Tim Watkin says the Republicans are hoisted by their own values. James Dobsonâ€™s announcement that the religious Right will not support a pro-choice candidate is more than a blow to Rudy Giulianiâ€™s candidacy, he says. The statement also â€œshows just how the Republicans have gotten themselves tangled in knots over all things moral and signals a turning point for the religious right in America.â€
But for the religious Right, the only â€œvalueâ€ that seems to matter is sexual purity, rigidly defined. Is that to be the sole measure of a leader?
Studies over the years have repeatedly shown that integrity is core to successful leadership; the hard part is deciding what integrity means to us as voters. A lack of hypocrisy seems to be the gold standard these days. But what about a willingness to admit and apologize for mistakes? Or simple honesty? Is an entirely untainted virtue now required? Iâ€™ve spoken to university students whose wanna-be politician friends even in their early twenties abstain from anything with even a whiff of controversy. Is that really the best preparation for wise leadership? In political terms, is it worse to tap your foot under a bathroom door, cheat on your spouse or start illegal wars? These are all moral judgments.
The left tends to scoff at the rightâ€™s emphasis on morality, but it has its own set of moral no-goes – just look at their criticism of presidential lies, illegal wars and torture, and politicians denying women the right to choose an abortion.
Still, itâ€™s true that those on the religious right have made â€œcharacterâ€ a core issue in US elections and placed a disproportionate weight on â€œvaluesâ€ over policy. Their stands on candidate morality are now so entrenched, and their obsession with sexual purity so deeply embedded, that it seems no one among them has the ability to step back and see how insignificant those demands may be in terms of leadership performance.
The great leaders in US history would all trip over one moral hurdle or another. Washington had slaves, Roosevelt had a mistress and Jefferson had both.
I disagree that we lefties â€œscoffâ€ at morality. Rather, we prioritize morality differently. Starting illegal wars is a serious offense against humanity; consensual sexual acts ainâ€™t nobody elseâ€™s business. In any event, Watkin says, the religious Rightâ€™s quest for absolute purity has reached a dead end.
They elected a president who ticked all the right boxes but turned out to be an inept leader, while the candidates who tick the boxes this time are proving to be too bland, too lightweight or too out of touch with modern life. They have chosen sexual morality as their defining issue. Politically, theyâ€™ve painted themselves into a corner.
The truth is that other values are going to win next yearâ€™s election – sound judgment, competence, team-building, compassion. After dominating American politics for a generation, the religious right finds itself out of step with mainstream American, and even with many of its conservative pals.
Iâ€™ll take compassion over morality any day. In fact, Iâ€™d say that a person without compassion cannot be genuinely moral, no matter what rules of conduct he follows. But a compassionate person generally will do the right thing by his fellow human beings, rules or no rules. Sound judgment and competence sound pretty good to me, too.
Steven Thomma of McClatchy Newspapers says the power of the religious Right within the GOP is on the wane.
Today, their nearly three-decade-long ascendance in the Republican Party is over. Their loyalties and priorities are in flux, the organizations that gave them political muscle are in disarray, the high-profile preachers who led them to influence through the 1980s and 1990s are being replaced by a new generation thatâ€™s less interested in their agenda and their hold on politics and the 2008 Republican presidential nomination is in doubt.
â€œLess than four years after declarations that the Religious Right had taken over the Republican Party, these social conservatives seem almost powerless to influence its nomination process,â€ said W. James Antle III, an editor at the American Spectator magazine whoâ€™s written extensively about religious conservatives.
â€œThey have the numbers. They have the capability. What they donâ€™t have is unity or any institutional leverage.â€
The Religious Right never had absolute power in the Republican Party. It never got the Republican president and Republican Congress to pursue a constitutional amendment banning abortion, for example.
But it did have enormous clout in party politics and a big voice in policy, and itâ€™s lost much of both heading into 2008.
Worse for the religious Right, there may be an anti-Christian backlash brewing. David Van Biema writes for Time:
Back in 1996, a poll taken by Kinnamanâ€™s organization, the Barna Group, found that 83% of Americans identified themselves as Christians, and that fewer than 20% of non-Christians held an unfavorable view of Christianity. But, as Kinnaman puts it in his new book (co-authored with Gabe Lyons) UnChristian, â€œThat was then.â€
Barna polls conducted between 2004 and this year, sampling 440 non-Christians (and a similar number of Christians) aged 16 to 29, found that 38% had a â€œbad impressionâ€ of present-day Christianity. â€œItâ€™s not a pretty pictureâ€ the authors write. Barnaâ€™s clientele is made up primarily of evangelical groups.
Kinnaman says non-Christiansâ€™ biggest complaints about the faith are not immediately theological: Jesus and the Bible get relatively good marks. Rather, he sees resentment as focused on perceived Christian attitudes. Nine out of ten outsiders found Christians too â€œanti-homosexual,â€ and nearly as many perceived it as â€œhypocriticalâ€ and â€œjudgmental.â€ Seventy-five percent found it â€œtoo involved in politics.â€
Not only has the decline in non-Christiansâ€™ regard for Christianity been severe, but Barna results also show a rapid increase in the number of people describing themselves as non-Christian. One reason may be that the study used a stricter definition of â€œChristianâ€ that applied to only 73% of Americans. Still, Kinnaman claims that however defined, the number of non-Christians is growing with each succeeding generation: His study found that 23% of Americans over 61 were non-Christians; 27% among people ages 42-60; and 40% among 16-29 year olds. Younger Christians, he concludes, are therefore likely to live in an environment where two out of every five of their peers is not a Christian.
This is a healthy development for all of us. For example, at some point in the future the Republican Party might be forced to campaign on issues that actually matter to the running of government instead of by stirring up fear and resentment among various factions of whackjobs. This might bring the GOP back to some semblance of sanity and increase the number of politicians in Washington who give a bleep about good government.
And it might also be a good thing for Christianity. I dimly remember that there’s more to Christianity than stoning transgressors for unauthorized sexual practices. Maybe someone will look into that.
Update: See also “A Nation of Christians Is Not a Christian Nation.”
Update 2: “Militant Atheists Are Wrong.” Clever.