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Monday, July 28, 2008

Last Year's Fashion

by digby

One of the most annoying aspects of the faith based movement in politics is the extent to which some of the lobbyists for the Religion Industrial Complex are willing to twist facts and data to support the idea that they are the determining factor in elections. It's a little bit unnerving that people who are pushing the idea that the Democratic party must appeal to this strata of the voting public on the basis of moral and religious principles are so ... devious.

Today we have a perfect example of a Democratic religion lobbyist spinning the numbers for their industry. ( Think of it as a sort of "Thank you For Praying"):

Because Obama is convinced the federal faith-based initiative is worth saving, he is in a position to critique the problems in the current system and insist on changes. One big step is to make sure that programs receiving government funds actually work. From the beginning, Bush has talked about accountability for faith-based organizations, using the word "results" 16 times at one 2005 conference. In 2002, then-HUD Secretary Mel Martinez declared that "faith-based organizations should be judged on one central question: Do they work?" Yet the president never put in place measures to track the effectiveness of programs receiving grants.

Unlike those Democrats who see in the faith-based initiative an overflowing slush fund, Obama has also recognized that the real scandal is how small the pots of money for religious and secular non-profits have become over the past eight years.

Even conservative supporters of the faith-based initiative, like former Bush aide Michael Gerson, agree with Obama's charge that the effort has been "consistently underfunded." In fiscal 2007, $2.2 billion was disbursed to faith-based groups. But while that figure may seem high, it is roughly equivalent to what religiously affiliated organizations like Catholic Charities and Habitat for Humanity received before Bush took office.

Wow, there's an argument for you -- the programs show no results AND the Democrats want to throw more money at them. Say jalapeno!

And for those who haven't figured it out yet, the fact that groups like Catholic Charities were receiving money from the government before the "faith based" program was instituted, means that Bush must have changed something when he took office, right? There were always "faith based" organization receiving money from the government. It's just that they weren't allowed to proselytize or discriminate before Bush, something that nobody wants to talk about because it is politically dicey to admit that that was the whole point of the initiative.

BTD at Talk Left argues that the big political payoff for all this religious outreach that everyone is expecting is not materializing so far either:

Amy Sullivan is at it again, urging, and in this case, cheering on, Obama's "reachout" to "values" voters. She thinks Obama has hit a home run. Strangely enough, an American Spectator writer agrees with her. But the funny thing is the data the Spectator writer relies upon simply does not support his assertions. For example, the Spectator writer states:

Polls still show that conservative Christians favor McCain, but Obama is faring better than Kerry did in 2004.

But the linked Pew poll does not say that at all. Indeed, Obama is faring worse with white evangelical and white non-hispanic Catholics than even John Kerry.

Obama's outreach to "values" voters has been a total flop. Al Gore was getting 28% of white evangelicals in June 2000, according to Pew, Kerry got 26% in June 2004, according to Pew and Obama gets 25% according to Pew.

In terms of white Catholics, according to Pew, Kerry was receiving 47% of the vote in June 2004, Gore received 45% of the vote in 2000. Obama receives 40% now. Obama is running about even with Kerry (but well behind Gore) is so called white mainline voters (presumably non-Evangelical non-Catholics.)

As for the Catholic vote, well, I'm still reeling from this op-ed in the NY Times last week-end which claims that Europe is experiencing a new Black Death because its people are secular. Let's hope that American Catholics will continue to ignore their leadership on this one, because they are getting more conservative rather than less:

FORTY years ago last week, Pope Paul VI provoked the greatest uproar against a papal edict in the long history of the Roman Catholic Church when he reiterated the church’s ban on artificial birth control by issuing the encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” At the time, commentators predicted that not only would the teaching collapse under its own weight, but it might well bring the “monarchical papacy” down with it.


In a nutshell, “Humanae Vitae” held that the twin functions of marriage — to foster love between the partners and to be open to children — are so closely related as to be inseparable. In practice, that meant a resounding no to the pill.

The encyclical quickly became seen, both in the secular world and in liberal Catholic circles, as the papacy’s Waterloo. It was so out of sync with the hopes and desires of the Catholic rank and file that it simply could not stand.

And in some ways, it didn’t. Today polls show that Catholics, at least in the West, dissent from the teaching on birth control, often by majorities exceeding 80 percent.

But at the official level, Catholicism’s commitment to “Humanae Vitae” is more solid than ever.

