Freak out II: Invoking the Founders

FoundersLike Garry Wills, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman expresses concern that George W. Bush and “Christian fundamentalists” (those increasingly inseparable and undefined words) are ultimately opposed to the Founding Fathers:

But what troubled me yesterday was my feeling that this election was tipped because of an outpouring of support for George Bush by people who don’t just favor different policies than I do — they favor a whole different kind of America. We don’t just disagree on what America should be doing; we disagree on what America is.

Is it a country that does not intrude into people’s sexual preferences and the marriage unions they want to make? Is it a country that allows a woman to have control over her body? Is it a country where the line between church and state bequeathed to us by our Founding Fathers should be inviolate? Is it a country where religion doesn’t trump science? And, most important, is it a country whose president mobilizes its deep moral energies to unite us — instead of dividing us from one another and from the world

Such a neat trick, framing your questions in a way that forces others to respond with a Scroogelike “No” or to explain how their view has been misrepresented. The same style of rhetorical questions can express the views of Christians who are cultural conservatives:

Is it a country that preserves its historic definition of marriage, just as it did in rejecting polygamy? Is it a country that protects human life? Is it a country that cherishes religious freedom, including free-speech rights? Is it a country that recognizes the importance of both religion and science?

Friedman makes a humorous point about our current cultural divisions:

This was not an election. This was station identification. I’d bet anything that if the election ballots hadn’t had the names Bush and Kerry on them but simply asked instead, “Do you watch Fox TV or read The New York Times?” the Electoral College would have broken the exact same way.

If it’s any comfort, it’s actually possible for a Christian to be conservative, vote for Bush and prefer MSNBC and The Atlantic to Fox News Channel and The New York Times.

Friedman makes his strongest point, I think, in this paragraph:

My problem with the Christian fundamentalists supporting Mr. Bush is not their spiritual energy or the fact that I am of a different faith. It is the way in which he and they have used that religious energy to promote divisions and intolerance at home and abroad. I respect that moral energy, but wish that Democrats could find a way to tap it for different ends.

I think Friedman misconstrues conservative Christians if he believes their goal is to “promote divisions and intolerance.” But I agree with his wish that Democrats would find a way to tap spiritual and moral energy for their ends (Jim Wallis and Sojourners did their part to help the Democrats this year, but to little avail). That would make for a more competitive campaign, and rewarding discussion, in the next presidential campaign.

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  • http://molly.douthett.net Molly

    “I think Friedman misconstrues conservative Christians if he believes their goal is to “promote divisions and intolerance.”

    What is the aim, then? Please be concise.

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/weblog.htm Joe Perez

    Douglas: You said, “I think Friedman misconstrues conservative Christians if he believes their goal is to ‘promote divisions and intolerance.’” Friedman is dead right about the IMPACT of conservative Christians. (He didn’t say that their GOAL was division and intolerance.) You are dead right about their (delusional) good intentions and self-image. But then you know what they say about good intentions.

    I’ve seldom met a bigot or hate-monger who actually believes that they are bad people; most have perfectly fine and delusional self-images that allow them to live with themselves and sleep at night. Many of the right-wing religionists who voted for Bush and anti-gay amendments fall into the category of overt bigots, in my opinion, but not all do. Many others simply affirm a bigoted ideology that allows them to rest in a content self-image while sleeping soundly at night.

    I agree both you and Friedman on the urgent need to marry liberalism and spirituality. However, only Friedman seems non-delusional on both the INTENTIONS and the IMPACT of the right-wing Christian zealots.

  • http://www.philocrites.com Chris Walton (Philocrites)

    I’d beg to differ with one observation – that Sojourners had little impact this year. If you mean that pollsters couldn’t detect large numbers of Sojourners-style Evangelicals voting for Kerry, I’d say that the pollsters probably don’t ask questions that would have identified them. If you mean, however, that Sojourners didn’t play a role in helping to shape how the Democratic Party campaigned this year, I’d disagree. I think the Kerry campaign did finally hear Jim Wallis, Amy Sullivan, and others who pleaded with the Democrats not to ignore Christian Democrats. Too little, too late? Maybe.

    One very small bit of anecdotal evidence: The traffic on my Web site (dedicated to commentary on “liberal religion and politics”) surged after Kerry’s address in Fort Lauderdale about the way his public service has been rooted in his faith. Almost all of the new traffic came through Google searches for “Christians for Kerry.” It would have been good for Kerry if that surge in traffic had come several months ago – not because anything on my site is especially good, but because people would have been having this conversation, and refining their prejudgments, a bit earlier than November 3.

    I rather strongly suspect that Sojourners is enjoying a circulation boom. After the Democrats finish beating each other up over what cost them the election, I think Jim Wallis, Amy Sullivan, et al., will come out quite a bit ahead of the “damn the Christians” crowd. I certainly hope so.

