The God Gap refers to the copyrighting of God by the Republican Party and the alleged “unfriendliness” of Democrats to religion. Sullivan writes,
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.
Sullivan provides a thumbnail history of Religion and Politics in America. According to Sullivan, prior to Jimmy Carter presidents didn’t talk much about God beyond the occasional generic reference to “Providence.” Carter was, she said, the first president to wear his evangelicalism on his sleeve. However,
While Carter was the right candidate for the new politics of values, his party was rapidly moving in the other direction. Educated Ã©lites, particularly on the left, increasingly placed their faith in the tangible power of political action rather than the unfathomable might of a divine being. And they misread the direction of the country. Far from becoming less religious in a postmodern age, Americans remained strongly devout, with 80% or more consistently reporting that religion was an “important” part of their lives. A schism widened between the people who ran the Democratic Party and many religious believers.
In Sullivan’s history, Democrats deliberately snubbed evangelical Christians while Reagan et al. courted them. She admits that Bill Clinton has a “personal comfort” with religion, but the Democratic Party was disinterested “in changing their approach on abortion to reflect his ‘safe, legal and rare’ mantra.” And if I ever meet Amy Sullivan, I promise to ask her to explain how the Dem “approach to abortion” does not reflect the “safe, legal and rare” mantra, because I don’t see how the hell it doesn’t, but for now I want to focus on Sullivan’s main point: Democrats had better get faith-friendly or risk alienating religious voters.
Granted, whenever one writes a thumbnail history one must leave out great chunks of stuff, but this leaves out way too much, to the point of gross distortion. And because she doesn’t grasp what has happened to American religion, vis à vis politics and otherwise, Sullivan doesn’t grasp the true nature of the religion problem. It is not the Democratic Party that has changed, but religion, and catering to the nation’s spiritual pathologies is hardly the way to effect a cure.
Here’s an alternative thumbnail history, based mostly on historian Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Vintage Books, 1962) , which the author said was a response to “the political and intellectual conditions of the 1950s.” A large section of this book deals with religion, and reviewing all of it would make a very long post even by my standards. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:
Through the latter part of the 19th century into the beginning of the 20th, evangelical Christianity became increasingly militant. Hofstadter explains,
As evangelicals made increasingly impressive gains from 1795 to 1835, and as Deism lapsed into relative quiescence, the battle between pietism and rationalism fell into the background. There was much more concern among evangelicals with rescuing the vast American interior from the twin evils of Romanism and religious apathy than there was with dispelling the rather faint afterglow of the Enlightenment.
After the Civil War, all this changed and rationalism once more took an important place among the foes of the evangelical mind. The coming of Darwinism, with its widespread and pervasive influence upon every area of thinking, put orthodox Christianity on the defensive, and the impact of Darwinism was heightened by modern scholarly Biblical criticism among the learned ministry and among educated laymen. Finally, toward the end of the century, the problems of industrialism and the urban churches gave rise to a widespread movement for a social gospel, another modernist tendency. Ministers and laymen alike now had to choose between fundamentalism and modernism; between conservative Christianity and the social gospel. [pp. 120-121]
Hofstadter uses the words evangelical and fundamentalist interchangeably without making a clear distinction between the two, and that’s something I want to deal with in another Wisdom of Doubt post. For the sake of not writing a book-length blog post let’s let the distinction slide for now.
The “social gospel” was a movement embraced by the more liberal denominations of mainstream Protestantism. Quoting Wikipedia:
In the early 20th century, many Americans were disgusted by the poverty level and the low quality of living in the slums. The social gospel movement provided a religious rationale for action to remove those evils. Activists in the Social Gospel movement hoped that by public health measures as well as enforced schooling so the poor could develop talents and skills, the quality of their moral lives would begin to improve. Important concerns of the Social Gospel movement were labor reforms, such as abolishing child labor and regulating the hours of work by mothers. By 1920 they were crusading against the 12-hour day for men at U.S. Steel. Many reformers inspired by the movement opened settlement houses, most notably Hull House in Chicago operated by Jane Addams. They helped the poor and immigrants improve their lives. Settlement houses offered services such as daycare, education, and health care to needy people in slum neighborhoods.
