January 2, 2006

"If Democrats give religious progressives a stronger voice, they'll only replicate the misdeeds of the religious right."

A NYT op-ed from Joseph Loconte (a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation), writing about a current Democratic tactics designed to reclaim religious voters:
For starters, we'll see more attempts to draw a direct line from the Bible to a political agenda. The Rev. Jim Wallis, a popular adviser to leading Democrats and an organizer of the Berkeley meeting, routinely engages in this kind of Bible-thumping. In his book "God's Politics," Mr. Wallis insists that his faith-based platform transcends partisan categories.

"We affirm God's vision of a good society offered to us by the prophet Isaiah," he writes. Yet Isaiah, an agent of divine judgment living in a theocratic state, conveniently affirms every spending scheme of the Democratic Party. This is no different than the fundamentalist impulse to cite the book of Leviticus to justify laws against homosexuality.

When Christians - liberal or conservative - invoke a biblical theocracy as a handy guide to contemporary politics, they threaten our democratic discourse. Numerous "policy papers" from liberal churches and activist groups employ the same approach: they're awash in scriptural references to justice, poverty and peace, stacked alongside claims about global warming, debt relief and the United Nations Security Council....

A completely secular public square is neither possible nor desirable; democracy needs the moral ballast of religion. But a partisan campaign to enlist the sacred is equally wrongheaded. When people of faith join political debates, they must welcome those democratic virtues that promote the common good: prudence, reason, compromise - and a realization that politics can't usher in the kingdom of heaven.
Do religious ideas undermine democratic discourse? Some would say that all religion should be purged from political debate, but that excludes or burdens a lot of people whose natural way of thinking and speaking combines religion with ideas about the good.

The problems really arise when speakers in the political debate start citing texts that some people hold sacred and others don't. The polical discourse goes awry if they use these texts as dictates that must be followed, not because they make intrinsic sense, but because they come from God. How is someone who disagrees supposed to argue? The text is not sacred? Well, they could argue for a different interpretation of the text. But do people who believe in a religious text want to hear a nonbeliever reshape its meaning? And does the nonbeliever want to have to deal with that text? It's not the most fruitful way to have a discussion about politics, but I don't think it should be delegitimated as undemocratic. I think it's more undemocratic to try to constrain the speech of the many people who think in terms of religion.

As for the politicians who covet their votes and frame their pitches in religious terms for their own advantage, they won't escape our judgment. I think it's good for democracy to give us a big juicy chance to hone our critical skills. I tend to agree with Loconte that the use of religion will go badly, but it's understandable that liberals should want to provide a religious version of their arguments, as long as some conservatives are using and doing well with religious arguments.


Ron said...

What seems bad about it is that it is not a thought out position change or a n attempt to comprehend further depths in religion, but a case of "monkey see, monkey do!" It's as if they were saying the public couldn't grasp the content of their arguments, so we need to "sell" them like the Republicans do, Let's put on our "Christian" facade to fool the rubes.

This strikes me as both an insult to religion and politics!

Monty Loree said...

Best wishes for 2006 Ann.

so.. how many posts did you do in 2005?!!

Looking towards more in 2006

brylin said...

Asked his favorite New Testament book, Dr. Dean named Job.

Ann Althouse said...

Monty: Maybe 2005!

Art said...

The only time I've really pushed a conservative's button, triggering a near breakdown, was when I pointed out that the good Catholic students he had lauded would, if they followed the Pope's teachings, would be opposed to the death penalty, welfare reform as it's currently practiced, and the Iraq war.
It triggered the "conflicts with party platform, does not compute" subroutine.

It means swallowing real hard on the abortion issue but Democrats ought to try this more often. It's fun.

Ann Althouse said...

Art: Yeah, I'm sure what the Democratic Party leaders are looking to do is to get people really enraged about religion. What we need are more politicians needling religious folk about religious hypocrisy.

Mark Daniels said...

As a Christian intensely interested in politics, I make two points:

(1) I agreee with Ron that mirroring or mimicry on the part of the Democrats won't indicate a genuine understanding of the importance of religious conviction among much of the American electorate. That will simply be pandering.

(2) The Religious Right, in my estimation, is guilty of many things. But worst of all its sins, perhaps, is that the movement renders a cartoon caricature of Christianity for the non-religious public, appearing to boil faith in Christ down to a series of political do's and don't's.

