[Paleopsych] Economist: American values: The triumph of the religious right

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American values: The triumph of the religious right
Nov 11th 2004 | WASHINGTON,DC

    It may look like that, but liberals should think again before

    IN A novel, set in the 1960s, by John Kennedy Toole, "A Confederacy of
    Dunces", the hero, Ignatius Reilly, goes to a gay party to drum up
    political support.

      In the centre of another knot [of guests] stood a lout in a black
      leather jacket who was teaching judo holds, to the great delight of
      his epicene students. "Oh, do teach me that," someone near the
      wrestler screamed after an elegant guest had been twisted into an
      obscene position and then thrown to the floor to land with a crash
      of cuff-links and other, assorted jewelry. "Good gracious,"
      Ignatius spluttered. "I can see that we're going to have a great
      deal of trouble capturing the conservative rural red-neck Calvinist

    Now, it seems, the conservative rural red-neck Calvinist vote has
    captured America. A plurality of voters, emerging from poll booths,
    said that the most important issue in the campaign had been "moral
    values". It was not, it seemed, Iraq or the economy. And eight out of
    ten of these moralists voted for George Bush.

    The thought that the anti-gay, anti-abortion Christian right had
    decided the election dismayed left-wing Americans. Garry Wills in the
    New York Times suggested that a fundamentalist Christian revival was
    in revolt against the traditions of the Enlightenment, on which the
    country is based. "I hope we all realise that, as of November 2nd, gay
    rights are officially dead. And that from here on we are going to be
    led even closer to the guillotine," said Larry Kramer, a playwright
    and AIDS activist.

    Secular Europeans wondered whether they and the Americans were now on
    different planets. The week before the election, Rocco Buttiglione had
    been forced to withdraw his nomination as a European Union
    commissioner because he had said that homosexuality was a sin, and
    that marriage exists for children and the protection of women. In
    America, he would probably have won Ohio.

    Der Spiegel, Germany's most popular newsweekly, put the statue of
    liberty on its cover, blindfolded by an American flag. Britain's Daily
    Mirror asked, "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?" And a
    contributor to Pravda, that bastion of religious expertise, claimed
    that "the Christian fundamentalists of America are the mirror image of
    the Taliban, both of which insult and deny their Gods."

    Hang on a moment. It is perfectly true that one of America's most
    overtly religious presidents of recent times has been re-elected with
    an increased majority. It is also true that 13 states this year passed
    state referendums banning gay marriage--in most cases by larger
    majorities than Mr Bush managed--and that a plurality of American
    voters put "moral values" at the top of their list of concerns.

    A moral majority? Not really

    But they hardly formed a moral majority. Look at the figures: the
    moralists' share of the electorate was only 22%, just two points more
    than the share of those who cited the economy, and three points more
    than those who nominated terrorism as the top priority. A few points
    difference (and the exit polls are, after all, not entirely reliable)
    and everyone would have been saying the election was about jobs or

    Moreover, that 22% share is much lower than it was in the two previous
    presidential elections, in 2000 and 1996. Then, 35% and 40%,
    respectively, put moral or ethical issues top, and a further 14% and
    9% put abortion first, an option that was not given in 2004. Thus, in
    those two elections, about half the electorate said they voted on
    moral matters; this time, only a fifth did.

    Of course, in those previous elections there was no war on terrorism,
    nor had there just been a recession. So one could argue that it was
    remarkable that even a fifth of voters were still concerned about
    moral matters when so many other big issues were at stake. Maybe, but
    all that this means is that the war on terrorism has not fundamentally
    altered, or made irrelevant, the cultural, moral and religious
    divisions that have polarised America for so long.

    A church-going land

    It is also important to judge the religious-moral vote against the
    background of American religiosity in general. America is
    traditionally much more religious than any European country, with 80%
    of Americans saying they believe in God and 60% agreeing that
    "religion plays an important part in my life".

    What may be changing is that the country is getting a little more
    intense in its religious beliefs. Also, and this could be more
    important, it is becoming more willing to tolerate religious
    involvement in the public sphere. A study by the Pew Research Centre
    reported that the number of those who "agree strongly" with core items
    of Christian dogma rose substantially between 1965 and 2003. So did
    the number of those who believe that there are clear guidelines about
    good and evil, and that these guidelines apply regardless of
    circumstances. Gallup polls in the 1960s found that over half of all
    Americans thought that churches should not be involved in politics.
    Now, over half think that they can be.

    At the same time, alongside all these signs of more intense
    religiosity, there are indications of mellowing and tolerance. Support
    for interracial dating has virtually doubled since 1987;
    discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS has become socially
    unacceptable; tolerance for gays in public life has risen by
    half--though gay marriage is still seen as a totally different matter.
    Americans may be holding tenaciously to a strict view of personal
    morality, but they say that they do not want to impose their views on
    others (abortion seems to be the big exception).

