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"The secular left usually wins"

July 18, 2006
by

So sayeth The Economist in an assessment of the religious left. (It’s from May; I’m still working through my pile…) They note that “The religious left is more energised than it has been for years,” but suspect it lacks longevity.

But is this truly a sea-change in American religious politics? Or is it a brief “hallelujah moment”—born of Bush fatigue and political opportunism—that will bring no lasting change? The betting is on the latter. The religious left suffers from two long-term problems. The first is that it is building its house on sand. The groups that make up the heart of the religious left—mainline Protestants, liberal Catholics and reform Jews—are all experiencing long-term decline. Most of the growth in American religion is occurring among conservative churches. And the constituent parts of the religious left are also at odds over important issues. Middle-of-the-road Catholics are happy to march hand-in-hand with mainline Protestants over immigration and inequality. But they often disagree over abortion and gay rights.

The secular left usually wins
Serious doubts also persist about how much the Democratic Party is willing to change to embrace religion. Some influential Democrats want real change. Others think that all they need to do is drop a few platitudes to religious voters and the God-gap will disappear. Mr Dean’s performance on Pat Robertson’s television programme was as telling as it was laughable. He not only chose to talk to a man who plays a much bigger role in the liberal imagination than among evangelicals; he also let slip that Democrats “have an enormous amount in common with the Christian community.”

The biggest problem for the religious left is that it is badly outgunned by the secular left. The Democratic Party’s elites—from interest-groups to funders to activists—are determinedly secular. So are many of its most loyal voters. John Kerry won 62% of the vote of people who never go to church; and that group is the fastest-growing single “religious” group in the country. These secular voters don’t just feel indifferent to religion. They are positively hostile to it, regarding it as a embodiment of irrationality and a threat to liberal values such as the right to choose. These crusading secularists are in a particularly militant mood at the moment, as the sales of Kevin Phillips’s Bush-bashing book, “American Theocracy”, testify. The last thing they want is a religious left to counterbalance the religious right.

That little zinger (emphasis mine) propagates a meme the folks over at Talk 2 Action call “demonizing secularism.” Barack Obama recently took some heat for remarks that seemed to buy into that frame, as well (and some of the feedback, of course, demonstrated his point precisely). But as “Carlos” at Talk 2 Action commented awhile back, “Even though this theme is largely a rhetorical contrivance of the religious right, religious and secular progressives have not been very effective in responding to it.” That’s gonna take some cooperation, folks.

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