Saturday, July 21, 2007

Fred Clark on The God Gap

Great sound-bite material that: The God Gap. Easy to say, easy to remember, easy to argue about. It refers to the ostensible gulf separating Democrats from Republicans regarding what happens when faith is pressed through a political filter. It's something like decaf coffee. Java without the rush.

The implication of this clever phrase is that a contest is in progress for which party will carry the flag of faith. The winner of the contest will be rewarded by enough votes to win the upcoming election. So we now hear, among other meaningless equivocations that float from stump speeches, a cloud of rhetoric suggesting that candidates of all stripes are all running for sainthood along with political office.

Having tossed out those little caveats, I now recommend the reader to Fred Clark's excellent comments inspired by a Time Magazine cameo of the same title by Amy Sullivan, The Origins of the God Gap.

Both of these writers make excellent points. Amy Sullivan has been an articulate voice of the Religious Left (What?! There really is something of the sort??) for some time. In a prescient article two years ago in Washington Monthly she looked ahead at Mitt Romney's challenges as a Mormon running for national political office.

It's likely that Romney's primary opponents and prominent religious leaders will publicly take the high road, remaining mum on the issue of his Mormonism. But, says Marshall Wittman, former political director of the Christian Coalition and later an aide to McCain, "so much in the primaries takes place under the radar. It's never publicly said, but it takes place in emails and word of mouth." The push-poll script writes itself: "Would you be more or less likely to vote for Mitt Romney if you knew he was a Mormon, and that Mormons believe in polygamy?"
Conservatives are beginning to worry about Romney's viability with evangelicals, even if they're not saying so publicly just yet. One LDS politician has been quietly making the rounds to Washington wise men to get their sense of what evangelical opposition would mean for Romney in the primaries. Meanwhile, Robert Novak, who is as closely connected to conservative sources as anyone in the nation's capitol, wrote in June that Romney's Mormonism is "his one great liability as a presidential candidate."

The tragedy--or, depending on your point of view, the irony--is that Mitt Romney may just be the most appealing candidate Republicans can field in 2008, the one most likely to win the White House by shoring up social conservatives and rallying business interests without frightening swing voters. Yet the modern GOP's reliance on evangelical voters and its elevation of personal religiosity--strategies which have served the party so well in recent years--may doom the chances of this most promising candidate. Or, to put it in evangelical terms, it might be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for Mitt Romney to win the Republican nomination.

Here we are two years later hearing the man spin threads of religious rhetoric as fragile and beautifully crafted as blown glass.

The Time article simplifies the contest for Christian votes. More specifically, it poses a challenge for Democrats. How can Democrats attract the attention of disillusioned Republican supporters whose expectations of the Republican party have been either ignored or outright betrayed by the candidates they helped elect?

It's hard to believe now, but it was the Democratic Party that first responded to these disillusionments in a way that appealed to religious voters. When Jimmy Carter said, "I'll never lie to you," that promise—in the wake of Richard Nixon's resignation—was potent. Carter recognized that voters now wanted to know more about a candidate than simply his position on energy policy or taxes; they cared about the moral fiber of their President as well. And they increasingly saw religious faith as a proxy, an efficient way to get a sense of a candidate's character.

When Bill Clinton came along, he defied the stubborn conventional wisdom that had formed about the two parties' relationship to religion. A Southern Baptist who could literally quote chapter and verse, Clinton freely talked to publications like Christianity Today, made religious freedom a key focus of his domestic agenda and insisted his staff work with conservative evangelical leaders in addition to progressive religious allies.
Today, Democrats find themselves in an unusual situation, with a surfeit of faith-friendly front runners. If they want to court and keep new religious voters, however, this time the conversion will have to be party-wide.

Fred Clark's take on the question is somewhat different.

If Sullivan wants to advise Democrats on how to reach out to that particular voting bloc, she'd be better off focusing on economics than on "faith-friendliness." The divide-and-conquer southern strategy has worked long and hard to convince working-class white voters that they are in a zero-sum competition with non-white working-class voters (aided, unfortunately, by the predisposition of its target audience). Convincing them otherwise will likely involve even longer and harder work, but it is necessary work.

My agenda is somewhat different than Sullivan's, so I tend to look at this less in terms of the strategic challenge it presents to Democratic candidates and more as a theological challenge for the church in America. Racism is a sin. That sin is woven into the fabric of American Christianity in general and American evangelicalism in particular. Canny politicians have been able to exploit that sin, but it is not primarily a political problem, and the responsibility for fixing it does not fall to any secular political party.

Clark has no dog in this fight. His mission, and the thrust if his blog, is to keep Christian noses to the theological grindstone. His seemingly endless microscopic look at the Left Behind series is a study in keeping on task. And several essays regarding the disconnect between faith and practice make uncomfortable but essential reading for any serious Christian.

The articles linked here are a mother lode of weekend reading. The comments thread at Slactivist has some of the usual carping, but the patient reader can find good points being made.

The Wisdom of Doubt, Part VII at The Mahablog has a comprehensive analysis of the subject, using Fred Clark's post as a starting point. The comments thread there is pretty long and I haven't had time to study it, but at a glance it seems relatively on track.

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