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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  1. I love your blog. I’ve been searching for the perfect combination of Catholicism and conservatism for years. I’m tired of those that are too despairing but also those that are too philosophically mushy and obsequious. I appreciate the generally free-market tone as well. I used to be “anti-capitalist” until I started actually studying real economics… that and seeing how the economy works as a father and provider, rather than as a mooching, idealistic college student. Your content is timely and relevant. Socialism is no longer just another option, it’s part of the problem. God bless!

  2. Darwin,

    Since you have analyzed Parker so well (which I agree with you… her ideas will have the Republicans lose more elections), can you tell me what is Noonan’s problem?

  3. The difference between Dowd and Parker is that Dowd has the good sense to attack the other party. I don’t think Noonan has a problem, personally. I do not agree with everything she writes, and her style is very hit-and-miss, but she is in an entirely different class (in many respects) than Parker.

  4. Noonan has class, which Parker appears (at least from the few pieces I’ve read of hers lately) to lack.

    However Noonan does seem to have two problems that annoy me, though they certainly don’t keep me from sitting down with her column and the drinks column of the WSJ of a Saturday morning over coffee.

    1) She has a schoolgirl crush of sorts on Obama.

    2) Of late she seems to almost always have 3-4 themes for each column, and never quite decide which one she wants to write about.

  5. Public religion defeated GOP, eh? Not the perceptions of the GOP as a party of fiscal irresponsibility, lawlessness, corruption, and deceit? Not the perceptions of the Bush Administration’s performance and the persuasiveness of the McCain campaign?

  6. What defeated the GOP was the third term itch and the September financial collapse. The economy tanks and the party in power is going to take it on the chin.

  7. Doesn’t the whole debate seem a little asanine in perspective though? How would your average Republican-off-the-street of today stack up–in terms of social and moral issues–to a Democrat from the same street from 50 years ago? The political center can be determined by reference to the extremes of the right and left, but don’t we find the center marching consistently and inexorably further and further to the left? The more I see the more I think Polybius and his anacyclosis are right (no pun intended).

    Practically, religion and traditional values are not going to win a whole lot of points with the next couple generations. So Republicans will adapt, and become something else–they won’t be as far left as the Democrats, but not as far right as they are now.

  8. “but don’t we find the center marching consistently and inexorably further and further to the left?”

    No. Obama for example, although I believe he is at heart a socialist, probably will not implement economic policies as far to the left as FDR. Many evangelicals were indifferent to abortion as an issue for a few years after Roe. The semi-pacifism of Carter will probably not be a guiding star of the Obama administration. The Reagan administration and the free market economics it ushered in came as a radical break with the ever increasing government involvement with the markets since FDR. The RINOS used to control the Republican party and are now a marginal fringe. Union political strength has been steadily diminishing for generations and I doubt if the Obama administration will be able to pass card check and reverse the trend. There is nothing inexorable or inevitable about politics. Many a bright new idea turns out to be merely a passing fad to be added to the closet of history.

  9. Donald, I think it is true that “consistent” wasn’t the best word choice to apply to political evolution, and I think you could have skewered me on that mistake but you were merciful (so thanks). But I do think that certain things–certain momentous social and political changes–are inevitable. It all depends on the scale of analysis–your examples, though compelling, go back about 4 generations or so.

    As you pointed out, policy and policy makers come and go. But demographics are slooooow to change. Or they have been relatively slower to change in comparison to policy. If you believe, as I do, that we can fairly accurately forecast demographic changes in the future — and — you believe that demographics have a lot to do with voter behavior, then you will be able to find a certain inevitability in our political future.

    With the way *I* percieve our demographics to be changing, I don’t see religious or moral issues being determinative in national political contests the near future. I think the GOP is losing, and I think that it was inevitable. I am not saying I am glad or sad about it, I am just stating my opinion. In 20 years I seriously doubt pro-life will be a viable campaign platform in most of the country. If that day comes, I don’t think we are ever coming back.

