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Lose the Faith

BY Brian Cook

Christianity has been much on the minds of American politicos. Since the November “moral values” massacre, both parties have frantically positioned themselves to siphon off portions of the (perceived) all-important Christian vote.

On the Republican side, it’s easy to see who’s behind their threats to employ the so-called “nuclear option,” and end the Democrats’ filibuster of seven right-wing judicial nominees. In the May 11 Boston Globe, Dr. James Dobson–founder of the evangelical group Focus on the Family–penned a scathing editorial that demanded an “up-or-down” vote on the nominees and castigated the Democrats for having “confused the electorate with an array of smoke and mirrors.”

Dobson prefers his electorate nauseated by the noxious fumes of the windbag. He’s opined that homosexuality results from a weak father figure–who knew Dick Cheney was such a softy?–and that, if caught early, can be “cured.” Dobson also endorses corporal punishment for children. “By learning to yield to the loving authority … of his parents,” he writes, “a child learns to submit to the other forms of authority which will confront him later in life.” In other words, hit ‘em while they’re young and they’ll suffer your sermons all life long.

Dobson represents a new breed of right-wing evangelical. He couches the hatred of a Falwell in the folksy, New Age tones of a Dr. Phil, while effectively building a non-sectarian coalition of right-wing religious leaders like some anti-Harold Washington. Add a touch of Ted Turner–Dobson’s media empire reaches 200 million people worldwide–and you’ve got a dangerous demagogue who has Democrats running scared.

They’ve found comfort in the arms of Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical and editor of Sojourners magazine, who has recently advised both House and Senate Democrats not to abandon faith to the right. Wallis argues that Democratic policies of protecting the environment, helping the poor and questioning the wisdom of an endless war against terror are “convictions [that] come right out of the Bible.” Thus, by explaining their positions in these terms, Democrats can persuade many evangelicals to join them in the fight for social and economic justice.

Wallis urges Democrats to acknowledge the moral dilemmas of abortion and, while not abandoning a woman’s right to choose, to focus their rhetoric on policies that aim to reduce it through education, adoption reform and financial support for lower-income women.

His advice, then, is reasonable, intellectually nuanced and morally serious. As such, it is hopelessly removed from the daily stupidities in a culture given to distraction and five-second sound bites. Following his counsel will doom the Democrats to further electoral humiliation. After all, if reason reigned in America, would we be looking down the barrel of Bush’s second term?

As Jeff Sharlet recently noted on KillingtheBuddha.com, “Religious life in America is for the most part as anti-intellectual as George W. Bush’s great defense of the faith: ‘If you don’t know, I can’t explain it.’ ” Jesus is less an idea for most Americans than a “feeling, a conviction.” Sharlet traces this “feeling” back to the 18th century evangelical Jonathan Edwards, most famous for the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

This “Angry God” is still what drives most American evangelicals. But, as Tom Frank ably demonstrates in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, their anger with what Wallis calls “secular fundamentalism” is largely the displaced class resentment of an economically ravaged populace. The way to mobilize this wholly legitimate anger is not to engage the Republicans in a cultural game of “holier than thou,” but to propose real economic solutions. The Democrats–hogtied by their corporate sponsors–haven’t honestly done so in years.

For Democrats to win, they need to practice what they preach. To learn how, they shouldn’t turn to Jim Wallis but to this article.

Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.

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