Tuesday, February 12, 2008

An Offering For Comment

I came across this article at TPM Cafe, a review of sorts of E. J. Dionne's recently released Souled Out. The author of the piece, Richard Parker, offers an interesting, nuanced analysis on the whole question of the political power of the Christian Right:
It’s true that the professional “public discourse” classes—journalists, columnists, academics, pollsters, bloggers, politicians, and the like—have unabashedly swarmed around this thesis of “rightwing religious” dominance for thirty (not twenty) years. They used it initially to explain what was to them Jimmy Carter’s peculiarity—a Georgia peanut farmer who tells Playboy he’s committed adultery in his heart and ends up in the White House. Then, succumbing to the ancient, endless, unapologetic self-promotion of the televangelists--especially Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority--they used it in the 1980s to “decode” Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy, and to “discover” how important a kind of religion that no one on the Upper West Side or in Georgetown or Cambridge practiced still is. Since then, this “conservative dominance of religion”---though at the heart of EJ’s message in Souled Out is that that conservative dominance is now waning (and/or redefining itself)—has owned the talkers’ and writers’ story of the world around us.


But here’s why I think this “right wing dominance of religion” story is false: over eighty percent of Clinton voters in the 1990s, Gore voters in 2000 and Kerry voters in 2004 identified themselves as “religious” in exit polls—and I’m guessing at least eighty percent of the Democratic vote will say the same this coming November. So clearly millions upon millions of Americans have long counted themselves “religious”--but don’t behave in the voting booth, or think of themselves generally, as “a right-wing force” at all.

Personally, I think of this as the window onto America’s God Story.

It’s clearly not the same as Washington’s—and what’s quite evident, to me at least, is that the lived religious experience for these many millions has gone systematically underreported or misreported for years, in no small part because it's lacked the theatricality, cynicism, and venom of Washington's God Story. Yet it's a story that's far more important and encouraging to many of us.

So while the “discourse classes” have preoccupied themselves with the “dominance” narrative of an ultra-conservative branch over American religion and politics in general, much of the rest of religious America has quietly but steadily kept moving in a very different direction, in support of very different values--kinder, more far-sighted, and frankly more in line with values people EJ and I count as the best of America's religious and political traditions.


From the 1970s to today, the white evangelical share of US population hasn’t been “exploding”; it’s been nearly constant, between a fifth and a quarter. And big evangelical denominations like the Southern Baptists have been losing membership by the millions, while membership in mainline churches has been steady or even growing.

And what of the policy triumphs of conservative evangelicals? I don’t see a long list. What about the ongoing presence and power of The Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, the Promiskeepers, Eagle Forum, the Bakkers, Jimmy Swaggert, Ralph Reed…..you see where I’m going here. On the list of policies mainliners have been prominent allies in fought for, I’d for one point to this: we now have a woman and an African-American in serious contention for the presidency of the United States. And I’ll be happy to add to that list.

So for starters, let’s have a discussion about how and why Washington’s God Story has been so different from America’s these past thirty years---and about why, out in the real world, a conservative politico-religious agenda may have transfixed elites but never grew out from its base to create an effective majority on any of the Religious Right’s oft-trumpeted agenda.

OK, so the clip is a tad longer than I might have wanted, but I wanted all the main points of Parker's argument out there.

Let me just add, for whatever record might exist somewhere, that I think this misses a point that must never be forgotten. For all that there has been a pretty consistent lack of support on issues central to the Christian right (save for gay marriage, a singular success), they still held the whip hand in many ways due to money. With assistance from the Coors and Hunt family fortunes, as well as the direct mail fund-raising of Richard Viguerie and his disciples, the Christian right managed, without a whole lot of fuss and bother, to co-opt our national discussion on a range of issues.

What say you?

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