Sunday, December 23, 2007

American Religious History (part six of six)

In response to a more separatist bent from the hardliner Christian fundamentalists, the liberals stopped trying to hunt after them in turn, and stopped seeing them as a serious threat. As a result, whenever fundamentalist Christians take the fore in any political or social movement there are always a large percentage of journalists and political commentators who are completely taken by surprise.

In the 2004 election, ‘values voters’ entered the political lexicon. These are folks who, as political scientists and journalists figured out, are the ones who carried the day for the republicans. Largely evangelical Protestants who may put aside foreign policy or economic concerns in favor of moral values, whatever that meant. Journalists were shocked at this, especially at the democrats and former Gore-voters who voted for George W. Bush for the sake of ‘values.’

People were trying to figure out what was going on with "the religious vote" and why it was suddenly so important. The term ‘values voter’ has come under attack in the last few years. People who realize that this wasn't a big spike after all question whether these people really deserve a name like they were involved in something new and surprising.

Well, it is not. The ‘Religious Right’ formed as a political movement in the 1970’s. The main issue that sparked this organization of self-identifying conservative voters was abortion. The pro-life movement is in that sense the start of this. The late Jerry Falwell was the one who organized what he called the ‘moral majority,’ a network of churches linked together much like the Anti-Saloon League was, intended to influence politics. This group is often credited for Reagan’s election.

However, the power of corruption and special interest groups is formidable indeed. They needed bigger guns, so in the 1990’s Pat Robertson starts the Christian Coalition. Unlike Falwell, who has to be content with some airtime when he can get it, Robertson already has his own television channel. The Christian Coalition was dedicated to—surprise—taking control of Congress. They claimed some credit in the Republican Party retaking control of the House and Senate in 1994. However, they also found that there's too much give and take in politics to get anything done without compromising. Eventually they also disbanded.

In 2000, the big question for Republicans was that for 20 years they'd been able to count on the religious vote, since whom else will they vote for? Democrats? But which of the Republican nominees will religious voters prefer? Which is a more viable choice?

McCain was a Catholic. The Catholic Church and the religious right have an unsettled alliance. In some states McCain even finds that there are anti-Catholic attacks against him. [Edited! This is actually not true. McCain--an Episcopalian--was evidently trying very hard to get himself associated with Catholics in the hopes of getting their support, and I fell for it. My thanks to Stephen C. Carlson for being observant enough to catch that.] Then there was Bush, whose family is Episcopalian, but who has had a born-again Christian experience. What's this going to mean? When asked which philosopher influenced him most, Bush answered, "Jesus Christ." Some people thought he was just pandering to the religious right, but perhaps he really did believe it.

Despite the fears of some liberals, the religious right cannot be said to have turned us into a theocracy yet. This is also a problem for the right, since it seems to them like they haven't made any progress in this culture war.

Democrats had to figure out how to get in on this game. It is not because democratic candidates haven't been religious, but that they've been out of step with religious Americans and sometimes even with their own church. John Kerry in 2004 had to face the question of whether you can be Catholic and pro-choice. The Pope says no. How can candidates deal with that?

Answer from Cobalt (incoming bias!):

The answer is a new breed of American Christian. Democrats are beginning to find room to speak from a perspective of faith, and the religious left is now characterized by candidates who are willing to discuss their faith on the campaign trail. This is extremely important. In a country so steeped in Christian influence, a country that still depends on Christianity for much of its philosophical direction, the only way to take control of America away from the conservative fundamentalists is to break their perceived monopoly on Christianity.

Once it becomes clear that America can have more than one kind of Christian, perhaps it will also become possible to have more than one kind of American. There’s a certain irony to the fact that in order to make the USA safe for cultural and religious diversity, we must start by all hopping on the religious bandwagon. The other choice--abandoning Christianity entirely--simply is not an option.


Stephen C. Carlson said...

McCain was a Catholic??? I thought he was an Episcopalian / Baptist.

Cobalt said...

That was the impression I got, though perhaps I'm piecing things together that don't need to be.

Here he seems to allude to this by saying, "I hope your Excellency will agree that a pro-life Catholic can embrace the cause of campaign finance reform without undermining the admittedly more important cause which has properly been a primary concern of your Church. I salute the Church's efforts to protect unborn children, and pledge my continued help in your efforts." It's mainly his reference to a pro-life Catholic and how useful such a man would be.

Then there are some articles where he makes a point to tag his name to the protection of Catholics in particular.

However! These things don't necessarily mark him as a Catholic. Perhaps I fell for his tactic of trying to associate himself with them. This site lists him as an Episcopalian.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for the correction! I'm glad someone was going over that with a critical eye, because I did miss that.