Friday, October 27, 2006

Can the Culture Wars Still Galvanize Conservative Voters?

This week I led the second part of what was to be my church's two-part discussion on homosexuality and the church. However, parts one and two went so well that, by popular demand my plans to teach on the two creation myths of ancient Israel found in the opening chapters of Genesis next month have been scrapped in favor of parts three and four of this two part series. If Douglas Adams can write a five book trilogy, then I suppose I can use four weekly forums to hold a two part discussion.

After years of being the token liberal at conservative evangelical churches it surprised - even shocked - me to find, in the first two parts of this church-wide discussion, that our congregation almost unanimously favors the full inclusion of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, in both the worship life and leadership of the church. While I had prepared a rather even dialog which would not reveal my own position, and would try to be respectful of all views, I ended up leading a rally to reform the church.

Within that rally, though, I found something that disturbed me. As an evangelical youth minister and then pastor, I was always frustrated by the general tendency of Christians - and I suppose all people - to reach conclusions without having some general understanding of how they got there, and how they might persuade others to arrive there as well. As such, conversations on hot topics like homosexuality generally begin with some sort of defined position, and then try to work out why that position must be both

1.) the right position, and
2.) imposed on all true believers.

Surrounded by people who share many of my political and theological views, and, as such, teaching for once in a relatively safe environment, I was disappointed to find that, in this respect, liberals are no better than conservatives. That shouldn't surprise me. People are people, regardless of their values and ideologies. And people have a hard time trying to understand positions which are not intuitive to them. But as I tried to have a theological discussion on the nature of religious authority, helping the congregation understand and form the theological grounding for their moral, political, cultural, and social intuitions, I found that most of them, at least at first, wanted to skip that step. They didn't see the value in talking about why they believe what they believe, and how it fits into a theological framework consistent with the primary concerns of Christianity. They just wanted to declare their opinions, and then try to change the world.

I admire that activist spirit. I wish I had more of it. I've always been reflective, not necessarily active. For someone often accused of having an activist agenda, I don't really share anything in common with actual activists. But my church is full of activists who have a passion for reshaping the world in accordance with their beliefs; beliefs which I think often best represent the ministry of Jesus in his age. There are, however, two big problems with such unreflective activism:

1.) It has no means by which to effectively communicate with those who do not have the same moral intuitions, and

2.) the activists in my church are not the only activists who claim the name of Jesus.

I just read this article by Alexandra Marks of the Christian Science Monitor, wondering if "Wednesday's New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in favor of full rights for gay couples" might galvanize socially conservative voters. Gay marriage has often been used of late as a "wedge issue" designed to motivate conservative voters to turn out by preying on their cultural fears. It has been an effective political tool, increasing ideological voter turnout by playing into the appearance of a moral crisis in our country. Here is what I wrote about it in my gigantic post on homosexuality from last December (the language in it may get revised, thanks to Amy's comments here - I'm not sure I agree with her position, but I have to take her seriously):

In the last election cycle a number of states, including my home of Kentucky, considered constitutional amendments banning "gay marriage" by defining marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. These constitutional amendments were considered necessary because of the very real fear that mere laws passed against gay marriage would be overturned as unconstitutional.

These constitutional amendments had various motivations. One very real motivation was simple power politics. This is, of course, always the case when elections are involved. Conservative politicians (particularly national Republican figures) fan the flames of the culture war in order to rally their base to vote. If one of the major issues being discussed nationally and locally is a so-called "moral" issue on which almost all conservatives agree, and if this issue is seen as part of a larger war for the soul of America, then it is easy for morally conservative voters to overlook other, more messy issues such as the state of the economy and the war in Iraq.

Another motivation was the prevailing cultural confusion about sex, and the decline of traditional marriages. Gay marriage was seen, in this time of marital crisis, as yet another threat to traditional marriage. Of course this is a nonsense argument. I am a married heterosexual. My wife and I have had some problems in our marriage. We struggle to communicate to each other openly and honestly, without passing judgment. We struggle to listen to each other attentively. We struggle to truly understand and cater to each other's emotional needs. We struggle with how best to deal with our financial issues. I would say that, by and large, we have a very good marriage, but there have been times when I have understood why some people find it easier to get divorced. One thing which has never affected the health of our marriage, however, is the idea that some day gay people might actually be able to get married too.

Republicans - and social conservatives tend overwhelmingly to be Republican - have been depressed of late by the war in Iraq, the economy (even though the Bush administration claims that we are in a recovery, the recovery has overwhelmingly favored the rich, leaving the majority of Americans in no better - and in some cases much worse - shape than they were before it began) and especially the Mark Foley scandal, which has at least temporarily knocked them off their pedestal of perceived moral superiority. But, in the wake of this New Jersey Supreme Court decision, they can once again fan the flames of the culture war by attacking two of their favorite scapegoats:

1. "activist" judges, and
2. gays.

The question is, will it work? Will voters once again overlook pressing social and economic problems, along with the serious moral problem of an unjust war and the occupation of a sovereign nation, because they have been distracted by the distasteful notion that relationships are not to be judged exclusively by the gender of the persons involved?

That's the question the article asks, albeit in a less loaded way. And, in the typically evenhanded nature of quality journalism, that's the question that I still can't answer, even after reading the whole thing twice.

What do you think?


Brian Cubbage said...

