OPEN UNIVERSITY SEPTEMBER 15, 2006
by David GreenbergI've taken Casey Blake's advice and read Paul Baumann's review of Damon Linker's book The Theocons. Interestingly, Baumann cited the new book Building Red America by The New Republic's newly hired special correspondent, Tom Edsall (some of whose arguments are here). But Casey and I both heard Edsall speak the other night, when he said that most Democrats who try to invoke God or infuse their rhetoric with a religious sensibility wind up sounding inauthentic. (Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter are important exceptions, perhaps because non-Southerners tend to equate Southern idiomatic speech with authenticity itself.)
So the Democrats are damned either way. Following the advice of folks like Jim Wallis who want them to talk religion will only help foster a pro-Republican "issue environment" in which Democrats sound opportunistic--failing to win over religious conservatives while alienating liberals. Recoiling from the subject of religion, however, leaves the Dems ill-equipped to talk convincingly about questions like abortion--as, for example John Kerry was in the second debate he had with Bush in 2004, when he replied to a question about giving the poor equal access to abortion with four buts and other evasions reminiscent of Michael Dukakis's infamous death-penalty answer in the 1988 debate.
It's a sign of the times that all our political conversations these days tend toward strategic advice for the beleaguered Democrats. For my part, I have no idea what Democrats should say about religion that would help them win more Catholics or more elections. As a citizen, though, I do wish more of our political leaders would speak up on behalf of this nation's great tradition of secularism. The notion that there's a movement afoot to "banish religion from the public square" strikes me as a total mischaracterization of reality--even an internalization by the left of Republican talking points. There might have something to this notion true forty-five years ago, when the Supreme Court (rightly!) struck down prayer in public schools. But until very recently no serious person ever objected to saying "happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." For crying out loud, Dwight Eisenhower put "happy holidays" on his seasonal cards! In fact, all the political pressure these days is coming from people who wants to impose not religion but particular brands of Christianity in a public square that has been doing just fine, thank you, with the equilibrium that has prevailed since the 1960s. Casey may well be right that demonizing people like Neuhaus will backfire. But isn't it possible that most Americans are largely happy with the politico-religious status quo and will resent the theocons' efforts to move it to the right?