Wednesday, January 14, 2009

History 112: Who are these Folks? (How Religious People are Part of the Modern Narrative) Part II

Part I

Let us move this to the Christian context. Haredi Jews do not have the numbers to really affect American society. There are millions of fundamentalists Christians on the other hand. One of the things that I find very interesting about religious Christians is that unlike Haredim they do not dress differently and, from the outside, are completely indistinguishable from ordinary Americans. The person you meet on the street wearing a tie die shirt, cut off jeans and shoulder length hair might very well be a very religious Christian. Fundamentalist Christians have also developed their own counter culture. For example the Left Behind Series, which was mega bestseller a few years ago. Over the past few decades it has been the Evangelical churches that have been really successful and not the mainline or even liberal churches. How can this be; in our modern liberal age shouldn’t people be running to join liberal churches? Why would someone bother to join a church that accepts GLBTs and preaches that there are other means to salvation besides for Jesus Christ? If you do not have to accept Jesus as your personal savior than why bother going to church? Evangelical Christianity preaches a doctrine that is worth caring about; there is heaven and hell, sin and sinners, such as gays. The very salvation of your soul rests on you coming to church and accepting Jesus as your personal savior. The moral “decline” in our society also helps their cause. It creates an easy target to polemicize against. It is hard to justify taking an adversarial relationship to the general society when the general society holds similar values. If I am in 1950s America and there is school prayer and officially society is opposed to pre-marital sex than I do not need the Christian right.

In What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank makes the argument that there are many poor white Christians in this country who would benefit from government welfare programs and should really be voting Democrat. The Republicans, though, keep them focused on issues such as guns, gays and abortion and get them to vote against their economic interests. What Frank does not consider is how government welfare strengthens religious fundamentalists. We are used to thinking of big government advancing the cause of secular liberalism; it also, though, allows dissident groups, like fundamentalist Christians, to stand outside of mainstream America.

To reverse Frank’s question, there are a lot of fairly conservative blacks voting Democrat. For example, 70% of blacks voted for proposition 8, against gay marriage. Why are blacks who oppose things like gay marriage still voting Democrat, against their own ideological beliefs? It would seem that the two main reasons for this is that blacks associate Republicans with segregation and that they see the Democrats as the ones who will give them the government aid they require.

If you remember, back in 2000, when George W. Bush first ran for president, he ran under the banner of “Compassionate Conservatism." Compassionate Conservatism was the belief that government should be engaging in welfare programs, though in a more socially conservative friendly fashion. For example faith based initiative; government dollars would be channeled through religious organizations as a means to help those in need. This can be seen both as an attempt to protect Republicans against the sort of vulnerability outlined by Frank and to reach out to conservative minorities, particularly blacks. Poor white Christians would get the government aid they need in a manner they could feel comfortable with and would have no need to turn to the Democrats. As for conservative blacks they would finally have a Republican party they could feel comfortable with, one that took their concerns seriously and offered government aid, likewise, in way that would be consistent with their conservative beliefs. This had the potential to create a political alliance that would have kept the Republicans in power for the next generation. History, though, caught up with George W. Bush, after only a few months in office, on September 11. This radically changed his presidency and, for the most part, placed Compassionate Conservatism on the political back burner.

One can see Barack Obama as trying to put together his own version of the proposed Compassionate Conservatism coalition. When I first heard Obama speak, back in 2004, what struck me about him was that he was a Democrat who could talk intelligently and believably about faith. This man was clearly a a sincere and believing Christian. I had a flash of him running for president, canvassing Evangelical churches and talking about how he came to accept Jesus as his personal savior, bringing over white Evangelicals to the Democratic party; clearly this was a man who would be a dangerous candidate in a general election. As it turns out Obama did run on his faith; he had no need to as the Republicans fell apart. That being said, Obama has not abandoned this potential alliance with white Evangelicals. He has invited Rick Warren to speak at the inauguration. Rick Warren is an Evangelical pastor known for his interest in social welfare issues such as AIDS and the environment. As such Warren is precisely the sort of Evangelical Obama would wish to ally with and he can serve as a bridge to the larger Evangelical community. It may be possible to get many white Evangelicals to go along with such socially liberal notions as gay marriage and abortion if these things are sold the right way. As we can see, religious voters are important to American culture and to American politics and not simply as the dark forces of superstition waiting to overturn modernity.

Why have I been spending all of this time talking this topic? We are used to thinking of modernity in terms of liberalism and secularism. In the Prop 8 piece we saw at the beginning of class, the good guys of modernity are liberal. Then there are these dark scary buffoonish religious characters lurking in the background trying to ruin everything; seeming to be outside of modernity. In truth these religious characters are also part of the modern story. Much of what goes on in modernity plays into their hands and benefits them as well. If you do not understand the role of religion, even fundamentalist religion, then you have failed to understand the modern story. This goes for dealing with sixteenth century and the twenty-first century as well.

1 comment:

herstory said...

The first biography of British historian Frances Yates, "Frances Yates & the Hermetic Tradiiton" by Marjorie G. Jones was published by Ibis Press in 2008.