Election 2012: Let’s Not Be Too Hasty

This a guest post from Dr. Brian Mattson, Senior Scholar of Public Theology for the Center For Cultural Leadership. Follow him on Twitter (@BrianGMattson) and bookmark his website. His newest book is Politics & Evangelical Theology: A Guide For Concerned Christians and Political Progressives.

Stinging electoral defeats always produce huge amounts of angst, second-guessing, and hand-wringing, and the one that took place for Republicans on November 7th is no exception. Is it immigration policy? Was our candidate too moderate? Is it the GOTV app that failed on Election Day? Has our cause simply lost over 50 percent of the country?

In principle, I am not against some self-reflection and assessment of what went wrong so long as it doesn’t devolve into cannibalizing the party or petty score-settling. But even when it is thoughtful, hasty analysis can bring rather hasty conclusions.

Waning Evangelical Influence?

King’s College professor and WORLD magazine writer Anthony Bradley penned this article, “Waning Evangelical Influence,” in which he suggests that the evangelically influenced set of social norms and values that shaped American life and public policy for nearly three centuries might be history. “The 2012 Republican platform, which embraced many of those norms and values,” he writes, “was clearly rejected by more than half of the American electorate.”

That word “clearly” makes it a hasty conclusion. The overall American electorate was significantly smaller this year than in other recent elections. Barack Obama’s numbers were down a whopping 8 million in 2012 compared with 2008 (seeming to reflect a heavy movement away from Mr. Obama’s brand of liberalism), and Mitt Romney failed to retain all the voters John McCain had won four years earlier. In other words, we do not have a very reliable metric to really know what the “American electorate” thinks, since a substantial portion of that electorate (frustratingly) failed to give us any indications.

We should not take it as gospel that over half the country disapproves of those Judeo-Christian norms and values (e.g., strong private property rights, sanctity of human life, and the importance of the family for society). Not only could that very well be wrong, but could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Believe you’re outnumbered, act like you’re outnumbered, and it is quite probable you’ll soon be outnumbered. Acting like a loser generally ensures losing. That is why the Progressive Left desperately wants evangelical Christians to believe they are outnumbered. Why else would the Washington Post declare traditional marriage a loser, even though it leads the state referenda scorecard 32 to 4? Creating a sense of inevitability (the good ‘ol “right side of history” gambit) is a core tool of cultural change, and we would be foolish to take it at face value.

None of this is to suggest that Dr. Bradley doesn’t raise a number of significant issues that we need to face. I do agree that we have great demographic challenges with Latino and black voters, as well as the millennial generation. What I am saying is that we need to avoid the kind of pessimism hasty conclusions generate. I mean, you don’t get much more pessimistic than Bradley’s closing question: “[C]ould it be that Americans are now saying, ‘Farewell evangelicals. It was a good run’?” That’s a question Chris Matthews might want you to ask and answer in the affirmative; I don’t think Anthony Bradley should help him plant that particular thought.

No Time to Panic

This is no time for pessimism or panic. I have been saying this in different venues for some time now, and I suspect Dr. Bradley might even agree with me: American conservatism has never been intellectually stronger than it is right now. If we account for the contributions of groups like the Acton Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, as well as many other organizations, the renaissance of interest in the likes of Burke and Hayek, the plethora of magazines, journals, and websites, this is a nothing less than a golden age for conservative political theory.

And there—precisely there—is the real challenge: theory, in the nature of the case, finds its natural home in ivory towers, think tanks, policy seminars and conferences. What do we do about the emerging demographic challenges Bradley highlights? How are we going to make inroads with Latinos, blacks, and millennials? It seems to me that all our collective efforts should be singularly (and optimistically) focused on getting the theory to the street, from the ivory tower to the average voter.

If it is true, as Bradley asserts, that black voters care more about entitlements than abortion, then I do not necessarily see our primary task as getting them to reprioritize those two issues. I want to convince them of the moral fitness and economic benefits of free enterprise. More Robert Sirico, Arthur Brooks, and, frankly, Anthony Bradley, please.

If it is true, as Bradley asserts, that millennials simply do not connect with the value and importance of “traditional families,” then we need to do a far more effective job talking about subsidiarity and the foundational building blocks for a flourishing civil society and why that is good and in their self-interest.