    The fact that there was a substantial religious-moral vote is not by
    itself evidence of a political breakthrough by religious
    conservatives. Nor is it necessarily a sign of growing intolerance.
    The real question is whether there was anything new about what
    happened last week that might pave the way for such things to happen
    in the future. The answer is yes, though not quite in the way you
    might expect.

    In 2000, 15m evangelical Protestants voted. They accounted for 23% of
    the electorate, and 71% of them voted for Mr Bush. This time,
    estimates Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum on Religion and
    Public Life, they again accounted for about 23% of the
    electorate--which means that evangelicals did not increase their share
    of the vote. But overall turnout was much higher, and 78% of the
    evangelicals who voted, voted for Mr Bush. That works out at roughly
    3.5m extra votes for him. Mr Bush's total vote rose by 9m (from 50.5m
    in 2000 to 59.5m), so evangelical Protestants alone accounted for more
    than a third of his increased vote.

    In close association

    Thus, the election revealed that though the evangelical share of the
    electorate has not increased, evangelicals have become much more
    important to the Republican Party. According to a study for the Pew
    Forum by John Green of the University of Akron, Ohio, the proportion
    of evangelicals calling themselves Republicans has risen from 48% to
    56% over the past 12 years, making them among the most solid segments
    of the party's base.

    This close association between party and evangelicals took a lock-step
    forward during the campaign. Mr Bush's chief policy adviser and
    campaign chairman held weekly telephone conversations with prominent
    evangelical Christians, such as Jim Dobson, the head of Focus on the
    Family, and the Rev Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.
    Ralph Reed, formerly the executive director of the Christian
    Coalition, became the campaign's regional co-ordinator for the
    south-east--a move that encapsulates the integration of evangelical
    voters into the party.

    Hitherto, evangelical Protestants have been the objects of Republican
    outreach. This time, they took the initiative themselves, asking for
    and distributing voter registration cards and collecting the
    signatures required to put anti-gay-marriage initiatives on the
    ballot. As the church organisers tell it, the Republican Party was
    left playing catch-up.

    A leaderless lot

    The campaign also revealed how decentralised the evangelical movement
    is. There are respected figures, of course, such as Mr Dobson, and
    there are self-appointed prophets, such as Pat Robertson. But these
    people have no official institutional standing, and only limited moral
    authority. The evangelical involvement in politics was largely the
    product of grass-roots organising and bottom-up effort. As we will
    see, this could have implications for how much of their agenda is
    adopted in practice.

    Remember, too, that the religious right and religious America are far
    from being the same things; Mr Bush's moral majority depended on the
    votes of other religious groups as well. Catholics, with 27% of
    voters, are more numerous than evangelicals, and, unusually this year,
    the Republican candidate won a majority of the Catholic vote (52%
    against 47%).

    Though Mr Bush did especially well among white Catholics and those who
    attended Mass regularly, he also increased his share of the Hispanic
    Catholic vote from 31% in 2000 to 42%. This alone accounts for the
    inroads he made into the Hispanic vote, which has traditionally gone
    to Democrats by two to one. In all, calculates Mr Lugo, 3.5m more
    Catholics voted for Mr Bush in 2004 than in 2000. Thus, they were as
    important to his increased majority as evangelical Protestants were.

    This points to another new development. The election seems to have
    consolidated the tendency of the most observant members of any church,
    regardless of denomination, to vote Republican. During the campaign, a
    debate erupted among Catholics over John Kerry's support for abortion
    rights. Orthodox Catholics condemned his stance and one bishop even
    said he would deny the candidate communion (as a Catholic himself, Mr
    Kerry opposed abortion, but did not back anti-abortion laws).
    "Progressive" Catholics defended him, but the election returns suggest
    that the orthodox position won out. That seems characteristic of all

    Mr Green subdivides each church into three groups (see table):
    traditionalists, centrists and modernists, according to the intensity
    of belief. Traditionalists believe in church doctrine and go to church
    once a week or more; modernists are more relaxed. The three most
    Republican groups are traditionalist evangelicals, traditionalist
    mainline Protestants and traditionalist Catholics. Modernists lean
    towards the Democrats.

    The election returns are consistent with this: people who go to church
    once a week or more voted for Mr Bush by nearly two to one. This seems
    to supersede the historical pattern, whereby evangelicals have tended
    to vote Republican, Catholics Democratic and mainline Protestants
    (Lutherans, Methodists) have split their vote.

