March 28, 2005

Faith-Based Blunders

Right then, a late night Easter Sunday post... Sadly, Rich Lowry is mostly correct in his riff on why today's Democrats are still struggling with the religion issue:
Dean, who used to be famously uncomfortable talking about religion, is trying his best. But the effort behind his trying shows, which gives his religious references an off-key feel. A few weeks ago Dean compared Republicans to the rules-obsessed Pharisees and the Sadducees, pretty deep biblical allusions for someone who not too long ago thought the Book of Job was in the New Testament. You can imagine the briefing for Dean prior to this statement: "Mr. Chairman, it's pronounced — now repeat after me — 'sad'ue-seez, sad'-ue-seez.' Got it?"
That's wince-inducing, because it's right on target. Look, friends, there's very much an open question as to whether Democrats actually need to expand their outreach towards religious voters (who already, note, make up some 80 percent of the Democratic electorate)—many think yes, many think no. Nevertheless, the Democrats seem to have settled on "yes" lately, in which case they may as well go about this the right way. It's not the case that the Democrats need to "get religion," in the sense that largely secular politicians like Dean need to start talking about it more and making the "right" allusions and looking comfortable doing it. It's that the Democrats need to find candidates and public figures who actually are religious people, in the sense that they have political worldviews informed by faith.

Here's what I mean. In 2004, as we all know, John Kerry ran for president. It was clear that he had policies and ideas and a sense of how to govern. (Hold the guffaws, please.) It was also clear, at least to those not warped by Kerry-hatred, that he was a man of strong faith. What wasn't clear, though, even to me, was whether or not his faith actually informed his policies and ideas and sense of how to govern. In truth, probably not. During one of the debates, when Kerry quoted James 2 and said, "What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds?," he was obviously trying to put the fight against poverty in religious terms, and that's noble enough. But people aren't dumb: it looked to many like he was tacking a biblical quote on to a worldview he had arrived at long ago. (That's what I assumed.) There's a big difference.

Now it's easy to retort here by saying: "Well, Bush fakes his faith too!" Maybe he does, I don't know. But even if he's faking it, he's obviously convinced a lot of people. The answer isn't for Democrats to try to "fake it" better, but to get the real thing. Obviously, here on the largely secular internet, that scares a lot of people—many of the DailyKos posts offer a legion of tips on how to "fake it"—but genuine liberal faith has existed in the past. Look no further than Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement.

The other retort here is that we don't want religious Democrats—i.e. Dems whose politics are sincerely informed by religion—because those folks would be scary theocrats. That's wrong, though, and I'll give an example. Around this fine internet community, I almost always start off my blog-reading days by clicking on over to Body and Soul, and I know of no more powerful expression of liberal faith than on that site. I actually have no idea what religion Jeanne follows (if any), or how frequently she attends church or whatever, but that just doesn't matter. The point is that it's obvious that her compassion and moral sensitivity—for lack, unfortunately, of a better term—genuinely comes from something larger than individual preferences or party ideology or some abstract philosophy. And, I think, that makes much of her writing inspiring even to someone like me, who hasn't gone to church in years and may well never go back and certainly doesn't think you need faith to have morality. Still, I find her writing quite inspiring. And I know more than a few people in real life, liberal people, who have a similar outlook.

In the end, though, the politics here are murky to me. Maybe some of the quite-obviously-strained religious positioning by Dean and other Democrats will work. Maybe not. It would be helpful to know whom exactly, the Democrats are trying to reach that they can't reach in any other way. Moderate Catholics and evangelicals, presumably. Okay, but I can't imagine there's any subset of these voters that won't vote Democrat until they hear Howard Dean make a few more biblical allusions. Most people are bright enough to see whether a politician's worldview is sincerely informed by faith or not; faking this stuff is hard.

It's right to think that moderate religious voters don't vote solely on "religious issues" (which tends nowadays to mean abortion, gay marriage, etc.), but it's also right to think these voters might want to see a politician guided by a faith larger than him/herself. Dean, Kerry, Edwards—these folks just couldn't do that. Maybe Bill Clinton could, I don't remember. But let's please, please stop using Clinton as the model everyone should follow. Dude was a supremely gifted speaker campaigning in a uniquely peaceful era who happened to win two bizarre three-way elections. Look to the present, please.

Oh! P.S. Speaking personally, no, I actually don't think the Democrats need to get more faith-savvy to win elections, at least not in the short term. There are many paths to victory, other swing voters to capture, etc. In the long-term, though, and as a matter of building a broad-based coalition of Americans for various progressive reforms, they might, especially as the stigma against voting Republican gradually fades away among Hispanics and African-Americans. But that's another post entirely.
-- Brad Plumer 3:04 AM || ||