In defense of the “religious left”

Democrats deserve a bigger slice of the born-again vote, and it’s probably available if we learn how to ask nicely.

Atrios is right: Bill Donohue has a nasty trick of misinterpreting other people’s words in order to be able to take offense at them. But Donohue only does it to his political enemies. Why does Atrios want to do it to allies instead?

I’d love it if fervently religious folks decided to try to be “the soul and conscience of the Democratic Party,” for example by insisting that the party stand foursquare against torture, or, as Mara Vanderslice suggests, that we need to be fervent rather than lukewarm in insisting on economic justice. And of course if you want to appeal to fervently religious folks, casting them in a role they’d like to occupy is a good way to do it.

It takes a truly Donohuesque level of abusive misrepresentation to translate that into an accusation that non-religious folks are without conscience. Vanderslice didn’t say it, didn’t imply it, and almost certainly doesn’t mean it. The fact that, as Atrios notes, the Freepers hate and fear her seems to me a pretty good recommendation.

The megachurch is, as Peter Drucker has pointed out, an astonishingly successful and powerful social innovation; as an institution, it is still growing fast. Lots of people without fervent religious convictions join megachurches for the ready-made social capital they provide. There’s no reason to think that those people are especially “conservative” politically, especially in the debased sense in which “conservative” is used to describe the Axis of Evil embracing the imperialists, the plutocrats, the crooks, the bigots, and the theocrats. Does the Sermon on the Mount sound like the Republican platform or program to you? Me neither.

But there’s no denying that the megachurch as it currently stands is one of the props of the God-and-Mammon Coalition that is the contemporary Republican Party. That’s partly because the Democrats have allowed themselves to be associated with a contemptuous view toward “revealed” religion.

As someone who is not himself in any sense a conventional believer, and who is pleased by the rising proportion of Americans who tell pollsters that they have no religion, I tend to think that contempt is misplaced; “faith is believing what you know ain’t so” is a clever one-liner, but it’s not an especially penetrating piece of cultural criticism. Instead of making fun of ideas we don’t share, we might instead learn something by inquiring what those ideas mean to the people who hold them.

Be that as it may, expressing contempt for ideas dearly held by a large chunk of the electorate doesn’t strike me as especially smart politics, or for that matter especially nice. If it’s wrong, ignorant, and bigoted to say rude things in public about Islam and Muslims and mullahs as such &#8212 and if it’s not, then precisely what’s wrong with Little Green Footballs? &#8212 then it’s equally wrong (and equally destructive, though in a different way) to say rude things in public about Christianity and Christians and preachers as such.

When and if the “religious left” makes excessive demands for concessions with respect to, for example, reproductive freedom, gay rights, or respect for science, it will be time enough then for those of us who support reproductive freedom, gay rights, and science to push back. But when Vanderslice says that she supports policies that make it easier for women to “choose life” &#8212 by which she means increasing wages at the bottom of the wage scale and strengthening social services such as child care and the social safety net &#8212 I think we ought to accept that as a (possibly successful) way of appealing to people whose votes we’d very much like to have. We don’t need a majority of the evangelical vote. But it would be nice to get a little bit bigger share of it, as Vanderslice’s candidates seem to have done.

How successful that appeal will be depends in part on how skilfully it’s made and how much the rest of us do, or refrain from doing, to make it harder for people who think of themselves as “pro-life” (meaning “anti-abortion”) to hear that appeal. That the current organized anti-abortion movement is also anti-women, anti-gay, anti-sex, and often economically reactionary as well, is true. But I would be delighted if it became false, as it might.

In particular, there’s no logical connection between opposing abortion and opposing income redistribution for the benefit of the poor: the economic conservatives who pushed “welfare reform” in the mid-’90s had trouble keeping their “right-to-life” allies on board when it occurred to them that making unwed childbearing less attractive would necessarily make abortion more attractive to poor unwed pregnant women.

Now, it’s a free country, and I will defend to the death the right of Atrios, or Bill Donohue, or anyone else to have his “hackles raised” by whatever he wants to have his hackles raised by. Personally, though, I don’t value elevated hackles as much as I do winning elections.


Kevin Drum, while acknowledging that Vanderslice’s words were pretty harmless, points out that the bigotry of the religious majority against the atheist minority makes it natural for atheists to be touchy. Fair enough.

So here’s my suggestion for my fellow unbelievers: We can really get under the skin of the Christians by turning their own weapons back on them, returning good for evil, refusing to meet bigotry with counter-bigotry. As the remarkably penetrating (and psychologically nasty) Saul of Tarsus once remarked, (Rom. 12:20) “Therefore if your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him drink: for in so doing you shall heap coals of fire on his head.”

In the meantime, back in the political arena, we ought to be on the lookout for potential allies, not spend our time looking under the bed for hidden enemies. Beware the narcissism of small differences!

Note to Atrios:

I didn’t say that I was willing to accept the churchgoers as the Democrats’ “soul and conscience” of the Democrats. I said (you can check it out above) that “I’d love it” if they “decided to try,” and I cited the one example Vanderslice herself gives in the article that so raised your hackles: that Democrats need to be tougher, less “lukewarm,” on economic-justice issues in order to appeal to the voters Vanderslice is going after. I’m not sure that’s true as a matter of political strategy, but it’s certainly a conscientious thing to say, and I’m happy to have it said.

Yes, it’s possible to take Vanderslice’s words in their most offensive sense. My question is: Why would you want to? Isn’t it better to have allies than enemies?

As to the fact that white evangelicals have been disproportionately voting Republican, despite lots of reasons within their own religious tradition to vote Democratic instead, that’s the $%#@ing problem we’re trying to solve. Since when is the mere existence of a problem a good reason not to try to solve it?

As to “proof by assertion,” where’s your evidence for the claim that “religious left” leaders such as Vanderslice are demanding that the Democrats backslide on reproductive freedom? Insofar as they do make such demands, I’m happy (again, as I said above) to help you push back. But why cry before you’re hit?

For that matter, where’s the evidence that Vanderslice and her friends have any prejudice against unbelievers like you and me?

All I see happening here is that a bunch of people have decided to try to splinter the current ruling coalition by making inroads among a group of its core voters: a group which, in voting Republican, votes against its own economic interests. Why shouldn’t you and I cordially wish them success?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: