortion, and the dedicated anti-abortion professionals in America today certainly never gave him an inch of credit. But consider what happened at the margins, in the provinces, when Clinton declared when he accepted the Democratic nomination that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare." Rare. Meaning: it's a bad thing, aborting an unborn child; we ought to do less of it. The people who have or make it seem easy to have abortions when there's no call for abortion are in the wrong. That's called moral judgment, using the power of the office to define and order what American life ought and ought not be about. That swayed people—a few of them, anyway, enough to unite with the (not incidentally often socially conservative) African-American population of the South and thereby pick off a few states—because it showed some respect for how they had constrained and disciplined and thus made difficult their own lives, and thus allowed them to hear what this liberal politician had to say about taxes and medical care, because they knew it was out from someone who was willing to put themselves where they lived.

There's a lot more to ponder at In Media Res.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 6 November 2004 at 8:54 AM

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Next: Meet your fellow Philocritics, part 4.




Jeff Wilson:

November 6, 2004 09:19 AM | Permalink for this comment

As someone immersed in the ethics and habits of a very red state, it occurs to me that Fox may be overlooking the less nuanced facts of the case, and that the screw-up may have been more basic than what's being said here. Maybe the mistake was to nominate a Catholic. When referencing Carter and Clinton, what they shared wasn't simply a language of respect for religion, they were specifically both Southern evangelical Christians. They were people that the folks these pundits are trying to capture could identify with, unlike a Catholic (especially a Northern one). Their respectful language was the language of the people everyone is so hot to capture--Kerry's wasn't, even if it was every bit as sincere and religious in motivation.

Perhaps what needs to be done is for evangelical Christianity to finally conquer not only the Republican but also the Democratic party. When everyone is using the language and mindset of a single powerful minority of Americans, we'll achieve that vaunted healing of the cultural divide that vexes so many, and maybe even poach a few votes.

By the way, only a man could imagine that abortion rights aren't a health care issue.


November 6, 2004 02:49 PM | Permalink for this comment

I don't know about all of this self examination from Progressives. Maybe the Evangelicals are just wrong. Maybe Jesus really was a bit of a Progressive. I recognize him as the Messiah and try to reflect his vision in my politics now- by voting Democratic and expressing a concern for the poor.

Sometimes you just lose when you are right- Jesus lost in a landslide to Barabas, didn't he?


November 7, 2004 08:25 AM | Permalink for this comment

Jeff, I hear the irony in your observation (or, let me say that if I were making your comment, it would be bitterly ironic in my own mouth):

Perhaps what needs to be done is for evangelical Christianity to finally conquer not only the Republican but also the Democratic party. When everyone is using the language and mindset of a single powerful minority of Americans, we'll achieve that vaunted healing of the cultural divide that vexes so many, and maybe even poach a few votes.

But again, let me note that this is not an all or nothing situation. I'm not suggesting that Democrats rush off in a vain attempt to convert the highly politicized far-right activist Evangelicals. Not only would there be no point, that group doesn't amount to a very large portion of the electorate. (What, maybe 11%?) Instead, I'm saying that if Kerry had done more of what he did in Fort Lauderdale earlier and more regularly and in front of white audiences, moderate voters — who don't attend hard-right Evangelical churches, and especially who live in the upper Midwest — might have been more inclined to vote for him.

The election was very close. And Democrats could have made a more successful appeal to some of the religiously motivated — but not hard-right — voters.

As for Kerry's Catholicism, I think this wasn't such a great factor once you get beyond certain groups of Evangelicals that are still overtly anti-Catholic. I think Kerry's "faith, not works" approach played badly among hardcore readers of Romans, but it seemed to play well otherwise. But you may be right that we won't see a president from the Northeast anytime soon.

Steve, thanks for your comment! The problem is that it is not enough to be right. Progressives have been "right" while losing for almost 40 years. If your progressivism moves off in the socialist direction, you've been right and losing for even longer. If there is some comfort in seeing ourselves as a righteous remnant, there is still reason to believe that we can build institutions and persuade more of our neighbors that there is a better way. I am not content to be right and keep on losing.

