The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Seeing Red Democrats

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.


  1. Religion has been used to condone bigotry before. Anti-Semitic, anti-black, pro-slavery, pro-apartheid, anti-Catholic, and so on. But there are always voices of reason, like Reverend Cecil Williams, in San Francisco, who was presiding over same-sex marriage ceremonies forty years ago. Over time, reason wins.
    Bigots like that bishop in DC will be swept away by the forces of reason eventually, marginalized and laughed at.

  2. Yep, I’ll be the first to jump on you 😀

    He said nothing of ‘evangelicals’, he spoke of people of ‘faith’ (quite generic sounding to me) and gave the speech at “Call to Renewal”. This group is NOT an evangelical group, it is affliated with Sojourners which is primarily progressive Christians like UCC, Unitarians, Episcopalians and the like.

    You have accepted the religious right line whole-heartedly here.. that ‘people of faith’ are only conservative evangelical fundamentalists.

  3. And all of you “progressives” have determined that every evangelical marches to the Republican drum. Obama hit the nail on the head, in particular when he said that it is ridiculous for secularists to ask evangelicals to leave their faith at the door when it comes to public life. Fine, leave your humanistic agenda at the door as well. What we’ll discover is that there’s nothing to talk about then.

    You’re WAAAAY over-reacting to this speech of Obama’s. It’s the first reasoned discourse I’ve read concerning the disconnect many people of faith feel with the Democratic Party. If the past election should have taught liberals anything it’s that YOU need to be more inclusive. I mean, isn’t that what your SUPPOSED to be about? Or do you only include certain groups of people? Sounds as if progressives might be as close-minded as those they oppose.

  4. guys. guys. THERE IS NO GOD.

    god, religion, all that jazz? Just a genetically pre-determined itch. There’s so much evidence for the truth of that, that it hardly seems worth arguing about.

    Religion…belief in the supernatural. All that jazz. It got us where we are. And it will destroy us. Just one more adaptation gone bad. Hoist on our own petard, you might say.

    Go read some Reg Morrison, or Richard Dawkins. Barak should do the same. Religion is nothing but trouble. Always has been, always will be.

    Truth is, *belief* is nothing but trouble. Belief is a kind of false epistomology. Belief means nothing. You believe in Jesus. I believe in candy-striped gremlins covered in green fur. How is your belief one iota more valid than mine? And don’t give me any shit about the Bible. It’s an interesting book, but it’s no more *fact* than the Harry Potter books…maybe less so, when all is said.

    Belief is useless. Thought, and hard fact, provable by repeatable experimentation…that is worth more than any and all belief.

    Belief is the greatest scourge of humankind. We’d be far better off without it. But, of course, our DNA couldn’t possibly allow that. We are shackled to our DNA now and forever. If we could simply realize it, and change our behavior by using our nice big forebrains, what a lovely world it would be…without god, without religion. A lovely world. Look at the horror of this world. Religion, belief, made it ALL.

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  6. Obama did *not* mention evangelicals. He specifically spoke of “faith”, mentioned liberal and progressive Christians, and, tore apart Alan Keyes.

    Many liberal and progressive Christians have aligned themselves with the gays, and, that issue is at the heart of the huge controversy that is happening right now within the Episcopal and Anglican Churches. There is no reason why the Dems who are faithful should not use that to their advantage. I’m gay, I’m black, I’m also a progressive Christian and smart enough to realize that if the Dems hope to win in 2006 and 2008, they will have to court the centrist vote, just like Clinton did who was elected and re-elected on a centrist platform. Gary has a valid point: liberals need to be more inclusive. It’s a reverse elitism that has achieved nothing.

    FYI, Obama attends Trinity Unity Church of Christ … a black, megachurch that is pro-gay. He is not a TD Jakes. But as a rhetorical question, if you abandoned Christianity, do you really think the fundies or devout black church folk will really care about your opinions about how they should lead their lives? If you want to talk to church folk, or persuade some moderates, or keep evangelicals at bay, it certainly helps to have a church background.

    I keep coming back to this website, admiring its sincerity. But you get so riled up over anything that has to do with other black people, black gays or religion, its a huge turn-off and smacks of self-hating.

  7. Wow. Maybe I just shouldn’t post about stuff that I’m passionate about if it’s such a turn off.

    That leaves what? Music memes and cat pictures? Because I’m not sure how I’m supposed to post anything with “sincerity” without occasionally getting riled up. And I’m not sure how not to get riled up about people who use their faith to discriminate and codify discrimination.

    Frankly, I don’t care how people “live their lives” or what they believe. They can believe whatever they want. What I care about his how my family and I, and others like us are treated.

    And, no, I don’t expect devout christians or fundie to care what I think, or whether I live or die for that matter. But when a party that supposedly supports equality starts making noise about courting some of those very people, how am I not supposed to make noise about that?

    Better yet, I’ll just ask this question. What would you like to hear? What would you have me say?

  8. I think you’re mistaken about Wallis. When Goodridge came down, he said,

    [Gay] civil and human rights must also be honored, respected, and defended for a society to be good and healthy. It is a question of both justice and compassion. To be both pro-family and pro-gay and lesbian civil rights could open up some common ground that might take us forward.

