Methinks I hear the sound of the other shoe dropping. And, as I said before, I shouldnt’ be surprised. It’s been coming for a while, and there have been plenty of signs along the way. I shouldn’t be surprised to hear it coming from Barack Obama either, given the hints he’s dropped before.
And it makes sense that he should be the one to finally come out and clarify the Democrats’ priority constituency for the foreseeable future. Inadvertently, his recent speech also clarifies for the rest of us our new place in line: behind the evangelicals.
Sen. Barack Obama chastised fellow Democrats on Wednesday for failing to “acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people,” and said the party must compete for the support of evangelicals and other churchgoing Americans.
“Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation. Context matters,” the Illinois Democrat said in remarks prepared for delivery to a conference of Call to Renewal, a faith-based movement to overcome poverty.
And I’m some people will comment that my degree of alarm here is probably premature and paints all religious folks as narrow-minded, theocratic bigots. And who knows? Maybe they’re right. I’m told there are progressive evangelicals out there. How many? (How many in Kansas? How many watching Pat Robertson?) How progressive? Progressive enough to support equal rights and protections for me and my family? Maybe, or maybe not.
“The typical image of evangelicals is that they’re concerned with the sanctity of life, the traditional family and that’s it — they buy the whole Republican agenda when they vote,” said Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, a think tank based in Wynnewood, Pa.
Without giving up their opposition to abortion and gay marriage, “they’re asking, what [else] does God care about?” Sider said.
… The most liberal voice in the evangelical movement belongs to the Rev. Jim Wallis, author of the book “God’s Politics.” Wallis heads the advocacy group Sojourners, which is sponsoring the State of the Union parties in 160 communities nationwide. He is not in favor of abortion but opposes criminalizing it; he cannot accept gay marriage but would welcome civil unions.
Mostly, though, he doesn’t like answering questions on those issues. “It’s such a tired conversation,” he said.
At best they still believe that “God care about” keeping inequities against gay & lesbian families in place. At worst, they may support something close to equality, but not quite there. (And you can look back over pre-Brown v. Board of Education to figure out how well “separate but equal” worked in practice before.) But they’d really rather just not talk about it at all.
And if you look at it that way, it’s pretty clear Democratic leadership is following the example of the folks they’re trying to court now. From a practical point of view, I guess I understand it. There are more of them than there are gay people or gay families, and we’re not likely to be able to hand anyone an election. So, priorities.
But you don’t have to look much further than the Republican to find out what happens when a political party gets in bed with evangelicals. You come out of it a different party, with different priorities, and a powerful new constituency that you’ll probably have to keep satisfied if you want to stay in power.
And, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about anyway. Getting power. Keeping power. Period.
Update: Chris Bowers nailed it, and said succinctly what I’ve been trying to say over several posts.
Obama has not only helped close the triangle on the notion that Democrats are hostile to religion, he has closed the triangle on who Democrats should appeal to in order to win elections. This danger of this is that in a nation where the only voters who matter to both parties are conservative evangelicals, then the only legislation we will ever get will be of the sort that appeals to conservative evangelicals. This will be the case no matter which party is in charge of Congress. Thus, closing the triangle on electoral strategy in this manner completely obliterates progressivism itself.
Reading the speech in full doesn’t change anything for me. Obama didn’t have to mention abortion or gay rights, because I’m looking not just at this one speech but looking at it in the context of what I’ve seen and heard from Democratic leadership. (I’ve cataloged much of it in some previous posts I linked to in today’s post.) Taken in that context, Obama’s speech sounded a lot like the other shoe dropping.
Who are we talking about when we talk about progressive evangelicals? If they’re like Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action or Jim Wallis of Sojournors, then they may be taking up progressive positions on economic issues or the environment, to name two, but they do so either without giving up their opposition to reproductive choice and gay equality or they take begrudgingly moderate-to-progressive stands on those issues but would really much rather not talk about them. That’s as good as it gets.
So how do you reach out to people like them as voters when you have longtime constituencies around issues they’re either opposed to or would rather not talk about? It becomes even more challenging if a party’s positions on those two issues has anything to do with its values. You can try talking to those voters about those issues, without offending them or betraying your values on those issues. That’s difficult. Or you can avoid those issues, distancing yourself from them and their related constituencies, at least publicly. That’s easier, and it might get you more of the votes you’re seeking than it will lose you votes that you can pretty much (or at least have always been able to) take for granted. It might work. It might also make you a different party; slightly different or remarkably different remains to be seen.
You don’t have to change policy on those issues. At least not consciously. You chose your path, choose the people who are important for you to reach, and it happens along the way from point A to point B. Want to win over the Jim Wallis’ and T.D. Jakes of the world, two men Obama invoked in his speech? You won’t go near the gay marriage issue then. Wallis would rather not have that conversation. Jakes has called homosexuality a “brokenness” and endorsed the FMA. His youth program distributes specially made anti-gay bible to high schools. If Jakes is an example, you might ease up on that issue in order to keep as much of the African American vote as possible. I’ve seen in my own family how well it works for the Republicans to exploit that issue. That same advice might work with the the elderly doctor Obama also mentioned in his speech.
And maybe it’s the non-christian in me, but I part ways with Obama on this:
It is people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in reasonable terms – those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.
… It is a prayer I still say for America today – a hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all.
Frankly, a “deeper, fuller” conversation with the good doctor or Rev. Jakes, who “may not change their positions, but … are wiling to listen” doesn’t do me a dime’s worth of good at the end of the day if it doesn’t mean a change in policy. I don’t want “deeper, fuller conversation.” I want to be know that I have right to be at my husband’s bedside in the hospital, and that he has the same; an absolute, undeniable, defendable right. I want my family to have all the same protections as the doctor’s’ family, or Jakes’ family, or Obama’s for that matter. How does a “deeper, fuller” conversation with them achieve that, particularly if they probably aren’t going to change their positions? If they lump me and other Americans like me into the the category of those lost to “brokenness” or “perversion,” how do we even have that conversation?
We could “set aside” that issue and talk about poverty, etc., where we more likely see eye to eye. I suppose I’d have to stop referring to the lack of protections for gay Americans and our families as “discrimination.” And I suppose I’d have to stop referring to those who would discriminate against Americans like me and families like ours, and even codify discrimination into law as “bigots.” (Would asking them not to refer to me as “broken” or “perverted” amount to asking them to be silent about their religious beliefs?) If we could manage that, we might get along. We might even feel better about each other at the end of the process. But without a shift, one of us wouldn’t actually be much better off at the end of the day. On other hand, one of us might be a more respected, valued, and effective in the political process. Guess which. Hint: the one who matters. Or in this context, matters most.
The change in positions doesn’t happen now. It doesn’t have to. A journey of 1,000 miles begins with just one step. That particular step may lie anywhere along those miles.