  • http://chesterjiggles.blogspot.com/ Paul Barnes

    Mr Perez:

    I am noticing a trend among both liberals and conservatives that demonizes the other. When I hear the term “right wing religionists”, Fundamentalist and bigot is rarely far behind.

    I suggest that everyone, instead of labelling people, actually talk to them. Learn about them and love them.

    Then again, this is from an oppresive heterosexual white Catholic male perceptive. Not sure what it is worth to you.

  • ken53

    If democrats follow this misguided advice to bring religion into politics their success at the polls will only come about by employing the same tactics the republicans use.They will have to find some divisive moral issue to use against conseratives in general and thrash them with it relentlessly. Democrats will need to scare religious people into believing a vote for a conservitive, ie republican, is a vote for immorality.

    What really amazes me is that religious people are so gullible to this tactic. But since it has proven successful and so many religious people are advising the democrats to employ it I really feel sorry for the future state of religion in America.

  • http://www.clientandserver.com dw

    I don’t know anyone who is arguing that the Dems bring religion into politics. I think what we are trying to say is that the Dems have lost their ability to communicate with the religious communities in this country, and that may become their downfall.

  • ken54

    dw, but it comes to the same thing.

    If you think the problems is that the “Dems have lost their ability to communicate with the religious communities in this country” it follows that the solution for the dems is use religious values in their campaign the same way republicans do. Right?

    I know it can’t be the same divisive religious values republicans use, but surely they can find some divisive religious values of their own to use against conservatives.

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Molly writes:

    {“I think Friedman misconstrues conservative Christians if he believes their goal is to “promote divisions and intolerance.”

    What is the aim, then? Please be concise.}

    To be good citizens and to elect public officials who best reflect what they believe government should do.

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Dear Chris,

    In referring to Sojourners’ efforts being of little avail, I was thinking of how long it took the Kerry campaign to respond to the advice from Jim Wallis, and to Kerry’s defeat — especially in light of Wallis’ expressed hope that religious centrists could the decisive factor in this election.

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Thanks for your note, Joe. To my mind, the clause “used that religious energy to promote divisions and intolerance” implied not just effect but intent.

    I’m happy to leave it to you and others to reach conclusions on whether I am delusional.

  • http://www.clientandserver.com dw

    Ken-of-the-increasing-number:

    I get the sense you like your politics in the Capitol and your religion in church. You probably drink your coffee black because you refuse to let milk and sugar mingle with it.

    ‘If you think the problems is that the “Dems have lost their ability to communicate with the religious communities in this country” it follows that the solution for the dems is use religious values in their campaign the same way republicans do. Right?’

    Wrong. The solution is for the Dems to understand where their values are congruent with faith and where they clash. The solution is for the Dems to understand how to communicate their values clearly and cogently to the religious community in language they understand.

    The difference I’m arguing is that there are, right now, values within the Weltanshauung of the Democratic party that run parallel to Christian values. Equality, for instance. First Amendment freedoms. Care for the poor. But the Dems have failed to communicate these effectively. The GOP, OTOH, has changed their values to match tack with evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. Classical Republicanism is individualist and believes the government should stay out of household moral issues.

    It’s not about fighting another Crusade. It’s about being able to communicate your values to the public.

  • Paul Lucas

    I love Wills comments equating abortion rights and gay marriage with the vision the Founding Fathers had for America.

    The U.S. had plently of laws restricting abortion until Roe v. Wad in 1973. And gay marriage was not recognized in any state until the recent Massachusetts supreme court ruling. According to the description provided by Wills, there really wasn’t a United States until the 1970s (if then).

    And if gays want to have some “marriage” ceremony there is nothing in any state that would prevent them. But the true goal of the “same-sex marriage” effort is to further hasten the homosexualization of heterosexuality by erasing society’s distinction between commited marriage, cohabitation, and anonymous sex.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Well, I don’t know– I think mostly it’s time for the Democrats to get that “teacher” tone out of their voices.

    Speaking of ghosts, isn’t there a social class ghost hidden in the juxtaposition between Fox News and the NYT? Hmmmm…. And while we’re at it, don’t all of our three columnists have a class problem with religion?

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/weblog.htm Joe Perez

    Paul Barnes -

    You said, “When I hear the term “right wing religionists”, Fundamentalist and bigot is rarely far behind.”

    Your comments aren’t worth much to me. What would be helpful is another term that I could substitute that you feel would be less offensive.

    Religionist means “a person adhering to a religion.” The terms “conservative” or “right wing” are actually accepted by the members of the group. I think the term “conservative religionist” is a good one. And it specifically avoids Mattingly and LeBlanc’s tiresome rantings about Fundamentalism.

  • Harris

    What is the aim, then? Please be concise.}

    To be good citizens and to elect public officials who best reflect what they believe government should do.