I don't know the answer either, Sandman. I don't suspect that gay marriage is going to be AS effective as a wedge issue this time, though. There aren't as many gay marriage bans on the ballot this time. (It might help George "Macaca" Allen in Virginia, since there is a gay marriage ban on the ballot there.) Also, the most hardcore religious conservatives in the Republican base have been looking at the Bush administration and the GOP-led Congress with a jaded eye recently for not doing enough to "protect marriage" since 2004. Add to that David Kuo's recent book, which the White House tried to deny and discredit but couldn't, and I think that the New Jersey decision might be too little, too late.

In an ideal world, all of the people railing against the "judicial activism" of the New Jersey Supreme Court would take to heart Glenn Greenwald's post from today:

He does as good a job as I've ever seen of exposing the bitter irony (not to mention the utter intellectual bankruptcy) of the whole rhetoric of "judicial activism."

Liam said...

I agree with Cary -- Republicans have disappointed the theocratic right because of Foley, David Kuo's book, and because they have just not been extreme enough.

I think it will come back to haunt the Republican party in the presidential election of '08 -- there may well be a third party candidate on the right.

Brian Cubbage said...

A third-party candidate on the theoconservative right? Wow-- that could cause an incredibly disruptive earthquake in American political life! I doubt if it will ever happen, though. If there's one thing that evangelical leaders think about and study carefully it's power, and they know full well that third-party movements in America have always been disasters. Where is the Reform Party now, for instance? They're all registered as independents, calling themselves "undecided" when pollsters call, and then quietly voting for Republicans on election day. If evangelical leaders thought that starting a third party would get them what they wanted, they would have started one two decades ago. Their relationship with Republicans has always largely been one of expedience.

Liam said...

I think that's true for many of the big leaders -- James Dobson, for example, was even ready to excuse Mark Foley rather than jepordize his grip on power. But I think the mass of religious right voters are beginning to feel that the Republican party does not really represent them. Some of these people may vote Democratic next Tuesday, others will be disgusted and stay home.

I think in the next election, however, theocrats will want the Republicans to atone for both the scandals and for not being extreme enough. My scenario: the primary will be vicious. McCain, who is only a moderate when compared to these people, will be painted as having compromised with the forces of darkness (Democrats) too easily. He will hug Jerry Fawell and say that gays will burn in hell, but they will know he doesn't have his heart in it. Meanwhile, there will be a more conservative candidate more to the taste of the religious right in the Republican party, say Sam Brownback. His PR guys will say McCain is too liberal and too gay-friendly -- they'll say anything, the Republican machine has become very nasty and it won't be spared when shooting at each other in the primary.

The primary election will result in McCain either losing or coming out so stained with slung mud that the rightwing base will see him as liberal. That's when someone from the right wing will see a chance. The Democrats will try very hard to lose the next election, like they always do, but even if my scenario doesn't work out, I think the Republican party will experience an implosion.

Brian Cubbage said...

Shrewdly observed, Liam, and you do raise an interesting possibility of a grassroots uprising among evangelicals against the Republicans. Looking around the Bible Belt, however, I just don't see the kind of organization forming that would allow a third-party candidate to garner the kind of support it would take to field a meaningful candidacy. Some of what you're talking about already happens; there's a guy here in Louisville who runs as a third-party candidate for elections, and his sole agenda is to make abortion illegal under all possible circumstances. (It's a sign of the insignificance of his campaigns that I can't for the life of me recall his name. That's because he has virtually zero meaningful support in a city with a church on every corner and a megachurch that isn't afraid of playing political hardball.

While conservative evangelicals might be less than content with the Republican party, I don't see them as the sorts of people who tend to organize spontaneously like that around social or political issues. The megachurches, the Pat Robertsons, and the James Dobsons do the organizing, and I don't see them bolting for third-party land anytime soon.

Tell you what-- if it happens, I owe you five bucks. OK?

One thing I agree with you on is that the Republican primary in 2008 will be a bloodbath. Actually, I expect that the ritual Rep-on-Rep slaughter will begin after the midterm elections, especially if the Democrats manage to win both houses of Congress. Depending on how big the Democratic victory is, the bloodletting might actually have a chance to work itself out before the height of primary season in '08. Maybe it would be better for Democrats' chances for the White House in 2008 if they don't win the Senate; then Republicans will still have more ammo left to fire at each other.

Liam said...

Five bucks, you're on. I actually got the idea from a Harper's article a few month's back, and it was a Republican operative who suggested the possibility of a third party candidate if McCain got the nomination. We'll see.

Sandalstraps said...

You guys have had one heck of a conversation without me, so I don't need to weigh in. I don't even have much to say. But, damn it, I just can't leave well enough alone. I refuse to allow a perfectly good conversation to go on without me on my own blog. So, without anything interesting to say, I'll just say this:

I'm betting that there will be a thrid party, but ultimately not a significant one. It will have all of the bluster, and ultimately all of the political power, of one of Pat Buchanan's presidential runs.

The problem with the Reform Party was the ultimately there was nothing to hold them together. Consider their two most prominent figures:

1.) Ross Perot, and
2.)Jeese Ventura.

What do those guys have in common?

A new, reactionary conservative party, joining those social, religious and economic conservatives who have been turned off by the Bush administration's big government conservativism and the moral degradation in Congress could potentially have more staying power than the Reform Party. Except, of course, that all pragmatists would stick with the Republicans, seeing a splinter party as a free ticket for Democratic dominance. So that leaves you only with ideologues, which we already knew.

In other words, nothing to add, guys. But, since its my blog, I had to try to add something.

And Brian, if there is a third party, you don't owe me five bucks, even though I'm on the record as siding with Liam on the issue.