Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Does the Left understand the faithful?

Guest post by Peter Henne

Peter S. Henne is a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. This is his third guest post at The Reaction. In April, he posted on "the lessons of Sri Lanka." In August, he posted on "avoiding defeat in Afghanistan."


As the Supreme Court took up Salazar v. Buono last week, deciding the fate of a cross on public land, I was put in an awkward position. Once again, I squirm at the unrestrained histrionics of both sides, sinking into my chair as I did during heated debates in my religion classes in college. The reason for my discomfort? I am that rare creature, distrusted yet patronized by both sides of the culture wars: a Christian with leanings towards Biblical inerrancy who is also an unabashed progressive.

The case is the banal, tedious type that excites law students and bores the rest of us. It involves a religious symbol placed on public land, with complex reasoning and politics behind it. What upsets me is not the case itself, but the predictable nature of it all. The Left attacks a public display of religion and the Right defends America's Christian origins. Meanwhile, a great number of Christians dedicated to their beliefs but progressive in their political views -- including myself -- squirm uncomfortably, unhappy with the hijacking of their faith by the Right and having to defend their religion from apparent assaults by the Left.

Progressive Christians will never whole-heartedly embrace Democrats as long we feel the need to justify our faith during waves of Left-Right tensions over religious symbols. While a vocal minority of evangelical Christians are "values-voters" -- basing their political decisions primarily on single value-driven issues -- most Christians are faithful voters. We vote based on our entire set of beliefs, supporting the candidate who appears to share and understand our faith. Even though certain values held by Christians are incommensurate with the GOP agenda, the GOP will continue to gain votes as long as they seem the more "faithful" of the two parties.

Democrats have long had a problem appealing to the faithful. Despite John Kerry's Catholicism and some attempts to gain Christian, Bush handily beat Kerry among almost all Christians in 2004. This is because Democrats believed they could rely on appeals to certain issues expected to resonate with Christian voters. Meanwhile, voices on the Left critical of a public role for Christianity caused Christians to perceive a general progressive hostility towards their faith. This limited the effectiveness of Democratic outreach to Christians. In contrast, Bush presented himself as the candidate of faith in general, gaining the votes of this important electoral group.

Obama, though, has appeared much more at ease with religion. Faith has long been a central element of Obama's message; since his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he has called on the faithful to reject the use of religion as a political tool by the right. In the 2008 election, Obama made significant gains among Christian voters; even his ΒΌ share of the evangelical vote was an improvement. These voters are very committed to their religious beliefs, and believed Obama the more faithful of the presidential candidates.

If progressives are able to maintain this image -- as the party that truly understands the faithful -- their share of the Christian vote will likely grow. If, in contrast, they believe that a general alignment between progressive and Christian values is sufficient to gain Christian support -- despite broader hostility towards religion among some on the Left -- the trend Obama began will be short-lived.

The Supreme Court case illustrates this issue perfectly. Right-wing Christians see an indelible connection between their faith and government acceptance of public Christian displays. Progressive Christians often disagree. We place a value on the separation of Church and State, but are still uneasy with criticism of the public display of Christian symbols. Right or wrong, faith involves gut reactions, and the reaction to statements by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union is to perceive an attack on the faith.

One can object that the cross in question is just a symbol: if progressive Christians truly value Church-State separation, they should support its removal. But that is the point: it is a symbol, representing a set of beliefs that guides and enriches the lives of Christians. And Christians like myself are ultimately faithful, not values-voters. While I personally will never switch allegiances to the GOP because of cases such as this, it may well sway other progressive Christians and cost Democrats future political support.

So the Democratic Party must tread lightly on issues of faith, achieving the difficult balance between appealing to the base and reaching out to the faithful. If progressives want to maintain and increase the Democratic share of Christian voters in this country, they must understand our faith and sympathize -- even if they do not agree -- with the value we believe it holds for this country. Merely appealing to what seem to be Christian "values" every four years will not be enough. Ultimately, the Left may have to abandon the religious symbols it fights over in favor of the broader goal of steering the country in a progressive direction, because the faithful will not.

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  • But is anyone asking you to justify your faith? Is anyone criticizing it or trying to talk you out of it by protesting the propriety of marking the resting place of hundreds of thousands of Jews with a symbol they have a right to associate with persecution, vilification and far worse?

    "and the reaction to statements by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union is to perceive an attack on the faith."

    I'm sorry, but if to attack the aggressive and frankly unconstitutional actions of the faithful is seen as an attack on the faith then that faith will remain the enemy of democracy. It's the same rationale used by terrorists - not that I'm in any way comparing you with them.

    I can sympathize with you actually but I'm a little less sensitive to attacks on my own religious background it having been a central tenet of the predominant religion these last couple of millennia.

    I think the only lesson to be learned is the one the constitution attempts to teach: keep our beliefs and our government separate.

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 11:03 AM  

  • Thanks for your comment, and I honestly don't disagree.

    Beyond my personal convictions, however, I think it is true that a great number of American Christians are upset by cases like this. And they are not necessarily right-wing conservatives.

    While I am certainly not calling for government-supported religious displays, I do think the Left needs to moderate its approach to this issue. And I believe there is a broad middle ground between banning all religious symbols and undermining the 1st Amendment.

    But again, I agree with your basic argument.

    By Blogger Peter Henne, at 8:33 PM  

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