Rubutting the Latest Punditocratic Buzz
The discussion about the role of religion in public life is about to heat-up in powerful, but perhaps distracting ways.
For months, (well, years actually), some of us have been debating the dubious assertions of Jim Wallis regarding such things as sweeping assertions that there is a widespread problem of people of faith being driven from the public square by Democrats and liberals; and that the religious right is dead or in decline.
We have also disagreed with the advice Democratic political consultants Mara Vanderslice and Eric Sapp have been givng to our prospective elected leaders. They seem to have received and taken to heart the memo from the religious right that the words "separation of church and state" are not in the Constitution, and therefore pols should not use them lest they alarm evangelicals who think that means driving people of faith out of the public square. (Yes, the reasoning is that circular.)
Some new books promise to ratchet-up and widen the debate. Already weighing in in response are Susan Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Theological Seminary, and Pastordan, proprietor of Street Prophets:
Thistlethwaite isn't buying a basic premise of two of the new books that the "era of the religios right is over" -- and she thinks Mike Huckabees recent electoral successes are plenty of proof, as she wrote on her blog
at The Washington Post
Two recent books are reporting the death or at least the decline in political influence of the American Religious Right. This is the argument of E.J. Dionne in Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. Dionne makes a case that the era of influence in politics by the Religious Right is over. Evangelicals, he believes, are moving away from the narrow political "wedge" issues such as gay marriage and abortion and in so doing becoming less vulnerable to being manipulated by a rightist political agenda.
Jim Wallis, in his new book, The Great Awakening, describes what he calls the "leveling of the praying field" as Democrats discover their religious roots and are willing to talk about the faith-basis of their commitments in the public square.
Both Wallis and Dionne describe the fact that the agenda of the Christian evangelical community is becoming broader and now includes issues such as poverty, AIDS, trafficking and human rights, and the environment. I know some Evangelicals for whom this is the case and I find these new developments to hold promise for the future.
The Religious Right is a political movement, as both Dionne and Wallis recognize, and it is not the same as Evangelical Christianity. But what both Dionne and Wallis may be underestimating is the enormous amount of movement building that has been diligently undertaken for so long by the political Religious Right,
The issue is that these broader concerns are new for Evangelicals and the movement the political Religious Right built has not gone away--it has morphed into the Huckabee campaign and seems to be a great source of votes for this candidate. This does not mean that Evangelicals can't also care about AIDS and the environment, but at the end of the day, the Huckabee success may show that the movement built by the Religious Right is proving to be more enduring at the grassroots than the interest of Rick Warren or Richard Cizik in AIDS or the environment. The change in the Evangelical agenda, if it is a change, seems, after this weekend, and from the way the Huckabee campaign is churning along, not to be as strong as the long-standing movement built by the political Religious Right. Another way to put this is, old habits die hard.
Meanwhile, Pastordan thinks thinks its going to be a long year of dubious punditocratic pronouncements in need of serious rebuttal:
I need to be careful what I say about Scott Appleby's New York Times review of new books by Amy Sullivan and E.J. Dionne. I've got Dionne's Souled Out sitting on my night stand and Sullivan's The Party Faithful should be showing up in the mailbox any day now. I'll be reviewing them eventually, and I don't want to say anything that I'll have to take back later.
But can I just say Appleby's review is itself a shallow piece of excrement? Perhaps I'm missing something here, but this reads like three-slurs-and-we're-out:
At the 1972 national convention in Miami, for example, when party progressives banished the Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley and his 58 handpicked delegates, most of them ethnic Catholics, in order to lend greater gender and racial balance to the Illinois delegation. At the failure, during the Carter years, to prevent the loss of jobs by blue-collar Catholics in the Rust Belt. At the elevation of abortion rights to canonical status and the silencing of Democratic voices in opposition, like that of the Pennsylvania governor and pro-life Catholic Robert Casey, a convinced liberal on universal health care, poverty reduction, education and the like, who was denied the podium at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.
Where to begin with this? The Casey story is the hoariest of old chestnuts: he was not denied the stage because of his pro-life position, but because he had refused to endorse the Clinton-Gore ticket. Whatever else one wants to say about Carter's economic policy, it was economic policy, not religious, and the story of Daley's ouster reflected not a contempt for Catholics but internal jockeying for control of the party. After Daley's role in the '68 convention fiasco, he was lucky to even get in the building.
Pastordan has much more to say on this.
The Conventional Wisdom is swarming now, and will fill the bookstores and the airwaves with fresh buzz from the punditocracy. I agree with Pastordan. Its going to be a long year.