The New "Religious Left"

Mar 19, 2008

The Bottom Line The New "Religious Left" could lead to a significant realignment in the major political parties

Before our very eyes, there is a new Religious Left coalescing out of the splintered remnants of the old Democratic coalition: the Obama movement, or, simply Obamania. Obama's appeal to his supporters has much of the quality of religious hysteria and his oratory resembles that of a minister on a pulpit. His speeches allude sometimes to a coalition of faith and bipartisanship. If Barack Obama goes on to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency, it may very well signal a fundamental realignment of the political landscape in America. That realignment might be transient, as when the so-called Reagan Democrats shifted party allegiance for an election cycle or two, during the 1980's. Or it could be something more lasting.

Polls, this year, indicate that Barack Obama has an unusual ability to attract Independent voters and even a few nominally identified as Republicans. On the other hand, somewhere between a quarter and one-half of the traditional Democrats currently supporting Senator Clinton indicate that they will cross party lines to vote for the Republican candidate if Senator Obama is the Democratic nominee. Race may be one factor in the impending realignment of voters, if Obama is a candidate, but there is another factor at work as well.

Obama is far stronger than Clinton in the Old South and in the Heartland, where religion plays a strong role in the daily lives of people. Obama does less well in California, the Northeast, and the Industrial portion of the Midwest, where wage-earners predominate and where religion, though still evident in the private lives of the populace, tends not to be intermingled with such secular activities as work, school, and play. These folks have a strong tradition of supporting separation of church and state and are less likely to join in with what is essentially a religious revival, even if it is arising from the left, this time, instead of the right side of the political spectrum. Organized labor, with its Marxist roots, will not comfortably embrace the new Religious Left, although it may be supported by some individual workers who are especially devout in their religious affiliation. There is evidence in current polls of a movement of white, male working class voters into the Clinton camp. For all too many leftists, Obama is a Pied Piper and the voter himself like the child who was too lame to follow the whole of the way. At first, he will stand aside and watch dumbfounded, but if the phenomenon is a lasting one, these voters will need to find a new home.

The last two elections, in 2000 and 2004 respectively, pitted a candidate from the Christian Right against candidates from the secular, pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts Democratic tradition. If Obama is nominated by the Democrats, the 2008 general election will pit a new kind of candidate from the Religious Left against a somewhat secular, pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts candidate from the right. Voters will align themselves, in part, based on whether they view the left/right or religious/secular dichotomy as the more important one. If the Obama phenomenon takes hold, in the Democratic Party, sooner or later there will be a contest between a candidate from the Religious Right and one from the Religious Left. That might create the kind of vacuum in which a genuine third party might emerge, with a secular and pragmatic orientation.

Religion, by its nature, is an inherently conservative phenomenon. Its epistemology is "revealed truth" and if God is all-knowing he can't also be presented as "changing his mind." No one likes a God who is a flip-flopper. By contrast, the secular domains occupied by science and reason are inherently revolutionary, constantly revising and up-dating their dogmas with each new experiment and discovery. So, it was a natural kind of alliance between two conservative traditions when the Religious Right emerged in the late seventies, spearheaded by Robert Grant, Jerry Falwell Ed McAteer, and Pat Robertson. It also dramatically changed the political landscape and led directly to the Reagan years.

The Obama phenomenon is a less likely kind of alliance and harder to comprehend. Obama presents himself as the "change" candidate and is widely perceived as such by his followers. Obama recognizes, however, an odd kind of paradox that his candidacy represents, when he describes the ethic of his Trinity Church of Christ community, with its emphasis on self-help, as a "quintessentially American – and yes, conservative – notion." Religions have never been about change except in the sense of expanding the reach of their viewpoints into new communities.

Change can be good or it can be catastrophic. Many of us who have long advocated change in America do not welcome all of the kinds of change that Barack Obama represents. Certainly, we welcome inclusivity and the "new face on America" that Obama's rise in prominence heralds, but do not welcome his emphasis on faith, overt Christianity in public life, and evangelical-style speeches delivered as though from a pulpit. Leadership by "inspiration" is a dangerous kind of leadership. Faith is diametrically opposed to critical thinking. Political prophets too often insulate themselves among their followings, leading to corruption, cronyism, and political sloth. It is only the willingness of voters to punish political parties for their corrupt tendencies that holds such problems in check. Loyalty in politics is an invitation to abuse of power.

America found itself knee-deep in an immoral and strategically unsound war in Iraq not merely because of George W. Bush and his neoconservative cronies. The other major contributing factor was the ignorance of the American people, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike. The American public was too easily duped by spurious arguments and false information into supporting the administration's preposterous position. Only those who took the time to read and critically evaluate the available information saw through the gambit, before it was too late. Without critical faculties to draw upon, the public will repeat such mistakes over and over again. America will not be a significantly better country until Americans learn to think critically and independently. What does it matter if we are led around by our collective nose-rings by a leader on the left or one on the right? Obama, with his appeals to faith, hope, inspiration, and zealotry, is inviting the public down a pathway that leads to clapping and singing, as well as conformity and acceptance, rather than thoughtful analysis of alternative viewpoints and policies.

Even more than George Bush, it is WE, the American people, who are the problem in America. WE need to think carefully and substantively about major issues and, collectively, to direct our government toward sensible courses of action, instead of allowing them to embark on unilateral, unprovoked wars or reelecting advocates of torture. WE will not be a better people because of a euphoria imparted by a charismatic speaker – or when a "forceful wind" and "voices from the rafters" overpower our capacities for reason and objectivity.

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