After listing these demographic challenges Bradley writes, “With these cultural dynamics, Republicans, in order to take back the White House, are going to have to start appealing to their new actual base: deistic fiscal moderates.” This would be the gravest mistake of all, for “fiscal deism” sounds little different than a Randian “fiscal atheism,” a morally barren thing lacking a transcendent underwriter. When virtues are sucked out of an economic agenda (or at least purposely left out to make it publicly palatable) the other side can demagogue it as “social Darwinism” faster than you can say “Herbert Spencer.” The “tax cuts for the rich” mantra worked pretty well for an incumbent President running for reelection with an economy in terrible shape.

If the GOP wants to react effectively to the new demographic challenges, I recommend revitalizing and more effectively preaching the evangelically influenced social norms and values that shaped American life and public policy for 300 years, not abandoning them.

I think Dr. Bradley and I can agree on this: the days of just relying on the base for electoral victories are over. Time to get to work on conversions.

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  • Private property rights are a product of enlightenment philosophy, not the Judeo-Christian ethos.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you for taking the time to share your ideas. I particularly liked your thoughts on the importance of “getting the theory to the street”, and in doing so in an optimistic fashion. I think that it is sometimes difficult for people to see how religious values translate into their busy and sometimes complicated lives.

  • Craig

    “I think this was an evangelical disaster,” says Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky

    To be an effective change agent, one must first become a student of the target culture. On this front, conservative evangelicals have a lot of catch-up work to do. Start by turning off Fox and A.M. talk radio. Change your internet reading habits. Delete all your bookmarks and subscriptions to conservative blogs and seek out the most intelligent progressive blogs and news sources. Don’t let all of your social activities revolve around church and church friends. Think about enrolling in a university course or two. Ask lots of questions, but, most importantly, listen and think. What you learn might terrify, amaze, and transform you.

    • Craig, While there is some wisdom in what you’re saying, you are also betraying the stereotypes you have about evangelicals and conservatives in general. Of course, the fact that you are commenting on my blog means that you at least take your own advice — and I, for one, am glad you’re here.

      I am curious. If you could name three progressive blogs and news sources that you believe most intelligent, I would be most appreciative.

  • “Thou shalt not steal” is most certainly not a product of Enlightenment philosophy.

    And, no, to be an effective change agent, one does not FIRST become a student of the target culture. One becomes a student of the target culture SECOND. If you do it in the wrong order, you’ll know not what you are trying to change to. 🙂

