Monday, September 20, 2004

Alan Wolfe on why the Democrats lose the 'God' vote

Alan Wolfe has a piece in the September 19 Boston Globe on religion and political parties. Wolfe has been writing a lot recently on the politicization of religion in America, and claims that the Democrats could -- and perhaps should -- win the 'God' vote in America. They are not especially irreligious, especially if you consider how religious African American democrats are. And it's not like the Republican leadership is composed of church-goin' ordinary folk. No matter how often George W. Bush puts on his cowboy hat, remember: he went to Yale, he went to Yale, he went to Yale! And economically... well, readers are probably well familiar with the problem of people voting against their economic interests.

The recent history of American secularization. From the early 1960s to 1994, most liberals have believed in what I call strong secularism, which is both cultural and political. In this strong secularism, religion is supposed to play a small or nonexistent role in public life, while the government is required to uphold strong church-state separation. As Wolfe points out, liberals during this period found their views on religion in cultural life ratified and reinforced by the kinds of decisions the Supreme Court was making on things like prayer in school and (especially) abortion.

What does secularism mean in the era of Promise Keepers and Christian Rock? But strong secularism was dealt a severe blow in 1994, with the Republican revolution. For a number of reasons, liberal democrats are being forced to admit that cultural secularism has become a minority position. But secularism as a legal and judicial concept has remained very much in place. The Republicans have exploited the gap between the two concepts of secularism to great advantage, in part by blurring the line between them. The Democrats' failure to win the God vote perhaps has something to do with their failure to soften strong secularism.

The Democrats' own litmus test. The Democrats have also sometimes made poor decisions on how to respond. For instance, Republicans are often accused of having a 'litmus test' on issues like gun control and abortion. But, as Wolfe points out, the Democrats have had one too:
This secularism achieved the height of its influence within the Democratic Party at its 1996 national convention when Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey was denied a speaking role. There is some dispute about why; many conservatives say it was because his opposition to abortion made him persona non grata within the party, while others point out that he was refused a speaking role because he would not endorse the party's platform. But under either interpretation, the Democratic Party managed to marginalize the Democratic governor of a key swing state because it had made support for abortion a litmus test of party leadership. Believers who might not share the religious right's agenda, but who also worried on religious grounds that the act of abortion really did involve taking away a human life, were told that they ought to look elsewhere for a party to join.

While I agree that the Democrats made a mistake about Robert Casey, I'm skeptical about where Wolfe is going here. Should the Democrats become more receptive to pro-life members? Should it reward the conservative Democrats the way the Republicans have been rewarding high profile liberal/moderate Republicans like Schwarzenegger, Giulani, etc.?

My instinctual answer is, yes, they should. But who and where are they? And: what is the line between flexibility and hypocrisy?


Kerim Friedman said...

This year the Democratic party had a real opportunity to put out a strong message combining anti-war rhetoric with populism that could have won over many people who are Republicans even though they don't personally benefit from Republican policies. To bring these voters into the party will require changes, some of which will be difficult to make, but it has to be done if the Democratic party is going to survive as a strong political force. Unfortunately, the Democrats have not been willing to make these changes - and by most indicators will likely emerge even weaker after this election than they are now.

I guess my point - to get back to your question - is that the Democrats don't necessarily have to be hypocrites on their "core" issues, if they can both offer something else instead, and (at the same time) appear to be tolerant of a certain degree of diversity of opinion on these issues within their own ranks.

8:14 PM  

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