This is salvation by works or performance, precisely the false kind of religion from which Christ came to liberate the human race. There was no group of people Jesus more roundly condemned that religious legalists, people who took the gifts of eternal life, forgiveness, and hope that God freely offered--gifts under God's control--and subjected people to a bunch of rules, agendas, and proscriptions that they could control.

Beware of any Christian, conservative or liberal, who claims that their political agenda comes from the Bible! That includes Pat Robertson, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, James Dobson, and Jerry Fallwell!

Of course, as a Christian, I like to see people in office who bring certain Christian sensibilities to their work. I believe that the country would be better off if authentic Christians were among our prominent officeholders. And though this it's a goal not politicall pursued, I believe that the country and everybody would be better off if they enjoyed the kind of relationship with God that's available to all people through Jesus Christ.

But the moment people act as though their political ideology has come straight from Mount Sinai, you know that they're either manipulating voters or that they're suffering from a strain of Jim Jones-like megalomania! The Republicans and their Religious Right buddies have been doing it in recent years. I hope that the Democrats don't make the same mistake.

(By the way, I am a Republican as well as a Christian.)

Mark Daniels

brylin said...

Analyzing the 2004 presidential vote by religion, the Democrats are at a distinct disadvantage. Catholic voters, once mostly Democrat gave Bush the majority of their votes in 2004.

If this trend increases, it bodes ill for Democrats. Realizing this, the Dems have made some efforts to appeal to the religious. The problem is that it is very risky to talk about the Bible when you are ignorant of it. Reference Howard Dean and the Book of Job.

And religion as an issue is a fault line that divides the Democratic party. See here for an example.

John(classic) said...

I look forward to the chance to hear a sermon from the "Church of the Last Gasp " on banning smoking in public places, or to attend services at the more Episcopalian " Church of the Accelerated Depreciation Schedule for Energy Efficent Businesses"..

Dave said...

"I think it's good for democracy to give us a big juicy chance to hone our critical skills."

Unfortunately, I see little evidence that (most) Americans want to hone their critical thinking skills.

Else, why are Bill O'Reilly and Howard Stern so popular?

Balfegor said...

"Well, they could argue for a different interpretation of the text. But do people who believe in a religious text want to hear a nonbeliever reshape its meaning? And does the nonbeliever want to have to deal with that text?"

Isn't this in some sense analogous to a more general problem with democratic (and other) discourses? Namely that politics is generally directed towards the realisation of certain goods, towards the implementation of some vision of the good society. But of course, people start with different visions of the good society, and it's awfully difficult -- certainly from a "rationalist" perspective -- to arrive at an objective set of goods. Some level of agreement is possible, even if not arrived through any objective, impartial process, simply because as a national community, there are still some shared community standards. But to bridge the gap between a religious discourse and a secular discourse does not seem to me markedly more difficult than bridging the gap between, say, a libertarian discourse and a communist discourse -- the foundational assumptions are just so different.

In a way, though, isn't that what democracy is about? Holding a vote has little or no connexion to any reasoning process, and there is never any guarantee that the outcome of a vote will be rational or coherent -- people can vote for politicians advocating contradictory aims (e.g. reduce taxes, increase government spending). But what a democratic vote does is bridge the rationally unbridgeable gap between competing worldviews, no? Kludgey, but it works, mostly.

Brandon said...

It's not as if Democrats have never had any religious sensibilities -- look back at the 60s, when leaders such as William Sloane Coffin and Martin Luther King were among Democratic Party luminaries. As recently as 1976, the Democrats nominated a self-proclaimed born again Christian (and won). Just who exactly decided that one of our two major parties would announce that people of faith had nothing useful to contribute to public debate?

Mark Daniels said...

Coffin was never a Democratic Party luminary. He was a liberal Christian activist, not someone catered to by the Dems.

King, of course, was occasionally in the company of LBJ and had connections with some Democrats. But he wasn't active within the Democratic Party. That might have happened later. But he seemed disinclined to identify his movement too readily with a particular political ideology or party.

The sad thing is that some of the current activists, particularly those on the Religious Right, seem completely willing to subsume the Gospel to a political agenda and hitch their wagons to a particular party.

As I Christian, I'm convinced that Christ isn't honored by this.

Mark Daniels

Elizabeth said...

Why presume that Democrats would be "nonbelievers" or uninformed about scripture, offering interpretations on the text? Christians aren't a tiny, oppressed minority on the left; the difference is that the right has politicized religion, while the left has not, at least not since the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the '60s and '70s.

