Tuesday, March 14, 2006

In Defense of Religious Outreach

One of my favorite progressive bloggers is Chris Bowers of MyDD, in no small part because he is impeccably honest and open to new evidence, and willing to admit (a rare quality in political discourse generally) on occasion that he's been wrong. After reading his post today endorsing Tom Schaller's assault on the idea that Democrats should reach out to Christian religious folk, including evangelicals, and on Steve Waldman and Amy Sullivan for advancing that idea, I hope this is one topic he is willing to rethink.

Here's Chris' main argument:

Internalizing and following the obviously poor election strategy offered up for Democrats by pundits within the established news media is one of the greatest problems we face when trying to win elections. The basic problem is that we are repeatedly told, and repeatedly believe, that in order to win, we must not go after either swing votes or rev up our own base, but instead focus our main strategy on actually trying to win over the Republican base itself. I call this the "Democrats Must Court The Limbaugh Vote" strategy syndrome, both because we tend to follow the election advice given to us by Rush Limbaugh types, and because that advice invariably means that we must target the hard-core Rush Limbaugh audience.
Now, as someone who's probably read just about everything published by Steve Waldman and Amy Sullivan on this subject, I have to say that Scheller and Bowers do not know what they are talking about. Amy Sullivan's many writings on religious outreach have one exceptionally consistent message: there are millions of voters attending "conservative" churches who are not in any meaningful sense part of the "Republican base." They do not, in fact, listen to Rush Limbaugh, or for that matter, James Dobson. They attend the churches they attend for reasons that have nothing to do with the agenda of the Cultural Right. They have all sorts of political, moral and civic beliefs that are entirely consistent with the values and policy positions of Democrats. But they have voted, and will vote, Republican if there's no real competition for their votes, and if they perceive, erroneously, that Democrats live in a different moral universe than theirs, or have contempt for their beliefs.

Steve Waldman has actually written very little in the way of direct pitches for Democrats to appeal to "conservative" Christians. But as someone who discarded a successful career as a Washington journalist--first, to help run AmeriCorps, and then, as an Internet entrepreneur, to pursue his insight that Americans increasingly view religious options from a consumer's point of view--he has a keen understanding of the complicated and unpredictable connection between religion and politics. And like Sullivan, and myself, he's convinced there is a segment of the electorate among self-consciously religious people that is just waiting to be harvested by a progressive message that takes them seriously.

Take a look at the latest issue of The Washington Monthly, which includes (a) a piece by Amy Sullivan reporting on the open and increasingly avid willingness of some key evangelical Christian leaders to defect from the Republican Coalition; (b) a more historical article by Steve Waldman reminding evangelicals of the heritage of religious liberty their leaders have forsaken in their recent "marriage" to the conservative movement and the GOP; and (c) a straight reportorial job by yours truly predicting impending doom for that great symbol of the Christian Right, Ralph Reed.

Search in vain for any argument that exploiting the political opening created by the impending crack-up of the Christian Right machine requires Democrats to compromise core convictions or become, as Chris invidiously put it in a recent post, the "second white Christian party." We're talking about picking up low-hanging political fruit simply by deploying the language and respecting the values and lifestyles of people who are half-way to Democratic voting habits already.

In fairness to Chris, his argument on this subject gets into a very technical set of views about voter targeting, which frankly, though I respect them, create all sorts of false choices. Democrats do not have to choose between energizing the base and reaching out to obvious or potential swing voters; you can do both, keeping in mind that turning swing voters (defined not as "undecideds," BTW, but as persuadable voters) has double the electoral value of turning out people who will vote for you if they vote at all.

I have less sympathy for Chris' argument that the progressive future lies with cultivating a "non-Christian coalition" based on demographic projections that conflate (a) increases in non-Christian but religiously affiliated voters, who are often likely to welcome the same religious outreach that might help Democrats with "conservative" Christians, and (b) indications that young voters aren't religious, which ignores life-stage patterns of religious observance and non-observance that have gone through predictable cycles among the baby boomers and Gen-Xers who are now flocking to megachurches. Maybe Chris is right that something more fundamental is suddenly going on, but the idea that Democrats will flourish by flouting their credentials as the Party of Baal, or whatever, strikes me as implausible, and more to the point, irrelevant. Are irreligious voters really in danger of defecting to the theocratic GOP, or for that matter, refusing to vote, if Democrats open a dialogue, without sacrificing their principles, with religious voters? I don't think so.

And that's why I think the backlash against sensible advice from progressives like Amy Sullivan and Steve Waldman is misguided. As a person of faith myself, the only thing that aggrieves me more than the claim by conservatives that God is a Republican, is to hear progressives, however few, say they are right. This, my friends, is an example of "reinforcing the opposition's talking points" that should be taken just as seriously as any other boon to Fox News--and to Rush Limbaugh.
-- Posted at 9:34 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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