During his almost 27-year papacy, John Paul II provided a deeper theoretical basis for traditional Catholic sexual morality through his “theology of the body.” In brief, the late pope’s argument was that human sexuality is an image of the creative love among the three persons of the Trinity, as well as God’s love for humanity. Birth control “changes the language” of sexuality, because it prevents life-giving love.

That’s a claim many Catholics might dispute, but the reading groups and seminars devoted to contemplating John Paul’s “theology of the body” mean that Catholics disposed to defend the church’s teaching now have a more formidable set of resources than they did when Paul VI wrote “Humanae Vitae.”

In addition, three decades of bishops’ appointments by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both unambiguously committed to “Humanae Vitae,” mean that senior leaders in Catholicism these days are far less inclined than they were in 1968 to distance themselves from the ban on birth control, or to soft-pedal it. A striking number of Catholic bishops have recently brought out documents of their own defending “Humanae Vitae.”

Advocates of the encyclical draw assurance from the declining fertility rates across the developed world, especially in Europe. No country in Europe has a fertility rate above 2.1, the number of children each woman needs to have by the end of her child-bearing years to keep a population stable.

Even with increasing immigration, Europe is projected to suffer a population loss in the 21st century that will rival the impact of the Black Death, leading some to talk about the continent’s “demographic suicide.”

Not coincidentally, Europe is also the most secular region of the world, where the use of artificial contraception is utterly unproblematic. Among those committed to Catholic teaching, the obvious question becomes: What more clear proof of the folly of separating sex and child-bearing could one want?

I don't think I need to point out just how illiberal that is, on nearly every level. I don't begrudge Catholics their right to believe anything they want, but if these beliefs are ever taken more seriously by the flock then I am quite worried about how that will affect society at large, particularly if liberal politicians continue to believe they must be pandered to on these issues. The right to choose is hanging by thread and I believe will likely be gone before I'm dead. Birth control is the logical next step and you can believe that the Religion Industrial Complex will be in there fighting for it --- and persuading liberals that they have to go along because the country demands it.

The politics of all this religiosity in this election are particularly interesting. First, you have these lies about Obama being a Muslim (terrorist.) That alone has necessitated the campaign to hit harder on Christian themes than most. But it doesn't seem as if that's the main reason. All the Democrats running followed this playbook, largely I would guess, because of the dishonest spinning that was done after the 2006 elections:

Party strategists and nonpartisan pollsters credit the operative, Mara Vanderslice . . . with helping a handful of Democratic candidates make deep inroads among white evangelical and churchgoing Roman Catholic voters in Kansas, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Exit polls show that Ms. Vanderslice’s candidates did 10 percentage points or so better than Democrats nationally among those voters, who make up about a third of the electorate.


The midterm elections were a “proof point” for arguments that Ms. Vanderslice had made two years before, said Mike McCurry, a Democratic consultant and former spokesman for President Bill Clinton who worked with Ms. Vanderslice on the Kerry campaign. For the Democrats, Mr. McCurry said, Ms. Vanderslice and her company “were the only ones taking systematic, methodical steps to build a religious component in the practical campaign work.”
The problem was that their numbers didn't add up. Not that it mattered. It was all the rage. Just as the religious right rushed forward to claim credit in the days after Bush's win in 2004 (even though it was crapola), the Democratic religious lobby rushed in after 2006 to do the same thing. It's a very clever strategy. Unfortunately, it has the effect of making politics even more conservative at a time when people are actually getting tired of conservatism.

How this will affect the November election remains to be seen. Chris Cilizza had an interesting item today about Gallup's new poll which points out a largely undiscussed demographic factoid:

The most interesting divide that is apparent from the Gallup results is that people living in western states are significantly less likely to believe in God than residents of any other geographic region of the country.

Less than six in ten Americans living in the West say they believe in God as compared to more than 80 percent who say the same in the east, Midwest and South. (Not surprisingly, the South features the highest percentage -- 86 percent -- of people who say they believe in God.)

That doesn't mean, however, that Westerners don't believe in any sort of higher power. Nearly three in ten say that have faith in a "universal spirit or higher power" -- more than double the percentage of people who say the same in any of the other three regions.

"The fact that, as compared with other regions, those from the Western United States have the lowest likelihood of believing in God does not come as a total surprise given other data showing that the West has a lower level of religiosity overall," writes Gallup poll director Frank Newport. "Still, the contrast between Westerners and those from other regions reflected in these data is fairly substantial."

