I recently attended the national conference of the Campaign For America’s Future. The CAF does great work, from helping to support local, state and federal candidates through Progressive Majority, to publishing fantastic talking points and in-depth analysis that is useful for beating back the yelping dogs of retreat and surrender. As a counter-weight to those forces within the Democratic establishment who seem to take every electoral defeat as a sign that we should be even less coherent or dynamic than before, the CAF is indispensable. Attending the conference was a much-needed boost after some hard defeats locally.
If there was one central theme of the conference, it was the need to come to terms with the growing power of Evangelical Christianity in politics and public life. While the debate over what this trend means for the left is still developing, there seem to be three major camps forming. They all offer useful insights, but none are wholly satisfying.
The first camp, one that includes the CAF’s Robert Borosage and “Whats The Matter With Kansas” author Thomas Frank, argues that the Democrats’ mistake is in abandoning a progressive, class-based economic populism. In the absence of an economic narrative which speaks to them, white, rural, working-class voters are drawn to the culturally regressive appeals of the Rove strategy. This argument is strongest in pointing out that the sorts of resentments mobilized against Hollywood /Feminist/Homosexual-Agenda liberals often resemble class resentments. Being Christian, straight and conservative is a twisted form of class pride, a pride which is agitated by the arrogance of middle-class coastal liberal culture. Frank observes quite astutely in his book and subsequent articles that the conservative backlash is framed as a revolt against elites. The trick, he argues, is to reframe this backlash against economic elites rather than cultural ones, by redirecting political discussion to a clear contest between economic worldviews.
The second camp wants to see the left find God. One version of this argument posits that progressive values need to be articulated as moral, even spiritual appeals. This is a variation on the Lakoff “revolution” that is so in vogue among liberal activists nowadays. Certainly, this is a helpful corrective to the stiff, statistically pregnant rationalism that grips much progressive political communication. However, this assertion often overlaps with an entirely different strategic posture. There are those who argue that white Evangelicals need to be brought into the Democratic fold by decentralizing or even diluting traditional progressive positions on abortion, gay rights or church-state separation. This, as the saying goes, is an entirely different can of whuppass.
Lastly, there are a range of thinkers and activists who argue that feminism, gay rights, anti-racism and secularism need to be advanced in their own right. We need to take the sexism and homophobia of the religious right head-on, they argue, the way that our party confronted the overt white supremacy of the Southern establishment in the 1960’s. Folks making these arguments are right to point out the fact that many Democratic leaders spoke of appeasing Southern racists until organizing and advocacy forced them to take sides (somewhat) in the struggle for freedom. Let’s make more feminists in the South. Let’s take gay-bashing away from the right by building a majority for equality, not by letting them win.
As I said above, all of these arguments have some merit, but all are unsatisfactory on their own. The fact is that we need to do all three things- offer white rural voters a real bread-and-butter alternative, build and support a progressive religious movement, and continue the work of building a stable pro-choice, egalitarian majority. These three tasks are more interrelated than one would think.
I once said that the antidote to the religious right is the religious left. I still believe this. As has been argued so well, often by veterans of the black freedom struggle, we cannot surrender God or the flag to the right. We cannot allow conservatives to define what is Christian any more than we can allow them to define what is patriotic. To argue that our cause is against Christianity is as inane and counter-productive as wearing the smear of anti-Americanism on our chests as a badge of honor. Progressives must have a say in defining what this country, or its dominant faiths, are about. We can only do this by being unafraid to lift the voices of religious progressives to a vaunted place among our leaders and spokespeople.
However, religious progressives have an important responsibility to force debate and discussion within their communities of faith about women’s rights, dignity and equality for gay people and the necessity of a clear line separating questions of faith from the state. The religious left must lead a crusade, not just for the economic issues we all agree on, but for religious tolerance and a transformed gospel of inclusion. It is disturbing when folks talk about reaching out to Evangelicals while implying that in order to do so we have to throw feminism out the window.
On this same count, economic populists also come up a bit short. I think that Tom Frank is on to something in forcing the left to confront it’s own prejudices and snobbery. More importantly, he’s dead right that the Democrats will never be able to win without reclaiming the mantle of anti-elitist populism. Instead of chasing the corporate dollar and blindly jumping on board with the neoliberal project abroad, the party of Roosevelt should remember that when it confronted concentrated economic power, it was able to sustain a powerful and empowering majority. The triangulating charisma of Clinton’s centrism at best produced a shaky, slim plurality that choked off any possibility of real policy achievements.
But what Frank forgets is that the right can still counter an economic populist message with bigotry, and that bigotry can be a powerful attraction. Certainly, we can’t win without offering an economic alternative and sticking to it, but it’s no guarantee of victory. So long as racism, homophobia and sexism persist, they can always be used to undercut a blinders-on economics-centric left. As labor learned the hard way, we have do the hard work of beating back the latent prejudices that right-wing appeals are built upon. This is, in essence, what the religious right has been doing for decades- sowing the seeds for a playing field that benefits their brand of politics.
This conflict came to the surface at the finale of the CAF conference. After a solid, red-meat speech from Communication Workers president Morton Bahr, the stage was given to Reverend Jim Wallis, a progressive Evangelical who has written extensively on the Democrats’ “god deficit”. Wallis said some important things about “taking back” the churches, about how setting policy priorities is a moral act, and about the hypocricy of invoking the words of an impoverished prophet while concentrating wealth beyond all historical imagination. He was followed by Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. Gandy pointed out that Wallis is anti-choice, that he has called for making the Democratic Party more comfortable for anti-choice candidates, and that he has supported Bush’s “faith-based” feeding trough. Women are at war for their fundamental rights, she said, and now is not the time to go soft on hard-won gains. The room was visibly uncomfortable. The event was supposed to be a pep rally, not a space for differences of opinion on sticky issues. I, for one, was thrilled that Gandy had spoken up. Herself a church-going Presbyterian, she made it clear that embracing religious life and creating a home for religiously inspired activists cannot come at the expense of our core values and goals.
We need the sort of debate that makes people uncomfortable. These are important issues, tough issues. History shows, however, that when difficult issues are handled comfortably, it is almost always at the expense of those who have to struggle to be heard. Let’s not find God and lose hope.