Is Religion the GOP's Downfall?

Everyone seems to have their own idea of what it is that the GOP lacks these days. Kathleen Parker seems to think that the big problem is its lack of a columnist with the prose style, intellectual rigor and cultural sensibilities of a Maureen Dowd — and in her most recent Washington Post column she tries to fill that void. [HT: Cranky Conservative]

As Republicans sort out the reasons for their defeat, they likely will overlook or dismiss the gorilla in the pulpit.

Three little letters, great big problem: G-O-D.

I’m bathing in holy water as I type.

To be more specific, the evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP is what ails the erstwhile conservative party and will continue to afflict and marginalize its constituents if reckoning doesn’t soon cometh.

Simply put: Armband religion is killing the Republican Party. And, the truth — as long as we’re setting ourselves free — is that if one were to eavesdrop on private conversations among the party intelligentsia, one would hear precisely that.

So it has been for the Grand Old Party since the 1980s or so, as it has become increasingly beholden to an element that used to be relegated to wooden crates on street corners.

Short break as writer ties blindfold and smokes her last cigarette.

Which is to say, the GOP has surrendered its high ground to its lowest brows. In the process, the party has alienated its non-base constituents, including other people of faith (those who prefer a more private approach to worship), as well as secularists and conservative-leaning Democrats who otherwise might be tempted to cross the aisle….

It isn’t that culture doesn’t matter. It does. But preaching to the choir produces no converts. And shifting demographics suggest that the Republican Party — and conservatism with it — eventually will die out unless religion is returned to the privacy of one’s heart where it belongs.

There’s much more, of course, but since I’ve been told that the GOP has a “torture problem” I’m going to try to make things one little bit better by not inflicting any more on you.

As has been elsewhere observed, the recent defeat of the GOP has allowed nearly everyone to decide that the real problem was: whatever it was that commentator was against before hand. Thus, economic conservatives, religious conservatives and secular libertarians have all declared that the big problem was that not everyone else was like them.

What Ms. Parker, with her demand that religion be relegated “privacy of one’s heart where it belongs”, seems not to understand is that religion is not just a club or set of social rituals. She seems to picture “religious conservatism” as involving people strutting around saying, “Look, we are all members of the Christian club. We do Christian things. And unless you do the same things we do, you are not members of the cool set and we shall frown on you!”

I suppose it might look like that to some, though I can’t think one is being a very close observer in that case.

Religion is not simply a social club with certain rituals and other modes of identification attached to it, but rather an understanding of how the world works and how life ought to be lived. Thus, when Christians say that marriage is a certain type of institution, they’re not saying, “We like to have marriage this way, and so we’d like to force everyone to do things that way because that’s the way we do things in the Christian Club.” Rather, they are saying that marriage is an institution with a certain purpose (or telos) and that it is best for society that our social institutions reflect. It is not necessarily any more of an insider-only or armband-issue than the idea that we should have unemployment benefits for those who are laid off or have medicaid to help provide medical care for the poor. That one’s religion is the source of a given political position may have something to do with the tenacity with which one holds to it, but it really should have nothing to do with the acceptability of promoting that position. One’s beliefs are one’s beliefs, whether one gets them from the Bible of the New York Times.

Now, there is an element of armbandism (a word that should not, and so far as I know does not, exist) to some strains of Christianity in America. This can be seen expressing itself in the whole subculture of Christian branded pop culture and merchandise: Christian music, Christian coffee houses, Christian mystery novels, Christian romances, Christian movies, even Christian “adult toy” websites (for married couples only!) — everything that is considered worthwhile (and some things that oughtn’t to be) is re-branded with a few Bible verses and trotted out as “Christian”.

I personally often find this to get old, despite being Christian myself, and I can imagine that if one runs into this a lot in certain Republican circles, and if one was the sort to find public expressions of religious identification distasteful, one might get to find it tiresome.

There is, perhaps, a danger of a certain version of this coming into politics in that there is a strong selective force (not just among Republicans but among Democrats) these days towards candidates who can “talk religious”. Perhaps trained by all the Christian-branded cultural flotsam and jetsum, some voters will immediately prefer a politician who and quote the right Bible verses and trot out a little “preacher talk” to support his favorite initiatives — regardless of whether that politician’s views actually allign with their beliefs at a more philosophical level. As a conservative I am a bit concerned that often all that religious conservatives seem to ask of a candidate is that he be able to do “preacher talk” and not that he have a coherant political philosophy which is in tune with the religious principles which he successfully evokes.

However, I do that think that Ms. Parker is successfully thinking about things on that level. Rather, she seems to simply find the public profession of Christianity to be distasteful, and wish that its adherants would all go away and leave her alone. That may be easily achieved in the Beltway, but at a national level a GOP coallition in which all the religious conservatives checked out and stayed home would be a rather lonely (and thus losing) affair.

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