Monday, November 08, 2004

The Jesus Factor: Publius v. Lanza

There is a compelling dialogue re-emerging from several disparate segments on the Left, and in the middle, concerning the role that religion plays in political decisions, and how this should influence the strategy and language employed by the progressive movement and the Democratic Party. Though this conversation had been making the rounds in the months prior to the election, the spark that re-ignited this discussion was the overwhelming wave of Evangelical Christians that inundated polling stations on Election Day - the crest of which Bush was able to ride to victory in many swing states. That these Evangelical Christian opted for Bush over Kerry by lopsided margins is irrefutable. What can, and should, be done in order to counter the GOP's supremacy amongst this bloc of dedicated voters is a source of some controversy.

The radical point on the spectrum of this debate says that the Democrats should move closer to the religious right - actually altering policies such as support for homosexual rights and abortion rights in order to appeal to this segment of voters. The middle of the spectrum counsels that the Democrat's should learn to fine tune their message in a way that appeals to this religious group - even educating or dialoguing with Evangelicals in a way that fosters the understanding that Christianity is closer to the principles of the progressive movement than those espoused by the Republicans - despite the latter's heavy-handed use of religious language and rhetoric. The conservative side of the spectrum argues that a move to embrace religion in so open a political posture would be futile if not counterproductive. This side argues that those Evangelicals are unattainable barring a wholesale realignment of progressive values that would in itself spell defeat.

For me, the radical position is untenable. To change progressive values to comport with the desires of the religious right would be to hand them victory on a silver platter without putting up even a half-hearted fight. Such acquiescence is not worthy of serious contemplation. If you want to get something as despicable as discrimination against homosexuals enacted into law, or enshrined in the Constitution, you will have to do so over my most strident opposition - not with my complicity. Furthermore, unless the Democrats are willing to go as far to the right as Republicans on these social issues, it will all be for naught. If a voter has strong beliefs on social issues like homosexuality, abortion and abstinence, they will choose the candidate that more closely approximates their own beliefs. A symbolic, nominal, or partial move in this direction by the Democrats will still amount to a watered down version of the real thing. Voters will opt for the real thing.

The crux of the debate, in my opinion, lies with the middle position and the conservative one, as described above. Perhaps there is ground to be made by reframing certain issues in a way that shows their synergy with Christ's teachings - not always the same as the preachings of conservative Christian figures. Publius at
Legal Fiction advocates this middle position with his usual eloquence and thoughtfulness.

As I've argued before, the key to a progressive majority in America is to establish a coalition of secular and religious progressives that can unite on a wide range of issues from helping working families, to fighting poverty, to saving the environment, to fighting for a presumption of peace. The political necessity of attracting more religious voters is obvious. Even though Judis and Teixeira argue that the long-term trends are good for the Democrats, they assume that important blocs such as the Latino and African-American vote will remain constant. Remember, though, that these groups are extremely religious. I'm doubtful that Democrats will continue to enjoy their current levels of support if they continue to be perceived as being hostile to American religion...

While many of you probably agree in theory, I suspect many of you are also torn about courting the "faith voters." On the one hand, you know that Democrats must become more comfortable with religion in order to win. On the other hand, you're furious at the perceived bigotry and backwardness of religion in America. You resent accommodating religious voters who you see as clearly wrong (and perhaps backward and superstitious). In short, a lot of progressives simply don't like religion, and are downright hostile to Christianity because of the American religious right (I'm only talking about Christianity because it's the majority religion). Well, it's time to get over it. Consider this is a self-help post for those who are too hostile to Christianity to put their heart into adopting the new rhetoric of
Values 2.0.

The first step is to admit the problem. If you resent American Christians because of this election or any other reason, then say so. Let it out. Scream if you must. Scream about the Enlightenment, and superstition, and whatever else you want to scream about. If you think religion is stupid, then don't hide it. You can't use the rhetoric of values if you don't really believe in what you're saying. And that's my goal - to make even the most secular rationalists comfortable with the idea (and not just the rhetoric) of Values 2.0.

Now, try to forget what you know and start from a blank slate. Approach it from a new perspective. And here's the perspective I want you see - Christianity can be appreciated by people who don't believe in the divinity of Christ, or that don't believe in God at all. First, approach it just as you would approach studying some religious practice in a foreign country or from a past era. It's strange that so many big-hearted progressives extend so much respect to the religions of foreign cultures, but fail to extend that same respect to the exurbs of Atlanta. Second, take a hour or two one night and go read the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). These four books are the foundation of all Christianity. Consider it an exercise in anthropology.

I think many of you (especially those who don't know much about the religion) will find it a fascinating insight into the minds of the Red Americans that seem so foreign. It will help you understand them. And once you understand them, you can begin to have a dialogue with them, rather than a screaming match. I went back and read them this weekend for the first time in many years. I wanted to make sure that the Jesus I remembered from childhood was the opposite of the intolerance I'm seeing today. And he was - in spades.

