Freak out IV: It's Time to Get Religion

I think we can expect the New York Times op-ed page to continue its high-wire routine for quite some time to come, trying to find the balance between fury, denial and insight when it comes to the pew gap. More on that in a minute.

Meanwhile, some of the reporters are going about their business. In particular, Laurie Goodstein and William Yardley offered up a wide-ranging summary of how the GOP soul train targeted believers in a number of different spiritual camps. Honest, that’s what they said. Right there in the Times, under a headline that said, "Bush Benefits From Efforts to Build a Coalition of the Faithful." Here’s a sample:

For the past four years, Mr. Bush has been deliberately assembling the building blocks of a formidable faith coalition. Pastor by pastor, rabbi by rabbi, and often face to face, Mr. Bush has built relationships with a  diverse range of religious leaders.

The payoff came on Tuesday. For all the credit claimed by evangelical Christians, Mr. Bush owes his victory to a formula that includes conservative Catholics, mainline Protestants, Hispanics, Jews and Mormons.

The president’s strategists set out to improve his showing among not just evangelicals, but also Catholics, Jews, Hispanics and African-Americans by appealing to the social conservatives in each of those groups who felt alienated and disrespected by a popular culture that in their minds trivializes religion. In all of those groups, he won more of them over than he did four years ago, although the increase among African-Americans was negligible.

That last line is certainly true. But some have already dug out the statistics showing that some of those new African-American voters for Bush cast their votes in Ohio, in part drawn to the polls by that state’s resolution on the definition of marriage. Location, location, location, as they say. Some of Bush’s best Catholic statistics were in Ohio, too.

And so forth and so on. The Hispanic numbers were significant and, in a matter of days, you can expect and entertainment writer or two, perhaps on the front page of the Times art section, to start calling this the "Passion" vote. It could happen. Wouldn’t that be Rich?

Goodstein and Yardley also noted a small, but again strategic change, in Jewish voting patterns. Note that this breakthrough took place on the orthodox — large or small "o" — side of the religious spectrum.

The Jewish vote is small — 3 percent of the electorate. But after focusing attention on Jews in swing states like Florida, Ohio, Missouri and, when it looked competitive, New Jersey, the president increased his share of the Jewish vote from 19 percent in 2000 to 25 percent this year. Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, found that more than two-thirds of Orthodox Jews voted for the president.

"What this suggests is that the Bush coalition wasn’t just evangelicals," said John C. Green, a professor of political science and director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "It included a much larger group of more traditional religious people, many of them outside of the evangelical tradition. What they have in common is that all of these groups tend to hold traditional views on sexual behavior."

And there you have it. We’re back to the 10 Commandments vote, the Americans who are convinced that there are eternal, transcendent moral truths that unite traditional religious believers in a host of different flocks — not just those who preach fiery sermons on street corners in backward Alabama towns with snakes draped around their necks.

Numerous readers have, in recent days, left comments that there is more to biblical morality than centuries of unbroken doctrine on marriage and family. These readers are correct, of course. There are a sizable number of voters out there who are Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, evangelical and even mainline Protestant who do not want to separate questions such as abortion and the definition of marriage from issues of economic justice, the environment, peace and other "progressive" issues. These voters do not see this as an either-or proposition. They would prefer both-and.

It also must be noted that, shortly before the Democratic Convention, Zogby pollsters said that 43 percent of Democrats wanted to see abortion banned, to one degree or another. One of the reasons that the Kerry campaign bailed out of Missouri was the strong turnout of Democratic voters for the marriage amendment during that state’s primary.

So this vague "values voter" firestorm is hiding a much more complex story. Right now, I think more attention needs to be given to the religious left and, in particular, the compromises that religious liberals and secularists might be willing to make — in any — on these cultural issues.

This will be framed as a matter of the Democratic Party finding "centrists" or "conservatives" to run for president and the senate.

However, I was struck by the headline on the latest column from Nicholas D. Kristof: "Time to Get Religion." Why, we could not have said that better on the mast of this blog. He notes that Democrats are, well, angry at the moment and they will be tempted to lash out.

… (The) risk is that the party will blame others for its failures – or, worse, blame the American people for their stupidity (as London’s Daily Mirror screamed in a Page 1 headline this week: "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?").

As moderates from the heartland, like Tom Daschle, are picked off by the Republicans, the party’s image risks being defined even more by bicoastal, tree-hugging, gun-banning, French-speaking, Bordeau-sipping, Times-toting liberals, whose solution is to veer left and galvanize the base. But firing up the base means turning off swing voters. Gov. Mike Johanns, a Nebraska Republican, told me that each time Michael Moore spoke up for John Kerry, Mr. Kerry’s support in Nebraska took a dive. …

So Democrats need to give a more prominent voice to Middle American, wheat-hugging, gun-shooting, Spanish-speaking, beer-guzzling, Bible-toting centrists. (They can tote The Times, too, in a plain brown wrapper.)