I don't want to see a battle between the religious right and left, but if indeed the left acts to move religious progressives more to the forefront in public discourse, I don't have any worries that those voices will be less authentically spiritual than those on the religious right.

Chris Gabel said...

The Democrats pissed away the Christian vote decades ago. Attaching their wagon to Jim Wallis will bring nothing new to the table....they already have those folks. Ironically, pre-Reagan, they had a substantial portion of evangelicals - especially in the south. But in the subsequent years, they've given themselves over utterly to an aggressive secularism.

The open hostility on the left to traditional religious faith is an anchor around their necks. But changing that would require such a fundamental shift, I don't think it's possible.

brylin said...

Chris, I think you have it right, the Democrats' position is aggressive secularism. Elizabeth, don't you agree? Do you see the Republicans leading the War Against Christmas? How do you think the ACLU types vote?

This is a no-brainer.

Charlie said...

Elizabeth says: Christians aren't a tiny, oppressed minority on the left; the difference is that the right has politicized religion, while the left has not...

True, but the left has not merely failed to politicize religion, it has worked hard to banish religious voices and influence on social and political policy. Over and over again, politicians on the left have apologized for their faith and insisted that it should be a completely private matter, not a thing that has any influence in the arena of public ideas.

The left has not been shy about expressing its disdain for religion and people of faith. The Democrats (my party) are dominated by people who believe that Enlightened political thought is the antithesis of religious belief.

I don't see how the left can undo the damage it has done to itself by dissing religious faith and its heart connection to mainstream America. Certainly, it will not repair the damage by adding a smattering of religious words back into its vocabulary.

Jacques Cuze said...

I do agree that Republicans and Democrats view religion differently.

I do agree that we need more Christians like George W. Bush who almost never attends church, and fewer Christians like Bill Clinton who during his presidency attended church often and regularly.

I do agree that we need more Christians like George W. Bush, and fewer Christians like Jimmy Carter who found time during his presidency to teach Sunday School at a local Baptist Church.

I do agree that we need more Christians like George W. Bush who says that God told him to invade Iraq (and than apparently God deserted us in our time of need) and fewer Christians like John F. Kennedy who declared that the Vatican would not tell Kennedy what to say or do.

Pope says religious fundamentalism is one of the greatest threats to world peace

Yes, Republicans and Democrats see religion quite differently, and woe to the Democrat that tries to claim he is religious.

D_Walters said...

I am just always amazed at the jump-on-the-bandwagoneer, neocon pundits that you never heard mention God until the religious right became so closely aligned. Now you’d think they worked for the Pope or something. Hey wait a minute – the Pope was a Hitler youth. What’s the connection?

OhioAnne said...

One of the greatest problems with the issue of religion in this country is the assumption that all Republicans and/or Democrats have one view of religion.

I am conservative, a Republican and a Christian. One of the most prominent politicians in this country is also a member of my faith ... and he is a liberal Democrat.

"Religion' is not one voice, but dozens. Unfortunately, our major political parties take the easy route. Rather than discussing issues throughly with all their nuances and having the courage to stake out positions that may offend someone, they go for sound bites and easy positions.

I know as many "religous right" people who hate the prominence given to the likes of Jerry Falwell as I do from any other group. Nonetheless, he and others like him have become the "voice" of religion in this country. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Prometheus said...

The one common denominator among all of them seems to be that they gain solace and guidance from their imaginary friend Jesus, Jehovah or Katmandu – whatever. I say whatever you like to believe in the privacy of your own closet is fine – just don’t show your ignorance in public.

HaloJonesFan said...

Prometheus: It's so nice to attack a strawman, isn't it? Certainly much easier than thinking about something.

Aspasia M. said...

Thank you OhioAnne.

I cannot believe commenters would assume that only the members of one political party are religious people.

(Or the strange assumption that only Republicans have read and studied religious texts. If you really think this, you need to get out more.)

The major religions are filled with people who support different political parties.

I'm also surprised that some of the commenters appear to be unaware of liberal religious scholars like Martin Marty.

D_Walters said...

Engaging in personal attack doesn't make what I said any less true. Try this: compare and contrast the typical religious stance with a belief in Santa Clause. Then fire off another round of personal attacks.

Palladian said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Palladian said...

"Try this: compare and contrast the typical religious stance with a belief in Santa Clause."

Santa Clause, is that in Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution? Or is that in a proposed gift tax statute?

