The Republic of T.

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

Redux on Reed & Religious Right

As in sex and romance, afterglow can fade quickly in the realm of politics Things sometimes look a slightly less promising when seen in the cold light of the morning after. I’m beginning to wonder if former Christian Coalition president Ralph Reed’s primary defeat in Georgia isn’t on of those times. Granted, Reed’s failure to rouse sufficient voter support in a state as conservative as Georgia (one of the main reasons I don’t live there, and probably won’t ever again) is pretty significant. Dave Donnely, whose work with Campaign Money Watch helped bring about Reed’s defeat, offers a reasonable analysis of Reed’s defeat and its implications.

Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, has become the first political casualty of the Jack Abramoff lobbying and money scandals with his loss yesterday in Georgia’s lieutenant governor’s race to a previously unknown state Senator. Reed had nursed ambitions of someday running for high office, even the White House, but his defeat suggests otherwise.

His loss also suggests that other politicians may be vulnerable to voter anger, unless politicians repent for their big money ways.

…The voters’ judgment was also just. Reed’s electoral fate was delivered by the Christian conservative voters that make up a Republican primary electorate in a Deep South state like Georgia –- the same voters Reed was said to understand better than any other Republican operative. Reed’s downfall was due not just to the fact he did wrong. It’s that he did wrong, failed to repent, and betrayed the very voters he needed on Election Day.

That’s probably right. As I noted earlier, many Georgian’s share a deep and earnest religious faith that informs their conservatism. In other words, they really believe and are probably put off and insulted by politicians who pay lip service to those values while simultaneously acting in direct contradiction to them.

But not all of them abandoned Reed, nor did they need him to repent in order to support him. So either religion trumped conservatism for some voters or their loyalty as religious right foot soldiers has been overlooked, and may have implications beyond the apparent fall of their “general.”

This bit from Hotline, about how Reeds numbers changed as you get further away from Atlanta, jumped out at me this morning.

The further away from Atlanta, the better Reed seemed to do. He won or broke even in the three most sizable GA locales outside of Atlanta, Savannah (Chatham Co), Augusta (Richmond Co.) and Macon/Warner-Robins (Bibb and Houston Co’s), and won a number of scattered rural counties. As Reed well knows, however, GA elections are won and lost around the capital city.

Being a native of Augusta, it doesn’t surprise me that it was one of the places Reed did well. The city is, if anything, more conservative than when I shook the dust of that place off my shoes back in ’94. And it doesn’t surprise me that Reed’s numbers improved further away from Atlanta, as the city is an oasis of relative progressivism in the state. (The saying, when I lived there, went “There’s Atlanta, and then there’s the rest of the state.) That Reed did well in larger cities beyond Atlanta, and in rural areas, suggests that it may be unwise to write too much into his fall, because the strength of the religious conservative movement he helped build nearly overshadows his defeat even as it seems to have delivered this.

In other words, maybe you can count Ralph Reed out for now (keeping in mind the potential for his repentance and rehabilitation down the road), but don’t count the movement he helped build. And, as Michelle Goldberg says in this AlterNet interview about her book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (which I may just pick up on my way home this evening), the same advice probably counts where George Bush or any other right wing politician is concerned.

There’s an idea out there that once Bush is gone, or maybe if the Republicans lose Congress, then we’ll all be free and clear. Obviously, there’s nothing more important to me than seeing the Republicans lose Congress. But, it’s entirely possible that most Americans are going to vote Democratic in the polls but that Republicans will still control Congress. The huge structural advantages the Republicans have created for themselves have to be addressed before anything else can be solved. I would say the collapse of the Republican Party is really important, but the Christian Nationalist movement is not a majority. I don’t think there needs to be a majority to affect policy.

And those structural advantages have to some degree been integrated into the government itself. Goldberg mentions one example earlier in the interview, in the Bush administrations much-touted faith-based initiative.

Religious groups have been able to get government checks for a long time. But they used to have to abide by 1956 civil rights law which has an exemption for religious groups. So, if you’re a church you can prefer Christians, mosques can prefer Muslims, but the catch has always been that if you’re contracting with the government, then you have to abide by the same civil rights laws as everybody else. Bush, by executive order, overturned that so that government-funded charities are no longer bound by the laws. Now, there is job training, drug treatment and preschool programs that are totally separate. The job is 100-percent taxpayer funded, but they can say in the help-wanted ad, “Christians only.”

Bush wanted to get the Salvation Army aboard the faith-based initiatives. The Salvation Army then brought in a consultant to Christianize certain divisions. He asked the human resources director at the Salvation Army headquarters, Maureen Schmidt, whether one of the human resource staffers at the social services division, Margaret Geissman, was Jewish, because she had a “Jewish sounding name.” Schmidt told him that she wasn’t. So then he went to her and said, “I want a list of homosexuals who work there.”

… The architect of the faith-based initiative is Marvin Olasky. He was an advisor of Bush’s campaign. Bush wrote the foreword to Olasky’s book, Compassionate Conservatism, I think people hear “compassionate conservatism,” and it sounds like a banality, but if you know Olasky’s book, you know it’s outlining something very specific. Olasky believes that America is in moral decline and that we need to return social services to churches. He also believes that conversion is an important part of the process. This book laid out exactly what he thought we should be doing, and Bush went and did it.

In light of Goldberg’s remarks, it’s worth remembering that first director of White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives resigned, and had pretty harsh words for the administration’s attitude towards the policy.

In August 2001, John J. DiIulio Jr., then-director of the faith-based office, became the first top Bush adviser to quit, after seven months on the job. In an interview with Esquire magazine a year later, DiIulio said the Bush White House was obsessed with the politics of the faith-based initiative but dismissive of the policy itself, and he slammed White House advisers as “Mayberry Machiavellis.”

And, according the New York Times, that dismissiveness has led to a lack of oversight that may have created a structure that entrenches the religious right in the federal government.

The Bush administration’s program of financing social service initiatives run by religiously affiliated groups lacks adequate safeguards against religious discrimination and has yet to measure the performance of the groups, a new Congressional report says.

The report, by the Government Accountability Office, did not find evidence of a widespread diversion of government money to religious activity from social services, which had been a concern of some critics of such religion-based initiatives.

But in looking at 10 federal programs, the researchers found that only four gave an explicit statement to religious organizations about protecting the religious liberties of the people they serve.

“The Bush administration has a responsibility to make sure that federal taxpayer dollars are not being sent to organizations that discriminate, but it is failing to uphold that responsibility,” said Representative George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the Committee on Education and the Workforce, in a written statement. “As a result, we don’t know if Americans who are eligible for services are missing out on them because of their religious beliefs.”

If that system remains in place, it won’t make much difference whether Bush is gone or not. And a Democratic president who heeds the words of Barack Obama — who praised faith-based programs in his speech last month urging Democrats to reach out to religious voters — might see a need to keep the office of faith-based initiatives intact. Even if that includes an attempt at oversight, there will be much damage that needs to be undone, and probably even more that will survive the most well-intended attempts at reform.

And that’s just in the federal government, out in the states there are stories about families like the Dobriches and the Smalkowski’s, who were both basically terrorized for failing to conform or defer to the majority faith in their local areas, and who in some cases found governmental bodies (like school boards) siding against them on the basis of faith. In some states, people have faced faith-based refusal of medical care. Even if Congress and the White House changes hands in the next few years, it’s likely that there will be more stories like these, and more battles to fight in he states as well as on the federal level.

So, it may be tempting to gloat over Reed’s defeat, but the movement is bigger than the man, and at the end of the day it’s the latter that’s still staring us in the face.