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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Bringing In The Sheaves

by digby

Yesterday I wrote about the reports of a possible retreat by the Religious Right and today I see that the liberal members of the Religion Industrial Complex are chasing after them, begging for the them to come back into the public square:

This past week the debate between the nascent Religious Left and the Religion Industrial Complex gained national attention when it was featured in a major article in U.S. News and World Report. We might not ordinarily focus on such matters on this site, but an important part of the criticism of the RIC has been how it has at once enabled the Religious Right while pretending that the culture wars of aggression waged by the Religious Right against the civil and constitutional rights of other Americans are over or are about to be.

As we have seen, RIC leaders based on a series of faulty assumptions and cynical political triangulations, have not only declared that the culture wars are over or about to be but promoted the power hungry ambitions of retrograde Religious Right figures like Rick Warren, who seem nice enough - until they talk about what they really believe.


Susan Thistlethwaite, a member of the board of Faith in Public Life and its parent organization, the Center for American Progress, takes to her the Washington Post/Newweek's On Faith blog for a political tap dance and light show because her organization, which has earned a lot of media coverage as an agnecy of the Religious Left, was described by U.S. News as heading down a "centrist" road.

"I'm in favor of reaching out and I am less interested in labels. To me as a person of faith, I believe we should be engaging the public square in order to effect change. In order to effect change, you have to engage in the broadest possible coalition-building."

Indeed, those of us who have been critical agree that the matter is about substance more than terminology. That is part of what has been so objectionable about the way that substantive debates are diverted and obscured by semantic slights of hand. There is hardly a better example than Thistlethwaite's invocation of the "broadest possible coalition."

While most sensible people would agree that sometimes seemingly unlikely coalition partners are necessary and possible, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice for one, says that Thistletwaite's idea of reaching out is almost exclusively to the Religious Right, while the religious mainstream -- never mind the Religious Left -- has been left out.

So let's be very clear: Leaders of mainstream Protestant denominations and major bodies of Judaism representing many tens of millions of Americans, are marginalized in favor of building relationships with a handful of conservative evangelicals of various stripes. This may be a strategic error of historic proportions, but Thistlethwaite et al, do not even want to discuss it.

These people have fashioned their entire enterprise as a bridge between the religious right and the Democratic party so they have a big stake in ensuring that the religious right is powerful. Otherwise, they would be superfluous.

This is an interesting subplot in the political story, and one to keep an eye on. Right now, people are rightly obsessed with the economic situation and the culture wars have retreated. But the organizing power of religious is still powerful and in the right hands can be used for political purposes.

Meanwhile, Job Meechum, the trendiest of religious trendies, declares in this week's Newsweek the end of Christian America:

There it was, an old term with new urgency: post-Christian. This is not to say that the Christian God is dead, but that he is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory. To the surprise of liberals who fear the advent of an evangelical theocracy and to the dismay of religious conservatives who long to see their faith more fully expressed in public life, Christians are now making up a declining percentage of the American population.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey that got Mohler's attention, the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent. The Jewish population is 1.2 percent; the Muslim, 0.6 percent. A separate Pew Forum poll echoed the ARIS finding, reporting that the percentage of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith has doubled in recent years, to 16 percent; in terms of voting, this group grew from 5 percent in 1988 to 12 percent in 2008—roughly the same percentage of the electorate as African-Americans. (Seventy-five percent of unaffiliated voters chose Barack Obama, a Christian.) Meanwhile, the number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990 to 2009, from 1 million to about 3.6 million. (That is about double the number of, say, Episcopalians in the United States.)

Why it seems like only a a few years ago that he was on every gasbag show proclaiming that religion was the driving force in American politics (while some of us were pointing out that the the numbers were actually going the other way.) But when Bush was in office religion was so "in" among the villagers, that the Rachel Zoe of Washington, Sally Quinn, even jumped on the bandwagon. Today, it's as outre as ass antlers.

Meacham sees some disillusioned social conservatives becoming more radical (drawing some rather stupid comparisons to 60s liberals, naturally) and I think that's entirely possible. If the right wing Christians are withdrawing into the private sphere it would be in keeping with their religious traditions and is something that's happened many times in the past. But there is a fringe of social conservatives who are not really religious but rather simple authoritarians who could very well join up with the other wingnuts and organize themselves around the cause of abortion or gay rights in a far more radical way than we've seen in quite some time.

The paranoid style in American politics has always been most comfortable on the right, particularly when they are out of power. The Christian Right of Tom Delay and Justice Sunday will be right at home among the black helicopter crowd.