I see that the evangelical athiests are here to spread the good news of the cynical life! You guys have the unique ability of making the Enlightenment seem unappealing. As I said in a previous unpleasant exchange with Prometheus (bringer of flame wars), I'm not religious but I'll certainly defend religious belief against such self-important attacks. Do you have something specific, substantive and on topic to say? Or do you just get your jollies from stickin' it to the Man (upstairs) at every opportunity?

I'm curious, do atheist democrats sneer at Jimmy Carter or at Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr for having shown their "ignorance" in public?

dick said...

I like the way all the libs paint the right as religious conservatives. We read all about the rightwing religious wackos and how the religious fundamentalists will run the country if the republicans get in again and if the republicans get elected all who are not religious believers will be marched off to concentration camps.

I am a conservative but I am not particularly religious and most of the conservatives I know are not religious. We also do not also all believe that gays should be shot or not allowed to marry or a lot of the other things we see in the media. The truth is that many conservatives are religious but that does not make them fanatics.

The media is the one that has been selling the republicans as being religious fanatics. When you see that Rev Dobson from Topeka is a democrat, not a republican, you might need to take a second look at what you are claiming. He is also vehemently against the war so you cannot even claim that all the religious are pro-war. We are all sorts of people when it comes to religion and for the most part are at least as open to other religious beliefs as the liberals. Actually when you read comments like that of Prometheus we are a lot more open to religious beliefs of all kinds. Sure a lot of conservatives might mention the Bible but they are not mentioning as the be-all and end-all of reality. A lot of the basics of our society are based on the Bible after all so when we exclude it all the time we are really cutting a lot of the basics of our country out.

What the dems need to do is actully come up with something that they stand for, not against. If you do not have anything that you stand for, then why do you expect people to vote for you. People will not vote for someone who is against some policy. They want to know what your policy would be and that is not something the dems can come up with. Look at Nancy Pelosi. She was asked what the policy of the dems was about the Iraqi war and she said they would have one next year. That gives me a real reason to support you.

The same with religion. If you are out the spouting about religion because you thing that is what you need to do to win and don't really believe what you are saying, the people will probably see through it and reject you. And as for the comments by Mark about how the fundamentalists are interpreting the Bible wrong, I would bet that they would say the exact opposite and that you are the one interpreting the Bible wrong. That is what protestantism does. You are the one who interprets the Bible based on what you read into it.

What I see in the media these days is the painting of any morality as being equivalent to being religious. Morality may be in part based on religion but not wholly nor is religion based entirely on morality, yet after the last election when they took the polls as to why the red states voted as they did the pollsters and the reporters interpreting them both equated values and religion. A lot of people voted against the dems because of their stand on abortion but a lot voted against them also because of their stand on patriotism and supporting the war and the standards of what is taught in school. The pollsters and the media never broke that apart.

Until the dems open their arms and that "big umbrella" that they used to have to include the pro and anti abortionists and the pro and anti war people and the pro and anti values in schools, then they will not win elections. These days the big umbrella is in the republican party and that is the party that is more inclusive.

miklos rosza said...

Falwell and Pat Robertson have been irrelevant since they disgraced themselves in the wake of 9/11.

This is an absurd discussion if no one is going to talk about Islam.

Elizabeth said...

brylin asks: Do you see the Republicans leading the War Against Christmas? How do you think the ACLU types vote?

Brylin, there is no War on Christmas. There is, however, a Fox News War on Christmas propaganda fest. The idea of American Christian martyrdom is propaganda.

As for "ACLU types," what exactly does that mean? Are you saying all ACLU members or supporters are athiests, and not just athiests, but hostile to religion as well? Does supporting civil liberties make one opposed to those promised in the First Amendment? Does opposing religious proclamations by one's government mean one hates Jesus?

O'Reilly and Gibson are idiots who delight in rancor and division. Gibson is at least motivated by greed--and I'd say that's the real war on Christmas.

brylin said...

Elizabeth: My point was that I agreed with Chris about "aggressive secularism." There is no War on Christmas? Then what is it, aggressive secularism?

ACLU types vote Democrat. Right? Wouldn't be caught dead voting for a Republican. Wouldn't you characterize ACLU efforts as aggressive secularism?

Is aggressive secularism the same for you as atheism? For me they are different.

Miklos, you have a point about Islam. The secular left attacks Christians but gives a pass to Islam.

I don't understand why Islam gets a pass, given their how they treat homosexuals (death by hanging, stoning, or brainwashing, drugs, etc.).

Ann Althouse said...

Brylin: Christians are considered fair game because they are the majority. It's quite simple.

Elizabeth said...


