Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Faith Based Democrats

What "left" signifies is impossible to explain precisely, though the difference is well understood throughout the political culture. This is because an idealized left/right spectrum has been recognized, more or less explicitly, by nearly everyone for more than two hundred years – ever since the early days of the French Revolution, when the more radical members of the National Assembly seated themselves to the left of the speaker. Very generally, the Left is dedicated to continuing the Revolutionaries’ commitment to “liberty, equality, and fraternity (solidarity).” [For further elaboration, see the entry on “Left/Right/Center” in my POLITICAL KEYWORDS (Blackwell Publishers, 2007).] The Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have quite different agendas. It is therefore unsurprising that, throughout their histories, they have militated against liberty, equality and fraternity; and that, in the main, they continue to do so. How, then, is a religious Left possible? This is a mystery that no one really understands. But the fact is beyond dispute: there are the Berrigans, liberation theologians, and countless other faith-based leaders and shock troops of the Left. The Sojourners, organizers of the discussion on politics and faith that aired last night on CNN with the three leading Democratic contenders for their party’s nomination for President, are among them.

The words “with all due respect” are among the most abused in our political discourse. Let me nevertheless say that “with all due respect” I think, as most left thinkers have, that there is something profoundly wrong headed, inauthentic and dangerous about theistic religiosity even when it appears in Left circles. I also think that the dangers are mitigated somewhat because most peoples’, and most politicians’, expressions of faith are more superficial than genuine, though they are no more authentic or rational on this account. [See “Snake Oil: Old and New,” June 3.] However I won’t press these points here because there is a more immediate problem posed by last night’s confessions of religiosity.

Last night’s performance was a response to a widespread misapprehension about why John Kerry lost in 2004. The idea, in short, is that the Democrats failed to connect with the deep religious convictions of the American electorate. It has become a tenet of contemporary Democratic Party thinking that this problem must be corrected before 2008; that the faithful must be won back from the Republicans.

There is a shred of truth in this. Whether or not Kerry would have won enough Electoral College votes to become President had the election been more in accord with (small-d) democratic norms is debatable. But he plainly lost the popular vote. In this regard, the conventional wisdom is probably right: Bush won because the Republicans succeeded in mobilizing church going social conservatives (more accurately, social reactionaries) put off by gay marriage and other facets of modern life. One might therefore expect the party leadership, opportunistic to its core, to mitigate the party’s ostensible social liberalism. But then they would lose not only their “base” but also the majority of so-called moderate voters, including Republicans put off by their party’s reactionary positions. Emphasizing the religiosity of its candidates is a second-best alternative. It is a way, conventional wisdom holds, to break down the divide between the red and the blue.

Of course, there is a better explanation for Kerry’s defeat than Karl Rove’s success in getting “values” voters to the polls Kerry lost because he didn’t offer a clear enough alternative to Bush’s imperialist foreign policy, to his wars, or to his corporate-friendly, plutocratic and anti-environmentalist domestic programs. What Kerry offered was competence, and the prospect that elite interests would no longer be represented by an arrogant, mindless buffoon. That should have been lesser evil enough for the vast majority of voters, given Bush’s and Cheney’s unfitness for office. But, to the detriment of all but the corporations for whom they work, it was not. Thus the social reactionaries Rove mobilized got the last word.

In contrast to most other liberal democracies, American Constitutional arrangements strictly separate Church and State. [Another issue that is poorly understood is how this situation affects religious attitudes. It is probably no accident that social norms in the rest of the developed world are, on the whole, more secular than in the United States.] For most of our history, politicians have respected the spirit, as well as the letter, of the clear intention of the founders. Certainly the most genuinely religious of recent Presidents, Jimmy Carter, did. As President, he was loath to speak of his faith or to allow it overtly to affect his conduct. But now the strategists and pundits are mobilized; pressure is on to cross the line. Fortunately, last night, no one did – at least not too shamelessly. There is a danger, however, with Republicans having the hand dealt them by George Bush, that their candidates will play the religious card – and that the Democrats’ better sense will not hold. A party still reeking of Clintonism (see “Combat Clintonism!,” April 27) does not easily give up the Republican Lite ghost!

In 2004, when it should have been plain to everyone that John Kerry was, by far, the lesser evil, the wise paid as little attention as they could to what he said or did, the better to keep up their resolve to vote against Bush in the only possibly effective way: by voting for the candidate of the POP, the Party of Pusillanimity. In that spirit, I’ll be brief on what the candidates actually said. As remarked, none of the three were too God awful -- not even Hillary who, having gone to the School of Bill (or vice versa), never misses an opportunity to be opportunistic. Coming from a slightly more Low Church background (Southern Baptist versus United Methodist), Edwards was a little better than the others in steering the discussion towards the problem of poverty – in other words, in a Sojournerly direction. Obama, to his credit, was the most Carter-like. But it is hard to evince dignity while professing nonsense, even for someone as adept as he. Not great, but it could have been much worse.

Let’s hope it doesn’t get worse. There is enough to worry about here on earth without getting bogged down on pie in the sky. I suspect that even last night’s three god-fearing candidates would agree. But Republicans and pundits and twenty-four hour news channels hell bent on dumbing down public discourse – and , worst of all, Democratic Party strategists -- could force the focus of the coming electoral contest into the unwholesome terrain broached last night. The founders knew better. Do the leaders of the POP?


Red Letter Believers said...

I’m not opposed to politicians who have faith — in fact, I think it is necessary to help guide our country. But I want it to be real. I want it to be genuine. I dont want it to be just for the cameras.

There is a great conversation about Politicians and faith found here:


David Rupert

Gary said...

What "left" signifies is impossible to explain precisely, though the difference is well understood throughout the political culture.

Left signifies sympathy for the political underdog: the poor, women, minorities, etc. Right signifies sympathy for the topdog: the rich, men, majorities, etc.