  • Jay Saldana

    Ahh, I see the gang is all here… ok, lets start shall we. Dr. Mattson, it seems some of your stats are incorrect – at least according to my sources. (www.statisticbrain.com) for instance:
    Year Voting-Age Population Voter Registration Voter Turnout Turnout Voting-Age Popul.
    2012* 239,405,657 197,828,022 126,000,000 57.5 % *Estimate
    2008 231,229,580 182,578,209 132,618,580 56.8 %
    2004 221,256,931 174,862,732 122,294,978 55.3 %
    2000 205,815,000 156,421,311 105,586,274 51.3 %
    1996 196,511,000 146,211,960 96,456,345 49.1 %
    While he last figure is an estimate the number is expected to be larger. So as you see a greater number of the electorate is in fact voting while the number is smaller.
    The implication – as we shall soon see – does not follow the thesis “the rejection of Barack Obama or his political philosophy”. Now lets dig into that number of voters a bit.
    In 2008 the electorate was 75% white, 12.2% African-American, 8.4% Latino, 4.5% other Ethnics.
    While absolute final numbers are not in – the data will likely not change significantly. Here are the results of 2012:
    72% White, 13% African-American, 10% Latino, 5% other (including Asian){real clear Politics}. Now we have the base info lets divide it up.
    You have asserted that the change (re-election of President Obama)was not a “turning of the corner” in Evangelical influence in this monograph even though you stated quiet openly only several weeks ago that if the Democrats won the cause of pro-life would be set back “another 40 years in the wilderness”. I believe the data supports your earlier prediction rather than your latter explanation.
    Evangelicals make up the same percentage of the electorate as they did in 2008 – 26%. Evangelicals voted for Mr Romney by a wider margin than they voted for John McCain. And, they made up a larger share of the electorate in 2012 than in 2004, when the Christian Right supposedly fueled George W. Bush’s reelection. They also voted for Romney with the exact same margin as for Bush in 2004, 78%-21%.
    President Obama won the 48 percent of the electorate that was Christian and not Protestant or Mormon — 50%-48% among Catholics (25% of the electorate) and 50%-49% of “Other Christians” (23% of the electorate). In Ohio, they were 1 point more of the electorate than 2008; in Colorado, 4 points higher; in Iowa, up 7 points; in Nevada, up 2.
    White evangelical voters in select swing states (NBC News)
    CO: 25%, 76-22 Romney; 2008: 21%, 76-23 McCain
    FL: 24%, 79-21 Romney; 2008: 24%, 77-21 McCain
    IA: 38%, 64-35 Romney; 2008: 31%, 65-33 McCain
    NV: 18%, 69-28 Romney; 2008: 16%, 72-27 McCain
    OH: 31%, 69-30 Romney; 2008: 30%, 71-27 McCain
    White evangelical voters in the South (where exit polls are available) (NBC News)
    MS: 50%, 95-5 Romney; 2008: 46%, 94-6 McCain
    AL: 47% , 90-10 Romney; 2008: 47%, 92-8 McCain
    NC: 35%, 79-20 Romney; 2008: 44%, 74-25 McCain
    VA: 23%, 83-17 Romney; 2008: 28%, 79-20 McCain
    There are certainly Christian evangelicals who did not vote, but, that’s true every year and of every demographic group.
    Evangelicals make up 26 percent of adults in the country, according to a major 2008 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey. The number was nearly identical this election.
    The U.S. Census says there are more than 311 million people in the United States. If evangelical adults are 26 percent of them, then there would be 80 million potential voters.
    So far, 123 million votes have been counted in this election – and that number will get higher by the millions as votes continue to be counted (as in past years). Evangelicals made up 26 percent of them, therefore, about 32 million evangelicals voted – less than half of their population.
    But there’s a need for context here: (1) They make up just 14 percent of the registered-voter base in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. They outpaced that percentage in the presidential election, (2) The same can be said for every other demographic group in the country(NBC News)
    Latinos, for example, according to the U.S. Census, are nearly 17 percent of the country, but only made up 10 percent of the 2012 electorate. They make up just 8 to 9 percent of the registered-voter base of the NBC/WSJ poll. That would mean just 12 million of the 52 million adult Hispanics voted.
    You can be assured that the democrats are not going to let go of these groups now that they have them – no matter how hard some Republicans try to “change”.
    So the simple truth is Evangelicals got their “halos” handed to them. In every non-Anglo-European category. The Southern nee’ white Strategy is over at best, or regionalized at least. And, yes 40 years , probably more like 10 to 15, in the wilderness is appropriate.
    The problem for Conservatives Evangelicals is those who hold to this white pseudo supremacist ideology and who use dog whistle terms like “human exceptionalism” and then use our mutual outrage over abortion as proof of the righteousness of their WHOLE theology/thesis. Arguing with them gives the appearance of arguing with yourself.
    It will take time to separate those who misuse terms like “what God Loves” and similar English terms that have a variety of possible definitions to play on the uninformed from those who use them as God and scripture intended. Of course,this is not the only tool of these covert enemies of Christianity use. They are also extremely proficient at screaming “cultural egalitarianism, affirmative action, rule of law (except, of course, when the law thwarts their intentions), wealth creation, God loves prosperity,class warfare”, and numerous other terms that when misused become junk philosophical terms. Tie all this up with lax educational titles and empty think tanks mostly designed for self serving grandiosity and you can see that real Republicans are going to have their hands full for a time.
    So,yes, Dr. Mattson, your time has passed, at least for a while. You can argue it hasn’t but the data speaks for itself. This is not a rejection of Christianity but a change in location (read Acts 7). Yes, there are many evils in the fallen world of Democrats that will eventually lead to their down fall. Yes, Barack Obama has many serious faults. Yes, in many ways Mr. Obama has denied his savior’s calling and he will be called to repent. Mr. Obama is not the first leader we have had who is seriously flawed, nor will he be the last. I do not believe that accepting Civil marriage as separate from a Religious one constitutes blasphemy. I do not believe in the supremacy of the Anglo-European Ascendancy. Nor do I believe you have a divine right to financial primacy. Nor do I believe in the pseudo intellectual autocracy of neo-calvinism and it seems the the majority of the U.S. population – at least for the immediate future – agrees with me on everything but the last statement. Although, I think I could make a good case…
    Have a God filled Day