There is no War on Christmas? Then what is it, aggressive secularism?

There is no "it." No war, no thing to be labeled, one way or another. No one is waging a war, aggressively secular or whatever, on Christmas.

If the ACLU is all Democrat, all the time, what is Bob Barr doing working for the group? Civil libertarians come on both sides of the spectrum.

As for the left giving Islam a pass, what are you talking about? Fundamentalist Islam gets no more of a pass than Fundamentalist Christianity from leftists, and feminists, and gay rights activists.

Jacques Cuze said...

Ann Althouse said...

Brylin: Christians are considered fair game because they are the majority. It's quite simple.

Hi Ann,

Could you clarify on your statement? I certainly do not understand what you are saying. Can you provide examples? Who considers Christians to be fair game? For what purposes?

lindsey said...

"I say whatever you like to believe in the privacy of your own closet is fine – just don’t show your ignorance in public."

Prometheus really nailed it with this comment. The Left wants religious people to get in the closet because they find religion so offensive. But no one should have to get in the closet and hide who they are. The closet is unjust period. Since Prometheus doesn't want such "ignorance" shown in public, perhaps us religious people should wear veils and our places of worship should also wear large tarps. The attitudes of people like Prometheus are why there is a religous movement.

Palladian said...

"Brylin: Christians are considered fair game because they are the majority. It's quite simple."

Well that and the fact that Christians don't usually declare fatwas, maim, stab and behead people who criticize them (Theo Van Gogh is an example). They got over that quite a while ago.

quxxo: I decided not to address you a while ago, but i'll break my rule because you asked an acceptable question and didn't insult Ann or cut and paste 8000 word articles from "Mother Jones".

You don't agree that (American) Christians are considered fair game for jest (whether in good or bad taste), mocking, derision, insult, baiting, etc? Look at the American entertainment industry for example. Everything from South Park (who have strangely not yet produced an Islam episode) to "Curb Your Enthusiasm" to half of pop/rock music see Christianity (and Judiasm) as fair game for the gamut of criticism to disrespect. I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing, only that it's hard to deny that it happens. I think Ann is mostly correct in that it is a target because it is the majority religion. There's that old adolescent thrill that comes with defying authority and in America Christianity is the establishment to one degree or another. I also think this explains why so many less-informed "liberals" reserve special ire for their own country: familiarity. It's hard to get many people stirred up about something like Sudan, but easier to get them stirred up (correctly or not) about what happens around them.

But as I said above, there's also the fact that it's actually dangerous (depending where you live) to insult a religion like Islam, which does not have a tradition of tolerance for apostates and atheists. However "transgressive" people like South Park's creators are concerning Christianity, they know that they're basically safe (the same goes for critics of the US). I think this is a good thing, and hope that it's eventually the case with other religions and governments. But don't look for the South Park "Mohammed" episode in the near future.

As a third point, I think there is also an undercurrent of class-based resentment in a lot of the more vitriolic treatment of American Christianity. Independent Christian churches are an American tradition, dating back to the Congregationalists of the 18th century and before, but they've come to be identified with the rural and Southern populations. I think there's a nascent class based prejudice against these populations that often surfaces in the anti-Evangelical sentiments of the 'educated' set.

Elizabeth said...


Prometheus routinely posts such remarks about religion and religious people; he doesn't represent the left.

But he has, intentionally or not, invoked Matthew 6:5-6, a passage to which that branch of American religious fundamentalism that persists in casting itself as a persecuted minority, turns a blind eye.

Eli Blake said...

I am a Liberal and a Christian.

I don't believe that Jesus Christ would choose sides in the daily partisan battles if he were here (and frankly, the lies, distortions, personal smear campaigns, political payback and coverups that go on daily would most probably cause Him to place a pox on both houses).

I also don't want a politician quoting scripture to tell me what I should support. Frankly, anyone who has to depend on someone else to tell them what they should think about an issue, is feeble minded indeed.

Eli Blake said...


I disagree with you that being a Democrat and a follower of Christ means 'swallowing hard' on abortion.

Leaving aside the fact that abortion is an ancient procedure which existed at the time of Christ, and if He or any of the prophets had felt that it was a sin, they would have said something,

I will say that I do see it as something socially undesirable, and liberals DO have a plan for fighting abortion, and it's been working for years. It's called family planning, birth control and sex ed. And the number of abortions is down by more than a quarter since peaking in the early 1990's.

Just because you may think something is bad, doesn't mean that the only way to fight it is to ban it.