Who is a liberal? Yin and yang at GOP convention

rudy2004It’s political convention time again and, once again, it is time to offer kudos to two of the best sites in terms of the religious language and symbolism of this media event. As with the Democrats, the yin and the yang of Republican God-talk is being served up by Beliefnet Editor-in-Chief Steven Waldman and Christianity Today blog maestro Ted Olsen.

Yesterday, Olsen offered up a lively contrast of the activities of the various “non-partisan” groups on the religious left and the religious right. (Another AP Stylebook aside: Why does it look strange to leave “religious right” lower case, yet “religious left” looks strange upper case?) The headline on this blog report was a classic: “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Ad Hominem Attacks.”

Don’t miss the coverage of the Family Research Council fortune cookies being handed out in New York. And there is this especially concise commentary on President Bill Clinton’s non-partisan sermon at Manhattan’s cathedral of the lifestyle left, Riverside Church:

Kevin Madden, spokesman for the Bush campaign, told the New York Daily News, “It’s astonishing that anyone would use a church pulpit to launch a baseless attack containing nothing but false accusations.”

Oh, come on. Bill Clinton accuses Republicans of only following nine of the Ten Commandments and of bearing false witness, and the best response you can come up with is that he’s misusing a pulpit?

On the other side of the aisle, sort of, Waldman has really come out of the blocks smoking in his convention blog. Some of the commentary is especially interesting in light of our recent discussions here at GetReligion.org on the meaning of religious labels such as “fundamentalist.” Apparently, these kinds of issues are hotly discussed among the members of God’s Own Party. Check out this anecdote from the almost-Libertarian front lines:

Went to a party thrown by the estimable conservative magazine National Review. Spoke to a woman wearing an “I Only Sleep with Republicans” button.

“Hey, I thought Republicans advocated abstinence before marriage,” I said.

“That’s conservative Republicans,” she said.

Who says they don’t have a big tent?

There’s more. Political conventions are, these days, about as spontaneous as discussions of the morality of abortion in a meeting of the Political Science department at the University of California at Berkeley. In other words, most of the speeches and texts are carved in stone long before the spotlights are turned on.

But perhaps it is hard to make some of the Republican Party’s religious voices seek the soft, non-offensive hymns of the party elite. Many of our readers would be interested in the online dialogue that is taking place between Waldman and Dr. Marvin Olasky of World magazine about the policy implications of George W. Bush being “twice born,” while John Kerry has only been “born once.” This is one of those cases where the views of the two men should be read — instead of turned into quickie headlines.

And here is another choice Waldman anecdote from the pre-prime time podium action at the convention.

When I read the prepared text of the speech by Mississippi congressional candidate Clinton LeSueur, I saw the line “The foundation of this great nation is faith,” and thought there was nothing controversial in that. Chris Suellentrop at Slate listened to the actual speech, in which LeSueur declared instead: “The very foundation of this country is Christianity and faith in Jesus Christ.”

Go ahead, Cosmo and company, serve up your favorite one-liners about Thomas Jefferson.

Actually, I haven’t been paying that much attention to the convention for reasons that are obvious for anyone who can tune in the Weather Channel. Does anyone know how to put up metal hurricane shutters?

What I have seen so far has — surprise! — raised more questions for me about the way the mainstream media use certain loaded words. This time around, I am wondering what the word “moderate” means when applied to members of the Republican Party who are pro-abortion rights. As they march to the platform, commentators are noting that their presence is an attempt by the GOP to reach out beyond its “conservative” base and reach “moderate” voters.

I am confused and want to ask this question. If abortion on demand is the “moderate” position, what is the “liberal” position? For years, polls seem to indicate that the public is divided three ways on this most painful of issues. On one side is a camp of people who do not want to limit abortion in any way, even when dealing with the partial-birth procedure that some Democrats have compared with legal infanticide. On the right are the conservatives — fundamentalists, even — who want an outright ban with few, if any, exceptions. In between is the great muddy middle in the electorate that favors some legal restrictions.