Cilizza goes on to note this inconvenient truth:

The data is also particularly telling given the primacy of the West to the electoral calculations of both John McCain and Barack Obama.

While McCain has represented Arizona for more than two decades in the Senate, Democrats have made considerable gains in the West over the last few elections -- winning the governorships of Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado and taking House and Senate seats in Colorado, Montana and Arizona.

As a result, Obama is heavily targeting the region this fall in the belief that the West is moving inexorably in his party's favor.

The data from the Gallup poll seems to affirm the growing appeal in the region for Democrats who have traditionally done far better among secular voters than among those who consider themselves religious.

The numbers also make for an intriguing political calculation this fall for Obama. The Illinois senator has spoken far more openly about his faith and its importance in his life than past Democrats -- a development that many within the party have greeted with open arms, believing that it is the only way Democrats can close the God gap.

But, what if Obama's overt talk of his faith turns off voters in the West where Democrats seem to be ascendant?

I doubt if it will. It has become common to hear politicians speak in these terms and Obama has a particularly winning way with his religiously laced rhetoric. But it's a useful question for someone to ask. (McCain has the help of the media on this one, who are always in there to vouch for the fact that he doesn't really like those awful far right preachers, he just has to kiss their rings to get elected -- which makes him authentic!)

But whoever benefits from this western godlessness, the fact remains that much of the "faith outreach" is based on a bogus understanding of what drives the electorate which has been dishonestly sold to both parties by religion lobbyists.

I've written many times about the Barna group's polling of religious attitudes. And nobody ever seems to notice one very important piece of data, which has been noted by Barna over and over again:

Since 1991, the number of unchurched has nearly doubled from 39 million to 75 million, according to The Barna Group, a company that follows trends related to faith, culture and leadership in America.

The latest study shows that the percentage of adults that is unchurched - defined as not having attended a Christian church service, other than for a holiday service, such as Christmas or Easter, or for special events such as a wedding or funeral, at any time in the past six months - has risen from 21 percent in 1991 to 34 percent today...

The unchurched are also younger (median age: 38) than most U.S. adults (median age: 43). Born-again adults are substantially older than either group (median age: 46).

While one-quarter (26 percent) of American adults are single-never-married, nearly two-fifths(37 percent) of the unchurched fit that definition.

The study revealed that the unchurched are also less likely to participate in elections, less likely to donate to non-profit organizations, and less likely to use media or to engage in community activities.

"The unchurched are more likely than others to be somewhat isolated from the mainstream activities of the society in which they live," said director of the study, author and researcher, George Barna.

Barna also described the group as "non-committal" and "independent." He noted that to unchurched people, embracing church life is "both counter-cultural and counter-intuitive."

"Unchurched people are not just lazy or uniformed," the researcher continued. "They are wholly disinterested in church life -- often passionately so.

You can understand why this rapidly growing part of the population is resistant to politics and American civic activities since traditional Christianity seems to be more and more intertwined with them. But it would seem to me that this group should not be disparaged and ignored. They aren't all atheist heathens. Many of them consider themselves to be Christians, but they reject the strictures of formal religiosity.

Here's how Barna describes the trend;

There are, indeed, millions of unchurched people who want nothing to do with organized religion or spiritual development. The more important trend, however, is that a large and growing number of Americans who avoid congregational contact are not rejecting Christianity as much as they are shifting how they interact with God and people in a strategic effort to have a more fulfilling spiritual life. This data, combined with other studies we have recently been conducting, suggests that we are on the precipice of a new era of spiritual experience and expression."

Barna expects the percentage of adults who are unchurched to grow during the coming decade...We anticipate substantial growth in the number of people who are not connected to a congregational church but who are committed to growing spiritually.

It would be sadly typical of the Democrats to get in on the big church awakening bandwagon just when it's over and miss the opening for engaging people who are looking for meaning, community and service in other ways. Obama has made a good start with them I think, but going overboard on the traditional religious aspect could derail it.

After years of propaganda, everyone believes that the big demographic prize is people who go to church once a week or more. Maybe the Democrats should think a little bit more about the huge and growing number of people --- religious and not religious --- who never go to church at all and try to tailor at least some of their their message to them.

Of course, there was a time when politicians made vague public religious comments and a strong pitch for tolerance for the religious and the non-religious alike so they didn't have to take sides in these things. It was probably a good idea which many would love to try again, I'm sure, but the RIC and the media won't let them. The theme of the "values voters" is a faith-based proposition and there's no arguing with that.