The Neo-American Revivalist Movement
Like many of us in the "reality based community" for the past several years I have indulged in the assumption that if only voters could learn the facts behind the Bush administration's regressive and dangerous policies, and how those policies adversely affect them and the nation as a whole, they would vote decisively to end this criminal regime. My first clue that it is I who doesn't understand a certain level of 'reality' embraced by others came as I spent most of Monday calling long distance to friends and acquaintances in Ohio to make sure they were planning to vote on Tuesday.
I cordially spoke with a number of my well educated, professional Ohio friends -- all of whom said that of course they were voting for Kerry. Then I decided to call a shirt-tail relative well down a distant branch of my family tree. She and her second husband live in a small town in northeast Ohio. They are high school graduates now in their late 40's.
The wife is about as average as they come. The words 'pleasant' and 'mild mannered' and 'quiet' and 'shy' come to mind. You wouldn't notice her in a crowd of three. To help make ends meet, she works at a minimum wage job, almost the only kind there is in that town. Three years ago her husband was laid off from a well paying industrial plant job when the corporation moved its production faciltiies to Mexico. The CEO of the corporation is a very heavy Bush contributor. Now, the husband cleans a laundromat for less than minimum wage and is happy to have the work.
One of the couple's major interests in life -- the major source of hope they have that things will get better for them -- has been a class action suit filed in behalf of the several hundred workers in federal court. I happen to know from the initial federal district court decision he sent me that this lawsuit depends heavily on a congressionally-passed statute which the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court seems very likely to reject or to render meaningless.
Thus, it is no stretch to say if Bush is reelected and the court continues or expands its conservative leanings, the workers' lawsuit is as good as lost. So I figured my telephone call would be another quick touch-and-go conversation of mutual agreement.
"Oh yes, we'll be voting," the wife said, "for President Bush."
"Bush?" I was stunned. "Why?"
"Because, you know, we are Christians."
Still reeling from her first unexpected answer, all I could think to reply was, "John Kerry's a lifelong Catholic. So, he's a Christian too, right?"
The wife -- this mild mannered, shy, quiet woman -- snorted. Even over the telephone, there was an unmistakably ugly, even vicious quality to the sound.
"He's not as Christian as we are."
He's not as Christian as we are? He's not as Christian as we are???
Talk of the lawsuit made no difference. Discussion about the wrongfulness of the Iraq war made no difference. Agreeing that more than eleven hundred American soldiers have been unnecessarily sent to their deaths in Iraq made no difference. Both husband and wife were deaf to all arguments and dismissive of all policy issues, even when they clearly understood the adverse effect on their own circumstances or even disagreed with Bush's position. They clearly understood the negative implications for their own lives of a Bush reelection. It didn't matter. For them, a vote for Bush was a religious act of self-affirmation, a way of proving to their god (or to their community of fellow worshippers) that they are "faithful."
Being somewhat gregarious, I suppose I come in contact with as many evangelical, born-again, self-professed Christians as anyone else who isn't one of them. Like many others in the 'reality-based community' I have been both puzzled and bemused when I read estimates like that of Religionwriters.com that --
... at least 60 million Americans identify themselves as evangelical or "born-again" Christians in the Protestant tradition, though determining the precise borders of the evangelical world is difficult. Millions more in every denomination describe their faith in classic evangelical terms - as having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through a rebirth experience similar to what Bush has described.
It is never an easy thing to defeat an incumbent president who wants to be reelected. The incumbent controls too much patronage, enjoys disproportionate media attention, generates campaign contributions more easily, and has at hand almost countless other levers of influence and control. Add to this the propensity of a fair number of Americans whose simple sense of patriotism leads them to want to believe and support almost any incumbent president -- even after Vietnam, Watergate, and the absence of WMD in Iraq -- and you can appreciate what a steep uphill climb any challenger of a sitting president faces.
Yet even an incumbent can be driven from office. This is especially so in times of crisis when voters feel threatened or perceive the incumbent to be ineffectual (Carter), venal (Nixon), or unprincipled (Bush I). Still, those who have been paying attention know George W. Bush's ineffectuality before 9-11 made the World Trade Center attack more likely rather than less; that his Iraq war was based on venal lies and deceptions; and that his policies amount to little more than unprincipled thievery of the public treasury for corporate cronies and the elite rich -- "my base" as he famously admitted.
So, how explain Bush's success with the middle and lower middle class in the face of these realities? As I concluded after calling my Ohio relatives, the reelection of Bush is in large part the product of a deliberate 30-year strategy of conservative religious evangelicals to dominate American politics so as to enact their 'moral values' as government policy. For them, the act of voting for a loudly proclaimed "Christian" is a religious act reaffirming their own personal worth. The mass media, including even National Public Radio, which is now riddled with news reporters, editors, and commentators who are personally avowed 'Christians' as well, spend far more time and ink touting a candidate's "Christian" credentials than we may realize.
For fundamentalist Christians the act of voting for a "Christian" is self-affirmation of their own worth. NPR reporters several times this morning announced exit polling showed the top concern of Bush voters was "moral values" while that of Kerry voters was the Iraq war.
The signs of all this were there before Election Day, if only I had seen them:
It appears certain that evangelicals will be key to the 2004 election for Bush. The Gallup Poll showed that in 1994, 42 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Democrats identified as "born-again or evangelical." In 2003, the gap was up to 10 points, with 49 percent identifying as Republicans and 39 percent as Democrats. And the recent survey "American Evangelicals" showed that nearly seven in 10 white evangelicals are either Republican or lean GOP, while just 23 percent would vote or lean toward the Democrats.”