And from a Christian perspective, although there is always a vital distinction to be made between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God, there is also the sense in which we must cultivate the seeds we've been given. I'm convinced that Christians must have a more public dialogue and debate about the political implications of the gospel. A certain variety of conservative Christians have come to dominate this debate, and because they aren't being adequately challenged, they have created the impression in the media and in the minds of many Americans that faith=right-wing politics.

Jeff Wilson:

November 7, 2004 10:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

Yeah, that was meant ironically, kinda wondered though if it would work in the silent medium of cyberspace though.

All I can say is that I live in the South, in an evangelical-dominated state, and that pro-Protestantism (including, but not limited to, anti-Catholicism) was a big factor. Had Kerry been an evangelical, even a nominal one, he would've captured quite a few more votes. When he stood on the stage with Bush, many people simply couldn't hear him, because they immediately imagined that Bush was "one of them" and Kerry wasn't. As an evangelical Kerry could've said everything exactly as he did (other than claiming to be a Catholic), and many voters around here would've actually listened instead of tuning him out. Because evangelical Christians are largely about their own in-group and don't care about diversity. I mean that objectively, not as a bitter statement. Not all of them are that way, but the majority are, based on my own experiences around here and on the research on evangelicals that I read almost daily as part of my training in American Religious History.

I don't want an evangelical president, though really it's vastly more important to me that whoever is president be committed to progressive, positive social and economic values. But I really do wonder if a non-evangelical can be elected in this country. The lesson since 1976 seems to be no. Carter was backed by evangelicals, most of whom were disappointed by his performance. Reagan and Bush Sr both ran as evangelicals, though neither really were, and the strategy worked. Clinton was evangelicalish, but Gore certainly couldn't claim that mantle. And now we have four plus four more years of the worst presidency in memory, perhaps in history, all coming from the most overtly evangelical man to capture the White House. So, again, and less ironically, I wonder if Catholicsm (to say nothing of religious views which I personally share) isn't the nail in the coffin of any modern American election. It isn't because everyone in American is evangelical, only that enough are.


November 7, 2004 11:32 AM | Permalink for this comment

I run into the problem with the current discussion on religion and politics of being a religious voter (mainline protestant) who is also socially liberal in that I support gay marriage and separation of church and state. But I support gay marriage, not out of tolerance, but because I think it can be a moral good, it's a moral evaluation not the abscence of one.

But such a view puts me not into the religious category that the dems are smarting over these days. I suspect a number of Jewish voters who were also scared off by Bush's social conservatism are in the same boat....we're religious, not secular, but because of our views we're not counted as such.


November 7, 2004 12:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

Right, but what's the point from a political perspective? The Democrats can count on your vote — and on mine. Neither of us struggles to understand why our views on the war or on economic policy is theologically and morally grounded, nor do we have trouble supporting the Democrats when push comes to shove. (Where are you going to go? Green?)

The important issue for religiously-committed liberals is to get in better dialogue with moderate Christians. We have theological and ecclesiastical imperatives to do this work, as you well know and as you have described many times on your blog: Theological liberals are getting pushed out of the mainline denominations, and are going to need to be much more successful at finding allies and making their case to more conservative Christians in their churches.

And on the political side, of course, we have to be active in helping political liberals and moderate Democrats speak effectively to Christians whose actual political goals really do line up with the Democrats, but who are led to believe that as Christians they should vote for Republicans.

But the simple fact is that political liberals who are also theological liberals are not a constituency that is up for grabs anywhere — nor do we have any measurable political clout. We're tiny, and everyone knows how we're going to vote already. I would actually distrust any politician who invested much time or energy in trying to reach out to us.


November 16, 2004 09:32 AM | Permalink for this comment

Some follow-up on Fox's ideas about Democrats and abortion: Matthew Yglesias (Tapped 11.15.04), Russell Arben Fox (In Media Res 11.15.04), Matthew Yglesias (11.15.04).

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