But in public media, “moderate” means pro-abortion-rights — period. Those who favor any legal limits are “conservatives.”

Help me out here. Who are the “liberals”? What is the “liberal” position on abortion? Has anyone seen this perfectly honorable political term used lately, in the context of political issues linked to a debate about morality and culture?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Karen B.

    Terry — re: your aside about the hurricane. Please know I and many are praying for all in FL (or elsewhere in Frances’ potential path.)

    I’m currently overseas, but my US home is just to your south in Boca. And my brother lives in WPB…

  • Bernie R.

    Terry,

    Regarding your comment about the capitalization of religious left and religious right:

    I think this is a matter of intuition rather than visual appeal of the written word. Most religious people are conservatives, and most liberals are not religious. This is a matter that goes beyond affiliation and rosters to the very heart of what it means to be religious. To this end, whether Christian or not, it is more natural to label the religious as “right” rather than “left.” Further, I think that the religious right is more definable as an entity. Therefore the religious right is more deserving of proper noun status – and, therefore, capitalization.

    On an aside, my prayers are with you all in Florida. Based on forecasts last night at 8:00 p.m. I reserved a hotel room in Orlando (where, based upon this morning’s predictions, is immediately in the path of the storm – though far enough inland to be spared a storm surge) for my parents who live in St. Augustine. It just goes to show that the final path of a Hurricane is never a sure thing until it is over.

  • http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/natep/ Nate

    Actually, as an alum of the political science department at UC Berkeley (did half my PhD there), I can tell you that abortion discussions there are as spontaneous as anywhere in the culture. That is, they are not. Everyone lines up on his or her side of the issue, declaims the standard positions and rhetoric, and no one’s mind is changed or challenged. And since we knew it was pretty much a fruitless topic, we just didn’t discuss it. Which seems a better approach than in current political discourse.

  • http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/natep/ Nate

    I thought the “liberal” position was abortion in all cases, and the “moderate” position was the “safe, legal, and rare,” i.e. abortion isn’t a wonderful thing, but that it is a necessary evil in an imperfect world, espcially when we don’t take care of the babies very well after they are born.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    A few comments drawn from above:

    QUOTE: I thought the “liberal” position was abortion in all cases, and the “moderate” position was the “safe, legal, and rare,” i.e. abortion isn’t a wonderful thing, but that it is a necessary evil in an imperfect world….

    But this is a difference in attitude, not really in social policy. Someone like Bill Clinton, then, is a moderate. When in reality, in social policy, there has never been an abortion that he would not — politically — support. It is an abortion on demand policy, only stated with different words.

    Thus, in terms of our journalism, we still have not identified a “liberal” stance. If the Clintons are “moderates,” then who the heck is liberal on this issue? The government of CHINA?

    QUOTE: I think this is a matter of intuition rather than visual appeal of the written word. Most religious people are conservatives, and most liberals are not religious. This is a matter that goes beyond affiliation and rosters to the very heart of what it means to be religious.

    WHOA BABY! I totally disagree. I think the trend is toward more religion, not left. Most of the “anti-evangelical” voting bloc these days is not secular. It is a different form of religion. This is especially true in the world of Hollywood.

    The trend in media now is to say that there are good Christians and bad Christians and the journalists and movie producers get to say who is who. That IS NOT secularism!

  • yo

    Based on the polls, the moderate position on abortion is, strangely enough, Bush’s position: opposition to abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, in other words, opposition to about 95 percent of abortions. That’s what a plurality, or perhaps even an outright majority, of Americans think. The conservative position (mine and that of about 15 percent of Americans) is that direct abortion is always and everywhere murder and ought to be always and everywhere illegal. The liberal position is anything else. John Kerry’s position — abortion by any method, at any time, at taxpayer expense, without parental notification, moved into every mainstream hospital with little or nothing in the way of conscience clauses to protect health care providers who disagree, pushed with all America’s diplomatic and economic might into every corner of the world where it is not currently practiced — would be an example of extreme or radical, one with which virtually no normal American agrees, which is why you will never hear it accurately described by a sympathetic media.