As a proud member of the "reality based community," we at the Left Coaster and elsewhere have a lot of learning, rethinking, and "hard work" ahead of us. Not for the first time, our nation finds itself in the midst of a Revivalist era when Christian evangelicalism is making a grab for national political power. Those of us on the left who prize social justice have not yet developed a successful strategy for dealing with that reality.
One entertaining but nonetheless important book addressing this challenge, as I have mentioned before, is Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas? where he puzzles over the same phenomenon I stumbled over in my Ohio telephone conversation: Lower middle class evangelicals will happily vote against their own interests as well as that of the nation as long as they believe they are performing a religious act.
Another, weightier body of work that makes a similar point is that of the late radical leftist historian Christopher Lasch. In the waning years of the Reagan administration he wrote:
Unable to explain the persistence of religion, pro-family attitudes, and an ethic of personal accountability except as an expression of false consciousness -- as the product of brainwashing or of an irrational attachment to “simple and easy answers” after “two decades of social upheaval” -- the Left finds itself without a following. Since it refuses to take popular attitudes seriously, to “pander” to “the existing popular consciousness,” in Lillian Rubin’s curious and revealing phrase, it can hope to reform society only in the face of popular opposition or indifference.
To the end of his life, Lasch was arguing that the Left needs to squarely face the new American revivalism and consider what common ties unite, rather than divide, evangelicalism and the movement for social justice in America. Rejecting what I will confess has been my own attitude, he wrote:
The proper reply to right wing religiosity is not to insist that “politics and religion don’t mix.” This is the stock response of the left, which has been caught off guard by the right and remains baffled by the revival of religious concerns and by the insistence -- by no means confined to the religious right-- that a politics without religion is no proper politics at all.
Lasch observed that the Left has utterly misapprehended the nature of the long-running public 'debate', so-called, over "family values" -- first by refusing to engage in it at all and then by extolling a "flexible, pluralistic definition of the family [which]... carries no conviction." Instead, he says, the Left should have seen the "family values issue" as an opportunity to squarely address the destructive tendencies of capitalism, corporatism, and consumerism. (If this sounds a lot like Ralph Nader, well, there's no copyright on good ideas even when they come from incurable narcissists.)
[The argument from the Left] takes no account of the evidence that most people no longer live in nuclear families at all. It takes no account of the likelihood that women have entered the work force because they have no other choice, nor because they are besotted by feminist ideology and believe there is no other way to fulfill themselves. The last three decades have seen the collapse of the family wage system, under which American enterprise, in effect, invested in the single-income family as the best way of domesticating the working class and forestalling labor militancy. This development is one more that signals the arrival of a two-tiered society. Today it is no longer an unwritten law of American capitalism that industry will attempt to maintain wages at a level that allows a single wage to support a family. By 1976, only 40% of all jobs paid enough to support a family. This trend reflects, among other things, a radical de-skilling of the work force, the substitution of machinery for skilled labor, and a vast increase in the number of low-paying unskilled jobs, many of which, of course, are now filled by women. These are among the “blessings of technology” not considered by Rita Kramer. Meanwhile the consumer ethic has spread to men, as Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her study, The Hearts of Men.
* * *
It is the logic of consumerism that undermines the values of loyalty and permanence and promotes a different set of values that is destructive of family life -- and much else besides.
Kit Lasch was a deep thinker and a keen critic of the American social scene. Yet, it's fair to say his criticisms were sharper than his proposed solutions. At the last, rather fruitlessly as it seems to me, he argued for rejecting dogmatic labels of "left" and "right" but was unable before his untimely death to articulate fully a new paradigm, except to suggest it was "truth" and anti-consumerism:
Such moral authority as the Left enjoyed in the past derived from its identification with the oppressed; but its appeal to intellectuals, unfortunately, has usually rested on its claim to stand on the side of history and progress. * * * The only morally defensible choice, however, is the choice of mercy, charity, and forgiveness over the world’s principalities and powers, the choice of truth against ideology. To make that choice today means to reject Left and Right alike.
Tomorrow the campaign to retake America resumes. If history is any judge, this New Revivalist movement will not last. Past Revivalist movements either collapsed in failure and reaction or exhausted themselves with internecine competition over who is "more Christian," as my shirt-tail relative expressed it.
I am no Pollyanna. In fact, for some time I have thought, as Josh Marshall says today, that the reelection of Bush --
portends very bad things for America's role in the world and the well-being on all levels of this country. Changes in domestic politics, in theory at least, can be shifted back at a following election. The world, though, is different. There we are just a ship -- though the largest one -- on waters we can never truly control. And I fear that this result will set in motion dangerous dynamics that even the relatively young among us will be wrestling with and contending with for the rest of our lives.
But giving up is not an option for those progressives who remain in the U.S. Through today's prism, an Edwards-Obama ticket looks like a dream team answer to a continuation of Bush royalty into 2008 and beyond. Not because Edwards-Obama offers geographical and racial balance, but because both of these progressive Democrats have shown that they know how to appeal to the common "communitarian" values which, as Lasch postulates, lie at the true heart of Christian Revivalist appeals. Given the current 'reality' of the Neo-American Revivalist movement, only these guys or someone like them are able to speak the language of the middle class who should be voting for a progressive agenda and social justice.
Yes, it's still "the economy, stupid." But, like it or not, the avenue of future victories may run down the aisle of American fundamentalist churches.
Edit log: Typos corrected. it was a long night.