    This answer would square with a civic Americanism, but is that what has happened? It seems that the Evangelicals have come to a Constantinian moment: do they go forward and grasp power, or do they reassess their position, adopting something like a “servant” model, one less politicized? The former path is the one that concerns Friedman, not least because the face of poltical evangelicalism in the persons of Rep. DeLay, Attorney General Ashcroft and the President is one seen as (at best) single-minded, and often intolerant.

    Moreover, theirs is a moment built not on the rock of Gospel conviction, but on something less: a concern for protecting the Family (_pace_ Jeff Sharlett’s view that it was homophobia). This is the moral issue that drove the turnout. But family and home are cultural constructs, derivatives of the Gospel, not its substance. So the very motivation of Evangelicals carries the seed of idolatry, to look at and protect the cultural expression; theologically, it is a turning of the gaze away from God.

    Looking to our own interests through the means of state, lies in tension with the Gospel teaching of servanthood and laying down one’s life. Needless to say the pursuit of one’s own interests does carry a certain exclusionary aspect, one that can all too easily promote division.

    So, in the present Constantinian moment, the Evangelicals face the temptation to advance their voice through the means of one party’s agenda. To do so however necessarily involves commitment to that party’s agenda in other areas. Thus, the Gospel (and its evangelical adherents) becomes unequally yoked: power comes at the price of religious impact; politics becomes a skandalon (a stumbling block).

    At risk is the cause of the Gospel. In becoming identified with only one party or one agenda, the Evangelical church risks muffling its voice. What does it matter that it gain political power if it loses its ability to speak to half the country?

  • http://chesterjiggles.blogspot.com/ Paul Barnes

    Mr. Perez

    But, you did not use conservative religionists. You used right-wing with the association of them as bigots. Your posts lose their argument when you resort to demonizing your opponents. I just wanted to inform you that it goes directly to the amount of respect others will show you, especially when they disagree with them.

  • http://molly.douthett.net Molly

    “To be good citizens and to elect public officials who best reflect what they believe government should do.”

    I don’t know you well enough to know if you are mocking me, answering me, or just blowing me off.

    You have come no closer to the second than when you began and I am highly suseptible to hints that you are doing the first or the third.

    Will you please do me the courtesy of answering my question with details?

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Molly writes:

    {Will you please do me the courtesy of answering my question with details?}

    I was trying to honor your original request that I answer your question concisely, and I intended no mockery.

    I consider it impossible to speak of a monolithic goal shared by conservative Christians who participate in public life.

    To answer your question further, I would cite the series of rhetorical questions I posed in response to Friedman’s rhetorical questions. I think my questions reflect some of the assumptions that many conservative Christians make when they become involved in politics.

    Otherwise, I have no special insight into the interior lives of the conservative Christians involved in politics. I expect their motives and goals are just as complicated and diverse as those of liberal Christians and people of other faiths.

  • http://anklebiter.net/log brian

    I believe that conservative Christians have truly missed the boat when it comes to their perspective on homosexuality. Yes, homosexuality is a sin, biblically. But typically it is defined as sin with a laundry list of other offences (dishonesty, drunkeness, adultery, etc), yet thanks to the leadership of the religious, Christians see homosexuality as some sort of bogeyman that is greater than all other sins combined. Why aren’t conservative Christians pushing for an amendment to outlaw fornication? It’s in that laundry list too. What about bringing back prohibition?

    Christians have to realize that bringing their faith to the public square means butting heads with nothing less than our Constitution. The two are sadly incompatible. As someone pointed out, perhaps it’s time for the rest of us (us being Christians who aren’t tied to the conservative politics of the right, yet still believe in a culture of life) to find a different a way of showing Christ to the world. Or perhaps we do “politicize” ourselves a mobilize a third party to capture those who can’t stomach the intolerance of the right _and_ the intolerance of the left.

  • Molly

    Or perhaps we do “politicize” ourselves a mobilize a third party to capture those who can’t stomach the intolerance of the right _and_ the intolerance of the left.

    Let’s do it, Brian!

    Thank you for further fleshing out your response, Doug. I apologize for reacting poorly. It’s time to shut off the machines and go outside.

  • Rong

    Brian – while you make a very good point you miss the fact that gays have an agenda that they are shoving down everyones throat. I don’t see the fornicators and the drunks proudly displaying bumper stickers on their cars or waving flags at rallies asking for the same rights that married couples currently have.

    I don’t put sin on some hierarchical rating scale but if you start marching around wanting your sin to have legal status, it will certainly rise to the forefront of the list.

  • Zippy

    I don’t see what is wrong with promoting division and intolerance, per se. Division and intolerance are neutral concepts, as are unity and tolerance. Whether they are good or not in a particular case depends on what in particular we are dividing or uniting, what in particular we are tolerating or refusing to tolerate.

    The notion that “division and intolerance” are bad things in themselves, irrespective of what we are dividing or refusing to tolerate, is the height of modern intellectual silliness.

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