Vote Righteously!

by The New Republic | November 22, 2004

I don't remember when I first realized that my campaign for United States Senate was in trouble. But one moment stands out. I was in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, home of the annual Grapes of Wrath Festival, in which locals celebrate John Steinbeck's fictional Joad family and their mythical journey from eastern Oklahoma to California. It was a Sunday morning, one week before the third anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and I had been invited by the pastor of a local Baptist church to discuss the topic: "How Would Jesus Vote?" Both my opponent in the Senate race, Tom Coburn, and I had been invited to what was more or less an interview before the pastor's congregation. I would go first, then Coburn would speak the following Sunday, and a right-wing talk-radio host--no friend of mine, to be sure--would conclude the three-week inquiry into how Jesus would want us to cast our ballots. Now, I must confess: My own view is that Jesus would probably not vote at all, given the organized corruption that passes for modern American politics. But the idea that Christ Himself might sit out the 2004 election was apparently not under consideration, so I accepted the invitation--much to the pastor's avowed surprise. As an active Baptist who grew up in the Baptist church, I had no illusions that most of my co-religionists were ardent Democrats, but I rarely turned down any chance to make the case for my own candidacy and that of my fellow party members. After all, wasn't Daniel blessed for braving the lion's den? As I arrived at the church, my wife and I were given the church bulletin, which outlined the weekly selection of hymns and Bible readings. On the back of the bulletin, atop the blank space reserved for copious note-taking during the sermon, was the heading: "wwjv? pro-life or pro-death?" (I favored the partial- birth abortion ban but opposed overturning Roe v. Wade.) In the sanctuary, a 20- by-20-foot depiction of a fetus looked down upon the assembled throng from a projection screen. Superimposed upon the unsettling image--which morphed to show the fetus in various stages of gestation--was fact after fact about abortions in America. After the morning rituals, the pastor called me to the stage, and we engaged in a lengthy discussion about abortion, homosexuality, "liberal judges," and other controversial matters. After leaving the stage, I rejoined the congregation, and the pastor launched into an attack on the "pro-choice terrorists," who were, to his mind, far more dangerous than Al Qaeda. Yes, he acknowledged, thousands had died on September 11, but abortion was killing millions and millions. This was a holocaust, he continued, and we must all vote righteously. Vote righteously! In 13 months of campaigning across the vast state of Oklahoma, I must have seen or heard this phrase a thousand times, often on the marquees of churches, where, outside of election season, one finds only clever and uplifting biblical bromides. But it was not until that September Sunday in Sallisaw, one of the most Democratic towns in Oklahoma, that I first understood that the seemingly innocuous phrase "vote righteously" was the slogan not of a few politicized churches, but the cri de coeur of millions--millions who fervently believe that their most deeply held values are under assault and who further see this assault as at least tolerated by the Democratic Party, if not actually led by it. As a defeated Senate candidate in the most red of red states, many people have asked me for insights into the Democratic Party's failure to connect with culturally conservative voters. Much has already been written on this topic, and scholars will add more. But I do know this: The culture war is real, and it is a conflict not merely about some particular policy or legislative item, but about modernity itself. Banning gay marriage or abortion would not be sufficient to heal the cultural gulf that exists in this nation. The culture war is about matters more fundamental still: whether nationality is, in a globalized world, a random fact of no more significance than what hospital one was born in or whether it is the source of identity and even political legitimacy; whether one's self is a matter of choice or whether it is predetermined, before birth, by the cultural membership of one's family; whether an individual is just that--a free-floating atom--or whether the individual is part of a long chain that both predates and continues long after any particular person; whether concepts like honor and shame, which seem so quaint, are still relevant in a world that values only "tolerance." These are questions not for politicians but for philosophers, and, in the end, it is the failure of liberal philosophy that we saw on November 2. For the vast majority of Oklahomans--and, I would suspect, voters in other red states--these transcendent cultural concerns are more important than universal health care or raising the minimum wage or preserving farm subsidies. Pace Thomas Frank, the voters aren't deluded or uneducated. They simply reject the notion that material concerns are more real than spiritual or cultural ones. The political left has always had a hard time understanding this, preferring to believe that the masses are enthralled by a "false consciousness" or Fox News or whatever today's excuse might be. But the truth is quite simple: Most voters in a state like Oklahoma--and I venture to say most other Southern and Midwestern states--reject the general direction of American culture and celebrate the political party that promises to reform or revise it. That is what Antonin Scalia famously called the Kulturkampf. And there can be no doubt either that this is a fundamental dynamic in American politics or on which side of this conflict the electorate rests. Last Tuesday, I ran 7 percent ahead of John Kerry, and my opponent ran a full 13 percent behind President Bush. In most states, this would have been more than sufficient to ensure my victory. But not in Oklahoma. At least not last Tuesday. And, while the defeat was all my own, the failure was of the party to which I swear allegiance, which uncritically embraces a modernity that so many others reject.

By Brad Carson

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