  10. Tim,

    I disagree. I think my generation is more pro-life than the last one. Though, I do think this generation is perhaps more liberal. That doesn’t mean some of us aren’t social traditionalists.

    I think what is hurting the GOP is not the religious base, though I will admit — some of the “right wing” can be quite alienating to certain voters and I find myself annoyed with the fact that I get associated with radical biblical fundamentalists, who sometimes do not help the debate — and this isn’t to say no one from the other side hasn’t provoked them.

    Though, on several issues, I thnk the GOP has dropped the ball. Health care is one of them and it’s the one issue I go on and on about. After Clinton’s health care reform failed, the GOP took control of Congress. They had a willing president, who would have made a compromise as was done with Medicaid, Medicare, and SCHIP. No, instead they go after Clinton using tax payer dollars and turned the political arena into an angry circus.

    I recentedly looked up some statistics. Currently, in states that usually go Republican have the highest rates of Americans lacking health insurance with the opposite being true of states that traditionally go Democratic. The fact is the GOP had 12 years in control of Congress and health care wasn’t a priority to them. SCHIP, the public health program for children doesn’t get much conservative support — even in states where they get unborn children covered to encourage women to not have abortions — funding gets cut, thus so do the recepients of federal aid. How does that help fight abortion?

    Regularly, fiscal year after fiscal year, funding is cut to public education. Yet, we’re willing to borrow $10 billion dollars a month to fight a war and rebuild Iraq? My focus here is not the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of certain policies, but the perception of priorities.

    There are plenty of Democrats — ones I know — who hold traditional Christian moral values particularly among African Americans and Hispanics. However, for whatever reason, they vote in terms of domestic and economic policies. Everyone in my household voted for Obama except for myself.

    Hispanics and African Americans, which primarily make up the majority of the bottom of the economic bracket don’t have a sense that the GOP really cares about their concerns. Overwhelmingly in this last election, these two groups went for Obama more so than in the last election. It’s one thing to say that the mechanism of government is not going to help people who are socio-economically disadvantaged, but that doesn’t mean don’t do anything. I think there’s a reason Republicans don’t come to mind when thinking of legislators who are adamant about finding some way to assist the American people, particularly the most vulnerable. This isn’t the say Democratic positions are the solutions, but if it doesn’t even seem to be a priority — and I don’t see how when fundng is being directed away from inner city schools and social programs that provide a safety net for the most vulnerable are first in line to lose funding — I think it’s difficult for the GOP to make its case for the groups that go Democratic in large numbers, particularly Hispanics who are a growing population.

    In essence, if the Republican Party without going left on “life issues” goes left on economic policies, I honestly will welcome it. Maybe then I’d switch parties.

  11. The GOP did not fail. the RNC did. The GOP took over Tennessee by keeping on message and target unlike the national RNC.

  12. Sarah Palin did not fail, John McCain did. Ms. Parker went into panic attack on Sarah in mid-September at the height of the attacks on her state, number of children, NRA membership, Trig, etc. Gone wobbly since then. Seems to think Democrat Lite is the way for GOP to go. Might be hanging out with Christie Todd Whitman too long. As for the need of a MoDo-style columnist- so who is Ann Coulter? Only tougher, smarter, funnier on an off day than Mo at her best. Ms. Parker- chill.

  13. I’m not sure Parker would be classified as a Beltway Insider–I think she’s in NC these days and if I recall used to work for a Florida paper. I think she is mainstream Protestant of the type for whom mentioning religion in conversation is a social no-no, however. Though I’ve been a fan of her writing for years–and recent columns notwithstanding she can be quite good when she wants to be– I have often found her to be disappointingly lily-livered when it comes to contentious religious and social issues. It’s really too bad that she seems to have imploded, both as a political commentator and as a writer, over recent events. I’m at a loss to explain her reaction to Sarah Palin. One would think a student of politics could look past a candidate’s cotillion bearing.

  14. The citizens of Gardner, KS are currently working to recall two members of their City Council. The recall is tied up in the courts at the moment, but it should go to a vote in March of 2010.

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