In the United States prior to World War I, the Social Gospel was the religious wing of the progressive movement which had the aim of combating injustice, suffering and poverty in society. During the New Deal of the 1930s Social Gospel themes could be seen in the work of Harry Hopkins, Will Alexander and Mary McLeod Bethune, who added a new concern with African Americans. After 1940, the movement withered, but was invigorated in the 1950s by black leaders like Baptist minister Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. After 1980 it weakened again as a major force inside mainstream churches; indeed those churches were losing strength. Examples of its continued existence can still be found, notably the organization known as the Call to Renewal.
So, in the late 19th and early 20th century a sharp division arose between progressive, “modern” Christians and conservative Christians who rebelled against modernism. Let’s go back to Hofstadter:
The 1920’s proved to be the focal decade in the Kulturkampf of American Protestantism. Advertising, radio, the mass magazines, the advance of popular education, threw the old mentality into a direct and unavoidable conflict with the new. The older, rural and small-town America, now fully embattled against the encroachments of modern life, made its most determined stand against cosmopolitanism, Romanism, and the skepticism and moral experimentalism of the intelligentsia. In the Ku Klux Klan movement, the rigid defense of Prohibition, the Scopes evolution trial, and the campaign against Al Smith in 1928, the older America tried vainly to reassert its authority; but its only victory was the defeat of Smith, and even that was tarnished by his success in reshaping the Democratic Party as an urban and cosmopolitan force, a success that laid the ground work for subsequent Democratic victories. [p. 123]
Over the next several pages Hofstadter describes the conservative Christians in retreat. By the 1930s the more hard-core fundamentalists were isolated even from mainstream evangelicalism, which was becoming more liberal. Now it gets interesting:
Their heightened sense of isolation and impotence helped to bring many of the dwindling but still numerically significant fundamentalists into the ranks of a fanatical right-wing opposition to the New Deal. The fundamentalism of the cross was now supplemented by a fundamentalism of the flag. Since the 1930’s, fundamentalism has been a significant component in the extreme right in American politics, whose cast of thought often shows strong fundamentalist filiations.
Hofstadter elaborates on this theme, describing many ties between right-wing political groups and fundamentalists. He documents how the Cold War crusade against “Godless communism” invigorated fundamentalist militarism. And he describes the right-wing political-religious mindset that emerged:
The fundamentalist mind … is essentially Manichean; it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan?) and can tolerate no ambiguities. It cannot find serious importance in what it believes trifling degrees of difference: liberals support measures that are for all practical purposes socialistic, and socialism is nothing more than a variant of Communism, which, as everyone knows, is atheism. … [T]he secularized fundamentalist mind begins with a definition of that which is absolutely right, and looks upon politics as an arena in which that right must be realized. … It is not concerned with the realities of power — with the fact, say, that the Soviets have the bomb — but with the spiritual battle with the Communist, preferably the domestic Communist, whose reality does not consist in what he does, or even in the fact that he exists, but who represents, rather, an archetypal opponent in a spiritual wrestling match. [p. 135]
Hofstadter published this 45 years ago, remember. But does this not nail our contemporary wingnuts dead on? Even the part about not being concerned with the realities of power could be updated and applied to neocons and other Iraq War supporters.
This week at the Faith and Public Life web site, Pastor Dan Schultz of Street Prophets comments on the Amy Sullivan column:
I think we can’t let the vision of history put forward in these Time articles go unchallenged. Nowhere in Amy Sullivan’s column was there a mention of the role race played in bringing together the Religious Right, for example. Were it not for the Carter administration’s challenge to the tax-exempt status of segregated “Christian Academies” throughout the South, it’s unlikely that the Religious Right would even exist in the form we recognize it today.
Nor is there a mention of the decades-long work of the Institute on Religion and Democracy to undermine the governing structures of mainline denominations. The point of this operation – fueled by cash donated by ultra-conservative philanthropists – was to neutralize the social witness of denominations like the UCC, the Methodists, Presbyterians, or Episcopalians, to pave the way for secular Republican political gains. The Democratic “loss” of religious voters had a lot more behind it than simply not wanting to talk about abortion, in other words. I would like to have seen that reflected in these pieces.
