[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
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
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%
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
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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