Monday, June 16, 2003
Is There a Religious Centrist Vote?-John Adams, bouncing off Amy Sullivan's Washington Monthly piece, didn't seem to think so
Sullivan recommends that the party of the Left go after "religious moderates," the kind of down-home folks that "are uncomfortable with Bush's ties to the religious right, whose agenda--from banning abortion to converting Muslims--is deeply disconcerting to them." Sullivan says this group of moderates is made up of "Muslims, most Catholics, and a growing number of suburban evangelicals, all of whom are devout, but many of whom are uncomfortable with Bush's ties to the religious right." Somehow the idea that Muslims and most Catholics have a problem with banning abortion strikes me as wrong. Reading Sullivan's article, however, I can't help but notice that most people she cites as "religious moderates" would be considered religious liberals or even apostate to people who take their religion seriously. The Democrats already seem to have a handle on such folks.For the moment, it might be helpful to look at the level of devoutness rather than the orthodoxy of their faith. There are seven blocks of "religious moderate" voters that are in play. (1) Blue-collar white evangelicals (2) Blue-collar Catholics (3) Suburban mainliners (4) Black evangelicals (5) Devout Hispanic Catholics (6) Devout Jews (7) Muslims These blocks are "people of faith" that have demographic feet in both parties; their faith makes them open to a "family-values" pitch from the GOP, while their socioeconomics makes them open to Democratic pitches. Democrats win these voters not on their faith but on the countervailing demographics. Blue-collar white evangelicals-Democrats will have to win this bunch on class warfare; Dick Gephardt would be one that would sell well here. In the last election, the Second Amendment was a wedge issue here; both guns and Democratic amorality overwhelmed the left-populist leanings of this group. A pro-gun Democrat has a shot here, but one that is overly secular might scare them off, as would an anti-war candidate in this patriotic milieu. This isn't going to be a happy hunting ground for Democrats this go-round. Blue-collar Catholics-Here, the Church's poverty-fighting persona offsets the moral lean to the right. This is Reagan Democrat territory; a pitch to patriotism post 9/11 gives Bush an edge here despite the Pope's addiction to diplomacy. Here, liberal economic populism is the wedge for the Democrats while abortion and same-sex marriage/benefits would be the counter-wedges for the Republicans. Unless the economy stays lousy for the next year, there isn't much room for traction here. Suburban mainliners -A subset of the Soccer Mom vote, this group is old school on moral issues but not as absolutist as Catholics and evangelicals; they have more in common with the GOP than they think, but move away from the side that seems the most radical. That coupled with their higher incomes make them lean Republican but an distaste for the stridency of the theocons and an interest in helping the poor and the environment make them a volitile swing vote. Bush will have an edge in delivering security after 9/11 and can play upon liberal excesses in support of partial-birth abortion and same-sex marriage, while Democrats can paint a charaterization of Bush as a down-the-line conservative in bed with the polluters and televangalists. With this group, the battle will be one who looks less extreme than his foe, and the Democrats seem to have an edge Black evangelicals-This is a fight to watch for the next decades, as a post-civil-rights black church develops. Churches that preach personal empowerment are future GOP strongholds, while churches that preach collective empowerment are once-and-future donkey domains. A growing charismatic movement within the black church as well as a growing number of multi-ethnic churches should move black evangelicals towards mainstream evangelical culture and mainstream conservative values. The two wedges that keep blacks Democratic is civil rights and poverty fighting. As bigotry and the apparent usefulness of big government decline, those wedge issues won't be as useful. The black church has been a driving force in the past, but many newer churches are moving away from the theology of collective liberation of the black left towards an personal empowerment theology. Mixing faith and politics is normal here, but very often, that faith is as much in the NAACP and the Democratic party as it is of God. This is one area where Democratic candidates of faith can do well, but only at the local levels, where a morally conservative but economically liberal black candidate can do well. Here, churchgoing moral conservatives will outnumber the abortion and gay-rights advocates that have veto power in state and national primaries, and quite a few morally conservative black politicians get to Congress. On the national level, if Republicans can get beyond their reputation as the redneck party, they will begin to pick up a better percentage of the black vote, especially among black evangelicals. The retirements of Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helps and defection of Pat Buchanan will help, even if the Trent Lott fiasco reminds us of those crimson-collared gentlemen. However, this a long-term shift that will take decades to affect. Devout Hispanic Catholics-You can add a growing Hispanic Pentecostal community to this as well. Culturally, this is a morally conservative and family-oriented group. Economics, bilingual education, and immigration-related issues