Compare and constrast Pastor Dan’s comments with what Richard Hofstadter wrote so many years ago. In the 1920s, religious fundamentalism had strong connections to the resurgent Ku Klux Klan; in the 1970s, President Carter’s challenge of whites-only “Christian” academies added fuel to the fire that forged the Religious Right of the 1980s. A century ago, fundamentalists opposed the progressive “social gospel” movement. Today, the Religious Right wants to “neutralize the social witness of denominations like the UCC, the Methodists, Presbyterians, or Episcopalians, to pave the way for secular Republican political gains.”
Let’s look again at the so-called God Gap. I wrote in The Wisdom of Doubt, Part V that when mass media present the “religious” view of social issues, inevitably they call upon the Religious Right, as if extremist right-wing Christianity were the only legitimate religion. “Moderate to liberal religious voices are shouted down, just as they are in the political realm,” I wrote. The Left-Right divide in religion parallels the Left-Right divide in politics, and for many years extremist right-wing religiosity has been crowned “mainstream,” while more liberal religious traditions are treated as an extremist fringe. And please note that many of the more liberal denominations are actually much older than Christian fundamentalism, which was born in the late 19th century.
When Amy Sullivan claims that “Educated elites, particularly on the left, increasingly placed their faith in the tangible power of political action rather than the unfathomable might of a divine being,” she is echoing the same accusations right-wing Christians were making a century ago about religious progressives. But the charge was bogus then, and it is bogus now. The truth is that a large and extreme right-wing faction has redefined “religion” on its terms. This faction has decided that Democrats and liberals — who in fact are no more nor less religious than they ever were — are hostile to religion because they don’t acknowledge the faction’s religion as the only legitimate religion. And since this faction dominates mass media and the nation’s political culture, the faction’s bogus charges are viewed as “conventional wisdom.”
On the Faith and Public Life site linked above, Jeff Sharlet writes,
… nuances get lost in the mythical “God gap.” There’s no such thing. The majority of the Democratic Party is religious, just as is the majority of the GOP; the difference tends to be in the nature of the gods worshiped. There is far more than one Christ in America, a basic theological fact lost on a press that treats God as a single prize to be wrestled over by Democrats and Republicans.
Conventional political wisdom calls for Democrats to display the same religiosity as Republicans in order to win “religious” voters. Although such behavior may win an election here or there, in the long run this advice is exactly wrong. It’s wrong, first, because it supports the Right’s warped view of religion. And second, it’s wrong because that’s a game Democrats cannot win. The Right has defined the Left as being anti-religious. Therefore, displays of religiosity from the Left are viewed as insincere. A commenter to the Faith and Public Life thread writes,
Alongside these kinds of ideas coming from mainstream reporters, you have the explicit attacks on Democrats’ faith coming from conservative media figures. They act as though they’re insulted that progressives — politicians or otherwise — would have the temerity to talk about their faith. “I have never met anybody less sincere than the religious left,” Tucker Carlson said on a recent show. “I mean, you think that Jerry Falwell was cloying and phony, honestly, you haven’t met the religious left.” Cal Thomas issued a blistering theological attack on Hillary Clinton, stopping just short of saying that she is not a real Christian (Hillary’s crime, it appears, is the fact that she’s a Methodist). Similarly, Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard opined that Clinton might be able to appeal to religious voters, but only those who are “religious in the way that Hillary Clinton is religious, which is to say of a very liberal Protestant sort of view, in which they believe in everything but God.” Michael Gerson, former Bush speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist, criticized Barack Obama for speaking at a gathering of his own church: “By speaking at a gathering of the United Church of Christ — among the most excruciatingly progressive of Protestant denominations,” Gerson wrote, “he was preaching to the liberal choir. And he did not effectively reach out to an evangelical movement in transition.”