Again, for those of you actively hostile to American Christianity, don't read it as a religious text. Read as you would read the teachings of Plato or Emerson or Thoreau. One can be a complete atheist and still find wisdom in the words and stories. As for the miracles, treat them as parables or allegories, just as you would the Garden of Eden story (which is a beautiful work of literature and nothing more).

The point of all this is for everyone to learn how strikingly different the themes of the Gospels are from Republican policies. You will be rather shocked. I mean, look at the following verses and ask yourself whether they're more likely to come from a big-hearted progressive or from Karl Rove:

Matthew 3:
3: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4: Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
8: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 7:
1: Judge not, that you be not judged.
2: For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.

John 8:
3: The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst
4: they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.
5: Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?"
6: This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.
7: And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her."
You get the point. Reading through the Gospels with an adult eye makes it clear just how humane and kind the actual teachings are. People like Falwell like to twist isolated verses, but ignore the overall themes, which come through again and again - love, tolerance, humility, forgiveness. These are not the values of Karl Rove, and we have to be conversant in the language to make that case....

The trick is that we have to show that progressive policies are extremely consistent with the values that these people take so seriously. I'm not even talking about gay marriage - I'm talking about everything. I'm talking about the entire political platform. And to do that, progressives need to learn the language. These people must trust you before they'll listen to a word you say. And if you approach them with an intellectual empathy and respect for their beliefs, you can start persuading - even if you think God is a silly superstition. The most die-hard atheist would have an easier time persuading potential religious progressives by arguing within the framework rather than denouncing religion. And that would be easier if the atheist found some parts of the text that were actually inspiring.
Publius makes a compelling case. There are historical examples of the progressive/religious alliance that one can point to as evidence of the power and potential for such movements to achieve enormous success. Abolition in the 19th Century, and the latter day Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's immediately come to mind, but there are others. In truth, there are many religious Americans who are currently involved in a variety of progressive causes and programs - from providing relief to the impoverished, to championing human rights. But I think that many of these progressive minded religious Americans are already supportive of the Democratic Party. The real targets of our affection, then, are those Christians who are supporters of the GOP.

Of course, such an open courting of such Christians as Publius counsels is a delicate endeavor to undertake. The trick lies in trying to embrace Christian values in such a way as to foster dialogue with Christian Americans, while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the progressive movement and not ceding any ground on important social issues.

TIA reader, and longtime friend and colleague Craig Lanza, gives voice to the conservative position, arguing that this game is too dangerous and will lead to an unraveling of America's political culture. Lanza's reaction is in part to the position staked out by Professor Mark Levine, who penned
a guest editorial on Professor Juan Cole's blog. Here is an excerpt from Levine's piece:

...Religion contains the kernel of "common sense" of the masses whose natural instinct is to rebel against the domination of the capitalist elite. But because it is largely unformed or articulated, it is easily manipulated by that elite--as Thomas Frank has so eloquently shown in his recent What’s the Matter with Kansas--and needs to be joined to the "good sense" of radically progressive intellectuals in order to shape the kind of ideology and political program that could attract the majority of the poor and middle class. But in this dialog the secular intellectuals would be transformed as much as the religious masses, creating the kind of organic unity that helped propel the religious Right from the margins of their party to the center of power...

In the meantime if progressives don’t figure out how to reach working class conservative Christians, before to long we will all be living through Bush’s dreams of apocalypse.
Lanza responds:

Both the pundits and Professor Levine have come to the conclusion that in order to win re-election the Democratic Party needs Jesus. Thus, the response to Bush's victory should be for the Democrats to abandon their secular position, so that the entire Political landscape will be filled with references to Christianity and so that American democracy, a product of the enlightenment, will begin slouching towards Bethlehem as it were, and take the first step towards transforming itself into a religious state, albeit a religious state comprised of a coalition of the faithful and not a singular religious doctrine...for now.

Apart from being seriously ideologically misguided, this perspective -- that the Democrats need Jesus -- simply has the facts wrong. Yes, Rove managed to turn out the Evangelicals like never before. Perhaps because of Gay baiting but perhaps not. As several critics of Andrew Sullivan have pointed out, the margins Bush won by in the state with a referendum on gay marriage was, at times, smaller then the margins in sister states without such a referendum (example: a wider margin in Mo. (without a referendum) then in Ak. (with one)).

More importantly, it overlooks the fact that Evangelicals ARE THE REPUBLICAN BASE. Thus, the idea that they could be converted to the left-wing position is as absurd as the idea that Eric Martin could be converted to the evangelical perspective. Evangelicals are not merely guided by the gospels.

To think simply: Evangelicals love Jesus; Jesus believes in social justice; Democrats believe in social justice; thus, Evangelicals are Democrats, is as misguided as it is logically flawed. Evangelicalism is a nexus of a particular religious, social and political world view. It is Middle-America crystallized into a Philosophy. Thus, it is not simply a brand of Christianity. Saying "I am an Evangelical" does not simply mean "I love God." It also means "I don't let my kids watch Will and Grace."

Perhaps, more importantly, it is a world-view created in opposition to another perspective - and a world-view with an agenda. The other perspective is the way in which average cosmopolitans live their lives and the agenda is to inject religion and "religious values" into the American political system and law.

The latter is incredibly problematic as America was itself founded on secularism. The founding fathers had an intense distrust of politicized religion as, I am here stating the obvious, religion can easily be manipulated for political purposes. Indeed, the founding fathers may have anticipated the waves of religious revivals that America eventually went through (starting in the early 19th century and continuing today) in the manner in which they drafted the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Thus, a religiously dominated Democratic Party will not just fail to get Democrats elected it will also undermine American democracy...

The most important things for the Democrats to realize are two-fold. First, that the country is still evenly divided. There are about as many Democrats as there are Republicans, as many cosmopolitans as their are Evangelicals. Indeed on raw numbers, I'd bet that the Democrats have the edge. Thus, it's all about turn-out. The Republican's have an edge here. Why? Because anyone who makes it to church every Sunday, is going show up on Election Day. As anyone who has ever read 2 pages of De Tocqueville knows, it's all about the civic organizations, the extra-political bodies of associations.

That's what makes American democracy American democracy. The Democratic Party has to enter people lives the same way as the Republican Party has. Putting a groovy young female from Brooklyn on a corner in Cleveland registering every young black man she can find is not gonna cut it. The Democrats need to make sure that the base goes to the polls.

Secondly, it's all about charisma. I like John Kerry. But on a spectrum with Mike Dukakis on one end and Bill Clinton on the other, Kerry leans Dukakis. My Mother has voted for every winner in a presidential election since Reagan. She always picks the guy who is the most likeable and pays no attention to anything they say. I think there are a ton of voters out there like her. For us graduates of top-tier Universities, the idea that Bush would appeal to anyone is absurd as he comes across half-retarded at times.

But for Joe Punchclock, Bush has a Cowboyesque swagger that is appealing. I am convinced that this Je-ne-sait-quoi, this ineffable something is what makes the President. I always like to point out that if ones looks at previous presidential elections and asks, if these two were the last guys left in the bar, which one would the intoxicated strumpet go home with. It certainly wouldn't be Walter Mondale. Democrats need to find their "Man" first. Once they have him, the rest is easy.

The good news is that the Republicans don't have anyone as exciting on deck. Bill Frist is boring and Ralph Reed's boys will do to Giuliani or Pataki what they did to McCain in South Carolina. And, of course, Arnold is a damn immigrant.
I agree with both Publius and Lanza on certain aspects of their critiques, and so will opt for a middle ground - probably more similar to Publius's. Lanza raises a troubling specter when he argues that Evangelical Christianity has become little more than a euphemism for a broader set of underlying beliefs and principles that fall on the far right of the political spectrum. I think to some degree he is right. It is not purely a scriptural or dogmatic faith. Therefore, it is unlikely that highlighting the progressive nature of Christ's message will win over converts to the Democratic Party in any great number. If Christ himself made a second appearance to let everyone know that he is tolerant of homosexuality and a woman's right to choose, I think many of these "Christians" would prefer the advice of their local minister.

But in defense of Publius' middle position, it is really only targeting moderate Evangelicals, and thus is trying to win over a few percentage points of the overall pie. This is not an impossible goal, even if you accept Lanza's assessment of the nature of conservative Evangelicalism.

The difficult strait to negotiate then, involves the framing of issues with Christian philosophy and language, while preserving progressive ideals and the viability of secular political discourse. Engaging in this practice is an exercise fraught with danger - as Lanza cautions. Once both Parties openly trade in the language of religion, we risk descending on a slippery slope that may culminate in a broader acceptance of religion's role in political institutions and an increased prominence of religious figures whose agendas are more conservative than those which the progressive movement embraces. Once pandora's box is opened, will progressives be able to hold the line from those who wish to see church and state merged? Will Democrats be relegated to the role of religion-lite, playing second fiddle to the GOP's "strong" religious values, while the population as a whole is led down a path of greater acceptance of religion's role in the political arena?

Maybe those crises are already upon us. If Bush succeeds in packing the Supreme Court with enough Scalia and Thomas clones, there could be a radical redefinition of the Constitutional prohibition on state established religions. If the Democrats do not figure out a way to begin winning elections on the national and local levels, then the values of the religious right will be enacted into law regardless. The Democrats need to work on their message and the reframing of issues, as I have discussed in other posts, but is Jesus really the savior? I don't think Jesus is our savior, but pointing out hypocrisy and synergy where it exists amongst so-called Christians is not an altogether pointless exercise either - as long as we are resolute in defending our integrity and stubborn in defense of our principles. Democrats should not adopt values in order to appeal to more voters, just be more vocal, proud and demonstrative of our own very strong values, morals and principles with or without a pinch-hitting role for Jesus.

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