Kristof even says that it is time to consider some compromises with red-county America. However, he does not even mention the hot-button issues on the moral and cultural right. The people on the op-ed page need to calm down and read some of the copy that is flowing out of their own newsroom.

The Times needs to get religion, too. That means getting liberal religion, centrist religion and orthodox religion. The sane voices are out there, if the Times wants to find them.

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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.

  • Kathleen

    “Gov. Mike Johanns, a Nebraska Republican, told me that each time Michael Moore spoke up for John Kerry, Mr. Kerry’s support in Nebraska took a dive. …”

    Well, that quote just made my day.

    It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out. I’ve seen some in the democrat party talking about how we need to find a common language with which to dialogue about the values issues so we can begin to come together as a nation (and of course the dems can win back the moderates).

    What I see though that maybe is not being acknowledged by the NYT other than in the “Hey you stupid relgious dolt” pieces is the acknowledgment that for many of the religious right of many different religions, the issues of the judciary writing law and not interpreting it, and the issue of abortion are not issues that the RR believe can be compromised on. And given the people who are in control of the democratic machine I can’t see them compromising either.

    Hannity and Colmes interviewed Patricia Ireland the other night and Hannity asked her if she would support the democrat party if they compromised on abortion and gay marriage for political expediency. She said no she would not be able to support them with any compromise at all.

    I also find it interesting that with many on talk radio, esp. the Catholic hosts, before this election they would often state that although their beliefs were in line with the Church on social issues, that unless we defeat terrorism we can’t even deal with those issues. In other words those were not issues to be on the top of the republican platform. It seemed to me they were concerned with driving moderates away. It will be interesting to see the angle that the talk radio shows take now.

    It will also be interesting to see what the MSM does. The arguments they have been advancing are clearly not working.

    Love this blog.

  • Margot

    We need people to speak up for us. We need to build the kind of alliances with church groups we used to have in the 60s, with the Civil Rights movement. Where are the voices now of the Religious Left? I am yearning to hear them…and all I hear is sound and fury, signifying nothing, coming from the right wing. I’m just so sick of it. It is abhorrent to me, this group of stinking Pharisees.

  • Kathleen


    With respect, I’m curious to hear what about the right wing is scary. I say that with complete respect. This is because most who voted republican that I know who are serious about their faith have two issues that are paramount the first more than the second. Abortion and same sex marriage being written into law by courts. No one I know is yearning for legislated or court imposed theocracy.

    I ask this in a genuine way. What is it that the religious left is scared of or thinks the right doesn’t care about?

    I’m certain there are sterotypes on both sides. I don’t believe that the editorials that paint the orthodox Catholics (to give a personal example) represent the mainstream attitude of those on the RL about the RR. What these editorials don’t do is tell us what the RL wants and what the logical reasoning for it is.

    Knowing what the issues between the religious left and right are, on the ground, and encouraging debate about them would be 100% more useful than reading the pundits. At least that’s what I think. I’m sick of the spin.

  • Franklin

    The independent left has some insightful things to say about relgion, the moral vote, and John Kerry’s “progressive” values over at CounterPunch, via Alexander Cockburn.

    One particular gem:

    “Even though the highest reading on any chart of Intolerance is that nourished towards Christians by secular liberals (after all, Christians believe in forgiveness and the possibility of redemption) I suppose we’ll have to put up with much earnest journalism from sensitive liberal writers driving into the Christian heartland to inspect and commune with the natives. I read one patronizing prospectus from a Californian free-lancer that sounded like an application by an anthropologist in 1925 for funding to inspect an African tribe.”

  • Charlie

    The truth is that, Patricia Ireland’s apparent unwillingness to compromise notwithstanding, the Democrats could pick off a great number of orthodox conservatives if they came out strongly in favor of a few compromises on abortion, such as a uniform standard for parental notification for minors, a short waiting period, and a serious educational effort aimed at reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, done in a way that is respectful of Catholic views on contraception. In doing these things, Dems would be moving the abortion wars to a more acceptable middle ground, and the radical left like Ireland would have no choice but to continue to support the Democrats — where else would they go? To the Republicans?!

    If the Dems could manage to stop insulting people of faith, and could take a few steps towards the center on moral issues like abortion, marriage, the Pledge, embryonic stem cells, Israel, they might be able to claim to be the party that is seeking balance in a pluralistic society, leaving the Republicans to appear to be the party of the extremes. But such compromises would infuriate the hard left, and would probably take more moral courage than the Democrats are able to muster.

    As a life-long Democrat who long-ago abandoned my party because of its positions on abortion and other “respect for life” issues, I am still not comfortable with the Republican positions on capital punishment, health care for the poor and other social justice matters. If the Democrats were smarter, they could entice people like me back into the fold.

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