    The implication of these findings is that Mr Bush's moral majority is
    not, as is often thought, just a bunch of right-wing evangelical
    Christians. Rather, it consists of traditionalist and observant
    church-goers of every kind: Catholic and mainline Protestant, as well
    as evangelicals, Mormons, Sign Followers, you name it. Meanwhile,
    modernist evangelicals (yes, there are a few) tend to be Democratic.

    What happens next?

    The big question for the next four years is what the traditionalist
    constituency will demand of Mr Bush, and whether he will give it what
    it wants.

    Already, self-appointed church leaders are queuing up to claim credit
    for the election victory and to insist on a bigger role in government.
    Mr Dobson told ABC's "This Week" programme that "this president has
    two years, or more broadly the Republican Party has two years, to
    implement those policies, or certainly four, or I believe they'll pay
    a price in the next election."

    There is no shortage of politicians, holding some of the more extreme
    views of the Christian right, who can be counted on to back the church
    leaders to the hilt. Tom Coburn, the new senator from Oklahoma, has
    called not just for outlawing abortion but for the death penalty for
    doctors who break such a law. Another new senator, John Thune of South
    Dakota, is a creationist. A third, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, has
    said single mothers should not teach in schools. Evangelicals are
    already bringing test cases to ensure that school textbooks include
    creationism and censor gay marriage.

    Such local efforts have been common for years. What now matter are the
    country-wide political views of Mr Bush's traditionalist constituency.
    On the face of it, these Bush-leaning traditionalists come from
    central casting: conservative politically, rigid religiously, willing
    to mix up church and state. According to Mr Green's survey, nine out
    of ten of them say that the president should have strong religious
    beliefs, and two-thirds of them also believe that religious groups
    should involve themselves in politics.

    Yet the picture is more complicated than this makes it sound. For
    instance, in all the religious groups substantial majorities agree
    that the disadvantaged need government help "to obtain their rightful
    place in America".

    All favour increasing anti-poverty programmes, even if it means higher
    taxes. All support stricter environmental regulation. Large majorities
    say that America should give a high priority to fighting HIV/AIDS
    abroad. Religious conservatives have been among the strongest backers
    of intervening in Sudan and increasing AIDS spending in poor
    countries. If the Bush administration wanted to, it could find plenty
    of religious support for increased welfare programmes, tougher
    environmental standards and more foreign aid.

    The differences between the religious groups are equally striking. The
    Protestant traditionalists favour less government spending. But all
    the Catholics--traditionalist, mainline and modernist alike--favour

    Traditionalist evangelicals are usually the odd men out. Fully 81% of
    them say that religion is important to their political thinking--far
    more than any other group. They are the only ones to rate cultural
    issues as more important than economic or foreign-policy ones. They
    are the most opposed to abortion (though 52% say it should be legal in
    some circumstances) and the most opposed to gay marriage (though 36%
    say they support gay rights). They also hold highly distinctive
    foreign-policy views: seven in ten say America has a special role in
    the world and two-thirds think America should support Israel in its
    conflict with the Palestinians.

    He need not be trapped

    Will the new importance of the traditionalist evangelical vote succeed
    in driving the president in the direction that many of these voters
    want? Not necessarily. The variety of conservative religious opinion
    means that Mr Bush need not be trapped by one important wing of his
    religious base, even if he will certainly not want to neglect it.

    For example, the evangelicals' Zionist views are offset by the more
    even-handed positions of Catholics and mainline Protestants, implying
    that the president could try to restart the Middle East peace process
    without risking the wrath of his whole religious constituency. And
    because the evangelical churches are decentralised, and somewhat
    leaderless at the national level, it will be hard for any populist to
    mobilise them against a president they like and respect.

    Attempts to ram conservative social policies into law look inevitable.
    They include the federal amendment banning gay marriage, though this
    is an uphill struggle that failed by 19 votes in the Senate last time
    round. Moreover, on the eve of the election, Mr Bush came out in
    favour of civil unions, which more than half the population, including
    many religious conservatives, favour. They also include extending a
    ban on "partial-birth abortion" to cover all third-trimester
    abortions, and, most important, appointing conservative judges to any
    Supreme Court vacancies.

    This week there was a sign of what may be to come when Republicans
    threatened to strip Senator Arlen Specter of the chairmanship of the
    committee that oversees Supreme Court nominations after he said that
    staunch opponents of abortion were unlikely to be confirmed.

    For opponents of Mr Bush, and also for many socially liberal
    Republicans, the election results and the trumpeted evangelical
    ambitions point to a big reversal: the victory of aggressive social
    conservatism over the small-government tradition in which morality is
    not legislated. It could, indeed, turn out to be something like this,
    but it need not. The wide variety of different opinions held by Mr
    Bush's religious supporters give the president, and his new
    administration, a lot of leeway, if they choose to look for it.

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