Religion and politics

This on CT.

Nicholas Kristof in the NYTimes today makes the argument that “the Democratic Party’s first priority should be to reconnect with the American heartland”. He continues later by saying that “One of the Republican Party’s major successes over the last few decades has been to persuade many of the working poor to vote for tax breaks for billionaires.” Precisely. I am always shocked when I have conversations with people – doesn’t happen too often, but I try to do it when possible – who are clearly hurting the most by Bush’s politics, but who are nonetheless avid supporters.

Kristof goes on to address the issue of religion and politics in particular.

To appeal to middle America, Democratic leaders don’t need to carry guns to church services and shoot grizzlies on the way. But a starting point would be to shed their inhibitions about talking about faith, and to work more with religious groups.”

This is a point Amy Sullivan has been making throughout the year (and earlier). She has written tirelessly and convincingly about it numerous times in several venues.

Here’s one:

Religion is the third rail of Democratic Party politics. Seasoned political operatives who can soberly discuss the details of human rights atrocities or abortion procedures start twitching when the issue of religion enters the conversation. Congressional aides who maneuver through the world of Medicare regulations or appropriations with ease become stymied by references to faith. And hustings veterans who would never dream of running a campaign without targeting racial minorities and union members look askance when asked about outreach to religious communities.
Many Democrats are religious. More than one-half of Democratic voters attend church more than once a month. But until professional Democrats get over their aversion to all things religious, they will continue to suffer the political consequences.

Personally, I would prefer that religion was a more private affair. But one need not spend too much time in the United States to understand that religion is an incredibly important component of most people’s lives, and not such a private one for many. So it is not surprising that one ignores it at one’s peril.

If the U.S. had a parliamentary multi-party system where one could choose representatives closer aligned to one’s views then a party may be able to afford to put religion aside. In Hungary, the only place I can vote, I have always favored a particular liberal party. It never comes even close to a majority vote partly because it is viewed as the party of the intellectual liberal elite (a perception, Kristof argues, the Democratic Party seems to have among many). But a vote for that party closely aligned with my views does not mean a vote completely lost, because it can still have parliamentary seats and create alliances with other parties that represent similar views. And if part of the majority alliance, it can even have representatives in the top positions. But it is only affordable to take such nuanced points-of-view, because supporters of those nuanced positions can still be represented. That is not how politics works in the U.S.. And, hopefully, most of us who would prefer to keep religion out of politics recognize that. Although it may frustrate me that religion is so central in American political discourse, I would still rather have it be part of the discourse than watch people vote for a president who will clearly not represent their interests.

On a final note, one frustration as a social scientist interested in questions of culture and religion, is that there is very little funding available for research in these areas. Given the kind of importance cultural values and religious beliefs seem to play in people’s everyday lives, I find it quite disappointing and disturbing.

3 Responses to “Religion and politics”

  1. donna Says:

    At the risk of revealing how scant my connection is to the American heartland, I would like to add diversity to the question of religion in American politics. Of course the overwhelming issue is Christianity, and more specifically, born-again Christians (estimated in a recent NYTimes article as 42% of the population). But to crib the Gandhi quotation in Liliputian Lilith: It i’s easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.”

    To me, that is a moral value worth spreading around.

  2. Ron T. Brown Says:

    I think that the Democrats just aren’t as organized. I think in Karl Rove’s book (or the book about him) the Republican plan is laid out. Focus on rural counties in states that are swing. I think that the Republicans know their base better and worked hard to get them to come out.

  3. Gabor Por Says:

    I agree with all of the above. However I would like to add a word of caution. If the Democrats start talking about their religion they have to do it in an authentic way. If they don’t speak from their heart, the public will sense it right away and that could cause more damage to them. E.g. Kerry’s recent Bible parables sounded so insencere.

    One of my professor (in his sixties) was speaking about the lack of religious leadership recently. His generation had Martin Luther King, Abraham Joshua Heschel (and to a degree Ceaser Chavez.) We have Jerry Falwell. The difference is that the former all spoke an inclusive language and the latter focuses on exclusion(s).