    But those labels assume the objective criteria of basing the labels on what people actually think, as opposed to what people in newsrooms think.

    Regarding “Religious Right” versus “religious left,” perhaps a better comparison would be Religious Right versus Secular Left.

  • Bernie R.

    To clarify my comment …

    QUOTE: I think this is a matter of intuition rather than visual appeal of the written word. Most religious people are conservatives, and most liberals are not religious. This is a matter that goes beyond affiliation and rosters to the very heart of what it means to be religious.

    I agree with your reaction to my comment where religion is loosely defined. I imagine that labeling adherents to “traditional forms of religion” would have been more appropriate. Now, even this is open to interpretation, but I think that it holds true generally.

    Your mainline, new age, and generally “socio-economic social club” varieies of religion aren’t the group of religious adherents I was referencing.

  • Chip

    From a writing/editing perspective, I’d say that neither “religious right” nor “religious left” should ever be capitalized. The trend in style guides these days is toward less capitalization, not more, and there’s no reason to init cap those terms.

  • Fred

    Yo writes:

    “Based on the polls, the moderate position on abortion is, strangely enough, Bush’s position: opposition to abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, in other words, opposition to about 95 percent of abortions. That’s what a plurality, or perhaps even an outright majority, of Americans think.”

    Not true. The polling data shows that a majority of Americans favor a much broader right to abortion than simply rape, incest and life of the mother.

    There is some variation between individual polls. Results are sensitive to wording and to current events. But if you look at all the data, you find that most Americans support a pretty broad right to abortion.

    See, for example, http://www.pollingreport.com/abortion for summaries of 24 recent polls.

  • mcmlxix

    As far as the ‘secular left’ goes, I would assert that secularism, especially as its preferences are employed as a counterthrust to the preferences of religions in the public/political arena, should be treated as a religion would be within that arena. Sure, secularism isn’t definitively creedal (unless for example one considers certain planks within the DNC platform to be a creed) but it does contain a large body of shared premises, assumptions, and conclusions among its adherents. It is this wide assumability and many times unchallengeability that makes secularists more than verge on the dogmatic. This is regarding mainstream secularism; further down the rabbit hole, and more to the left exist ideologues formed by Marx, Gramsci, Chomsky, and even Dean and Nader etal. whose prejudices and politics are their religion. For talk of fanaticism and that pejorative term fundamentalist one needn’t look much further.

    More than this though, there definitely is a religious left that is every bit as definable and organized as any religious right has been understood to be in the popular wisdom. I have seen this religious left up close in several renegade (for lack of a better word) Catholic parishes and organizations, although I’m sure that this phenomenon transcends denominations/communions. The people in these groups are as convinced that their faith, and the positions that are formed by that faith, are as revealed from on High as is any traditional religionist. Certain commonalities among the lefties not surprisingly include aggressively pro homosexual, (2nd & 3rd wave) feminist, eco-spirituality, social engineering, and (sometimes in theory only) pacifist positions. Being pro abortion may likely but not always be included. Further, these groups are highly motivated, networked, organized, and active.

    Remember, the word religion comes from the Latin meaning ‘to bind’. Supernatural belief systems are not the only things that place bonds on people; ideologies (even atheistic), peer pressure, public policy, and civil law are more than up to that task.

  • Alfred Valstar

    It is always funny to read the word ‘liberal’ in American English. In Europe ‘liberal’ is a very different thing. Here in Europe (I am writing from The Netherlands) it is a political word. It is the very opposite of the political left. They are led in almost everything by economics. Being ‘right of the centre’, their closest allies in the U.S. are the…Republicans, as they have the same ecocomic doctrine of not interfering, let people sort things out for themselves as far as welfare and care are concerned. As a christian I find this often quite shocking. The interpretation of the L word is not the only difference between Europe and the US. I know many christians here who feel related to christians in America but would never vote for ‘W’.


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