In the minds of wingnuts, religion is intrinsic to being a “conservative” and foreign to being a “liberal.” Therefore, “religious liberal” is an oxymoron to them. Even a devoutly religious liberal is assumed to be hostile to religion, no matter what he says or does, whereas a conservative is assumed to be a Friend of Jesus without having to so much as lift a finger to demonstrate his sincerity. You can’t argue with The Narrative.
This was never more apparent than when Ann Coulter was promoting her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism. If Coulter has an ounce of religious devotion in her anywhere, I’m Mother Teresa. Yet she was all over news media smearing the devotion of liberals, and I saw not one interviewer challenge Coulter’s religiousness.
Whatever the Dems do, buying into the perception that right-wing Christian evangelicalism is the only legitimate religion is not the answer; it’s dancing to the Right’s tune. And catering to the Right’s demand for religious correctness (on their terms) as a prerequisite for public office is just wrong.
The fact is, right-wing “religion” isn’t necessarily religious. I want to refer back to the Bill Moyers quote from Part V:
For a quarter of a century now a ferocious campaign has been conducted to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual, cultural, and religious frameworks that sustained America’s social contract. The corporate, political, and religious right converged in a movement that for a long time only they understood because they are its advocates, its architects, and its beneficiaries. …
…Their religious strategy was to fuse ideology and theology into a worldview freed of the impurities of compromise, claim for America the status of God’s favored among nations (and therefore beyond political critique or challenge), and demonize their opponents as ungodly and immoral.
The last thing religion in America needs right now is capitulation to the Right’s definition of religion. I’d rather see us rescue Jesus (so to speak) from the wingnuts who hold him hostage. Let Jesus be Jesus, not the GOP team mascot. At the same time, we must reaffirm separation of church and state. As I argued in Part V, this separation is good for religion as well as government.
This topic calls our for a much more substantive treatment than I can give on a blog. I have in hand a book by Gary Wills (Under God: Religion and American Politics) published in 1990 that provides wonderful insight into the state of American politics in the 1980s, when according to Amy Sullivan the “educated elites” were turning their backs on religion. And this is the same time period, note, between the administrations of two evangelical Democrats, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. What Really Happened was, as always, not nearly so black-and-white.
In a nutshell, the Right was able to use mass media to indoctrinate the nation with The Narrative about alleged liberal hostility to religion. This happened at the same time the word liberal was being demonized. Liberals and Democrats generally were asleep at the switch, so to speak, and failed to fight back. Thus it was that by the time of the Dukakis-Bush election campaign in 1988, the electorate was primed to run screaming from the dreaded “L” word. And, of course, in the right-wing mind liberals are socialists are communists are atheists. Michael Dukakis was a thoroughly secular candidate, but what did he do or say to demonstrate hostility to religion? What did any Democrat do or say? Anything? Nothing that I’m aware of. Nothing that Amy Sullivan can document, I suspect. She’s just buying into The Narrative.
Although I want to delve into fundamentalism more thoroughly at another time, I do want to close with a nod to Karen Armstrong. In her book The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, Armstrong argues that fundamentalism arose in response to modernity, especially to scientific rationalism. “Fear is at the heart of fundamentalism,” she writes. “The fear of losing yourself.” This is true of Islamic fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden as well as our homegrown types. Liberals cherish tolerance, democracy, pluralism, and civil liberties; fundamentalists fear these values as weapons of (their) annihilation.
It is important to recognize that these theologies and ideologies are rooted in fear. The desire to define doctrines, erect barriers, establish borders, and segregate the faithful in a sacred enclave where the law is stringently observed springs from that terror of extinction which has made all fundamentalists, at once time or another, believe that the secularists were about to wipe them out. The modern world, which seems so exciting to a liberal, seems Godless, drained of meaning and even satanic to a fundamentalist. [Armstrong, The Battle for God (Ballantine, 2000), p. 368]
The Religious Right has an irrational fear of everything and everyone who isn’t Them. The perception that liberals and Democrats are hostile to religion grew out of their own fevered imaginations, not reality. Amy Sullivan wants to cater to their delusions. I say the nation needs to be freed from the grip of right-wing insanity.