    There is a middle way. We can make sure that long-term gay and lesbian partnerships are afforded legitimate legal protections in a pluralistic society without changing our long-standing and deeply rooted concept of marriage as being between a man and a woman. That should continue to be the theology of the church and the way our society best orders itself.

    But do we really want to deny a gay person’s right to be at their loved one’s deathbed in a hospital with “family restrictions”? Do we also want to deny that person a voice in the medical treatment of his or her partner? And do we really want all the worldly possessions of a deceased gay person to revert to the family who rejected them 30 years ago, instead of going to their partner of the last 20 years? There are fundamental issues of justice and fairness here that can be resolved without a paradigm shift in our basic definition of marriage.

    He may wrongly believe that a society can be just without equal marriage, but he rightly understands that a society cannot be “good and healthy” without recognition of the fundamental humanity of gay people is not “honored, respected, and defended.”

    And far from avoiding the topic of gay equality, Sojourners often addresses it, both directly and indirectly, and it never reads as anything less than welcoming of gay people. (When Michael Stipe came out, for example, the coverage in the music section was not, “What about the children!” but rather, “Why aren’t more musicians out, and what we do to change that?”) It’s not that Sojourners (or Wallis) doesn’t believe that these issues are worthy of discussion, or that they are less important than other issues, but that there are other issues, and that they have moral dimensions as well – issues like illegal immigration, which Sojourners coved most recently (“Welcome the Stranger,” they say.)

  9. There has been a long history of Liberal Evangelicals and other people of Faith pushing the social justice agenda. Gay Marriage or Abortion isn’t the wedge issue it’s the contempt the far left has for faith.

    For example, if you look at social issues, Blacks & Hispanics poll closer with Republicans than White Democrats. So why do Blacks vote Republican? Because the GOP has embraced the Southern Bigots, the confederate flag, affirmative action, Immigration Wall and other positions is saying “F*ck You.” And the same should happen with the GOP is in a tough spot, if they try to court the Blacks and Hispanics, they will start losing the bigot vote.

    The Democrats are in a much better position, treat the evangelicals with respect, go on the offensive for one or two things. Allow after-school Bible clubs and religious organizations. Start pushing for a morality class in schools where Humanist, Judeo-Christian and Eastern Morality is studied and compared.

  10. I think most Democratic principles can be correlated with religious morals. Feeding the poor, peace, tolerance for the outcasts (I include myself in that term), these are principles the Bible ascribes to Jesus, and are Democratic principles.

    I think for the Democratic Party to survive, it is going to have to motivate the progressive faithful. The progressive faithfuls aren’t motivated to vote like the evangelicals. Add the progressive faithfuls to the anti-war people, the anti-Bush people, people fed up with the handling of the economy, gas prices or border issues and you might have enough to win some elections.

    There are people of faith on the Left who are tolerant and don’t believe that being gay is a sin, but there are also a great many liberals who hold faith and also don’t believe in gay rights. Being on the Left isn’t an indicator of an automatic ally for our community, unfortunately.

    I don’t think there is any way the Democrats could court fundamentalists or evangelicals. They are opposed on too many issues. Women’s rights, immigrants rights, gay rights, big government (okay maybe that one’s now suspect), religion vs. science in schools, etc.

    Courting the faithful is all fine and good for the Dems, it’s actually necessary for their survival, but for our community? The choices are the same they’ve ever been. The party that actively works against us, or the party that does nothing.

  11. Frankly, I don’t care how people “live their lives” or what they believe. They can believe whatever they want. What I care about his how my family and I, and others like us are treated”

    Amen brother, amen!

  12. I mean, honestly. So-called progressive bloggers clearly have less interest in ‘progress’ than they do in winning. I defy anyone to quote a single passage from Obama’s speech that betrayed any single progressive value.

    If you hang out on sites like DKos, you’ll find folks rife with righteous indignation over the ability to out-centrist one another and reach out to the opposition. I think this is, in principle, a healthy stance to take. The process of such an outreach does not have to involve a betrayal of one’s values (nor should it) but rather a sincere attempt to acknowledge the worth of others’ opinions and to frame the issues in such a way that we can work towards conversion or consensus.

    Exactly how did Obama differ from this platform?

    Why is the left simply repeating the meme that all discussions of religion definitively belong to Republicans?

    If you want to be a partisan, bully for you. If you want to reach out and unite people, even better. But if you abandon the very people who are trying to make inroads and unite the country, the only lesson you are teaching politicians is to ignore your values because they will never be able to please you. Bloggers are making strident inroads in political clout, but if we want to maintain relevance then we can’t behave like a bunch of petulant children who stomp our feet and moan whenever we are actually getting exactly what we asked for.

    The Hindsight Factor
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  13. I loved the speech. I am as big of fan as separation as anyone but it is nice to actually hear a democrat sound like a leader.

    Does anyone from the left remember what a leader is?

    It was refreshing to stop hearing everything the democrats are against and hear some interesting talk on an issue. Some from the left wonder why Republicans are in power and all you have to do is look at the void in leadership at the top. Dean? Polosi? Literally laughable. Out of touch at best.

    It is tough to be a democrat these days but I liked hearing a fresh take from Obama. There is no reason to cast aside all people of faith in a bad knee jerk move because of bad experiences with evangelicals.

    I mean we could cast them aside and sit back while we watch another Republican in office for another 4 years.