come to play here. Bilingual ed isn't always a Democratic issue, for many parents who want their kids to assimilate will want them up to speed in English ASAP rather than be stuck indefinitely in a bilingual program. The ghost of Pete Wilson crops up here. GOP candidates that are too tough on immigration can be seen as anti-Hispanic, for Hispanic citizens often have to go through more red tape than Anglos to prove that they're legit; an increase in illegal-alien-catching stuff can make their life more problematic. President Bush shouldn't have that problem, but Republicans downballot can have this card played against them. Remember that this isn't a monolithic group; Cubans are different from Mexican who are different from Puerto Ricans or Dominicans. Each subset has its own demographics; the Mexicans of Polk County will act differently that the Cubans of Dade County. While Cubans will have an anti-Communist conservative lean, other Hispanics will lean Democratic on economics and immigration issues. However, that lean can be counteracted; their immigrant aspirations to the American Dream run up against Democratic high taxes and regulation and the family-oriented community milieu is open to a family-values pitch. This is one group that is in play, and as long as the Wilson phantoms can be kept at bay, Republicans should continue to improve their standing. Devout Jews-Unfortunately, there aren't too many of them; American Judaism is more theologically left-leaning than the gentiles are. As the Democrats lean towards a more-pro-Palestinian stance, both from a desire to placate black Muslim leaders and from a leftist view of Israel as an oppressor, theologically conservative Jewish voters are starting to lean to the right. Also, as evangelicals become one of the loudest backers of Israel, the GOP has become the pro-Israel party, countervailing the idea of Republicans being anti-Semitic. Pitchfork Pat's defection to the Reform Party has helped here. Today, it's the Democratic left that's more likely to let loose with anti-Jewish rhetoric than the Republican right. Thirdly, as the GOP becomes more welcoming to Jews, the secular nature of the Democratic party is driving observant Jews to the right. The Ten Commandments are in the Old Testament and are Jewish values, too. The wedge issues that have been used to keep Jews in the Democratic column are the New Deal motif of the Democrats as the multi-ethnic party and the GOP as the WASP and anti-Semitic party and a Jewish collective sense morphing into a backing of a strong welfare state. The first issue is all-but-moot, as noted above, and the second is waning; it was Jewish intellectuals who were the archetypal neocons getting mugged by reality. Secular Jews are a Democratic block; even if they might lean to the right on economics, a secular fear of evangelicals will keep them in the Democratic camp. However, observant Jews will increasingly be in play. Muslims-If the Democrats play their cards right, they can make some inroads here. In past elections, the Islamic vote has leaned Republican on moral issues. Anti-terrorism measures, especially the detaining of Muslim illegal aliens and extra scrutiny of Muslim-Americans, can be used by Democrats to paint the Bush administration and the GOP as anti-Muslim crusaders (in the early second-millennia sense). However, this is going to be a tricky card to play for a Democrat, for being too pro-civil libertarian will get spun back as being soft on terrorism. Done deftly, it could pick up some swing votes in the Islamic community without costing swing votes elsewhere, but it could backfire badly. Conclusions-Democrat will be hard pressed to appeal to people of faith on religious themes. One can use religious rhetoric to defend liberal economics by playing to calls to help the poor in both the Bible and Koran; liberal Christians can also play to pacifist-leaning New Testament passages to justify an anti-war stance. However, using that rhetoric opens the candidate up to questions about what the scriptures have to say about homosexuality, adultery, pre-marital sex and the status of the unborn. Rather than look two-faced, most liberal politicians will steer clear of religious rhetoric, especially if they don't have much of a faith in the first place. Democrats who are somewhat faithful to their place of worship have to placate the secular left, especially the ones in favor of a permissive stance on sexual issues, both on extramarital sex in general and homosexual sex in particular. Such candidates face the dillema of either downplaying their faith or ticking off a key constituency. Many Democratic legislators will start their careers with a conservative stance on such issues, only to drift to the left as they seek power in the party. Baptist politicians such as Al Gore, Dick Gephardt and Sam Nunn (or Orthodox Jews like Joe Lieberman) became more liberal on abortion and other sexual issues over the years in order to fit into the party. There are morally conservative Democrats out there; they just don't stand much of a chance to be a player on the national stage or be a party leader. Given the secular nature of the Democratic party and the clout of groups in favor of a more amoral stance on sexual issues, a candidate that has a conservative moral outlook has little chance of getting a presidential nomination or a legislative leadership position. The best Democrats can hope for with religious swing groups is to appeal to the non-religious issues that will draw them away from the GOP.
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