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How would Jesus vote?
All year, questions of scriptural interpretation were inseparable from elections and public policy

The words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Same-sex marriage. Fetal-stem-cell research. Abortion rights. When these topics were discussed in 2004, we understood that they had a religious dimension, and that religious leaders were largely responsible for the argument on one side — the conservative, Republican side.

Yet on their face, most of these issues don’t seem more obviously the subject of religious mandate than do, say, economic justice, the environment, poverty, equal rights, and war. As religion and politics intertwined throughout this election year, it was the political and religious leaders on the right who defined their intersections. By doing so, they falsely depicted this vastly homogeneous country as a deeply polarized one, with Christian believers pitted against godless secular humanists.

Polls consistently show that a large majority of Americans are in general agreement about the nature of God, heaven, the Bible, and Jesus. Eighty percent of Americans are Christians, according to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey earlier this year, and most of the rest are unaffiliated with a specific church but have generally Christian beliefs. Only five percent are Jewish or Muslim, or adhere to other religious faiths — and just three percent are atheist or agnostic.

So, no: religion itself is not under seige in this country, in spite of what millennial-minded religious conservatives and over-excited pundits who mindlessly parrot talk of red states and blue states tell you. That’s not to deny long-standing rifts within American religious culture. That struggle is playing out between the Catholic hierarchy and many within its flock; between fundamentalist and liberal Protestants; between Orthodox and Reform Jews; and even between strict and progressive Muslims. Albert Pennybacker, a minister in Lexington, Kentucky, and the national committee chairman of the Clergy Network for National Leadership Change, sees the struggle this way. "The debate is between those who look at the God of their religion as a God of absolute truth, an ideological God, and others like me who look at God as a God of love."

That said, political polarization along religious lines is real. "The polarization of people politically tracks with the polarization of Christianity in America," says Kristian Mineau, president of Massachusetts Family Institute, which opposes gay marriage — and he’s right. Indeed, the Pew study found that while the population as a whole leans slightly Democratic (42 percent, compared with 38 percent Republican), those who consider themselves "traditionalist" — whether evangelical, Catholic, or mainline Protestant — skew heavily Republican, by margins of more than two to one. Religious "centrists" leaned slightly Republican. "Modernists," as well as secularists, minority religions, and nonbelievers, were all heavily Democratic. Even more interesting, since 1992, most of these groups have remained the same or tilted a little toward the Democrats — except evangelicals, who have had a net 13-percentage-point swing to the Republican side.

Yet most Americans of all religious beliefs agree on a wide range of issues taken in isolation — and generally speaking, they agree with the Democrats. But religious traditionalists, who are winning the fight to define the very nature of true religious conviction, have taken a number of issues off the table. Increasingly, they have put issues such as the environment, social welfare, and progressive tax policy beyond the religious pale. They are choosing one set of political positions over the other in the battle for America’s soul — between what they define as religious folk and "liberal elites."

"It recalls the way religion played out in the [John F.] Kennedy campaign, but in reverse," says Philip Cunningham, executive director of Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. In 1960, Kennedy affirmed that he would follow the interests of America over orders from the pope; in 2004, John Kerry was chastised for doing the same — while George Bush spoke openly of conducting policy based on his conversations with God.

For many religious traditionalists, the epicenter of the struggle was the battle over gay marriage. The topic, if it can be found at all, certainly appears of little concern in Bible texts, relative to other subjects of human conduct and interaction. Yet in a year of increasing war, poverty, and fear, the religious right sincerely saw same-sex marriage as the country’s greatest concern. "I don’t think there were any bigger issues than the Massachusetts court attempting to redefine marriage," says Joe Glover, president of the Family Policy Network, based in Forest, Virginia.

Glover believes the gay-marriage issue — which Republicans shrewdly placed as a ballot measure in 11 states — brought the religious right out to vote and helped turn the presidential election. "When they have a reason, they turn out in droves," Glover says.

Nobody who was at the Massachusetts State House during the 2004 Constitutional Convention would dispute the depth of conviction among religious-conservative protesters against gay marriage. But why was this issue — which seems frankly trivial in both the Bible and society — so singularly important to them?

It seems evangelical Christian leaders and the Catholic hierarchy are focusing attention on issues that jibe with political conservativism; i.e., defending tradition. This explains the emphasis on what they see as assaults on Bible commandments: same-sex marriage, abortion, fetal-stem-cell research. They show less interest in issues that Pennybacker and others perceive as essential to personal fulfillment of scriptural instruction: peace, social justice, the environment, and wealth distribution, for example. Presumably, religious doctrine would tend to support Democrats’ positions on these issues — and in fact, the Pew survey found that to be true, even for religious traditionalists.

So when surveys show that a clear majority of regular churchgoers identify themselves as Republicans, and that those who do not attend church regularly are mostly Democrats, it seems likely this division stems in large part from religious leaders’ emphasis on Republican-friendly issues over Democratic-friendly ones. This played out in 2004 through sermons and handout materials that did not specifically endorse Republicans (which would violate church tax-exemption law), but hammered at political issues such as abortion and gay marriage. When asked about important topics beyond those two, Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute cited none of Pennybacker’s issues, instead naming Internet pornography as the third-most-important issue facing American families. Other religious traditionalists, including William Donahue, president of the Catholic League, talked about Hollywood’s corruption of youth as one of the country’s top problems.

The Catholic Church hierarchy was, if anything, less subtle than evangelical Protestants in its elevation of select issues, and mercilessly denounced Kerry, a serious and devout Catholic. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops urged people to vote against pro-choice politicians such as Kerry, calling them "guilty of cooperating in evil and sinning against the common good." Several bishops announced they would not offer Communion to John Kerry because of his permissive stance on abortion, and former Boston mayor Ray Flynn chastised Kerry for his views in a full-page New York Times ad.

The identification of conservative Christianity with select issues embraced by the political right was dramatically symbolized on the Republican National Convention stage in New York this August, where a cross was etched into the design of the wood podium. While Republicans denied that the design was intentional, it was telling that criticism came not from Christian leaders who objected to the GOP usurping their religion, but from Jewish and secular groups.

With their more religiously diverse voter base, Democrats often find it hard to wage battle on the traditionalists’ issues. Once Republicans stake out territory on something like Internet pornography, and get religious leaders to talk it up, Democrats can only lose. They can disagree, and confirm their reputation as "family values" foes; or agree, and confirm that the Republicans were right.

After the election, Democrats began talking about adding religiosity to their party. But what they need is to neutralize the inflated importance of Janet Jackson’s breast, or of who marries whom, by concentrating public attention on important issues that religious traditionalists believe in — and the Republican Party doesn’t.

After all, it’s not as if the GOP actually cares much about the traditionalists’ issues anyway. Immediately after the election, Republican interests and religious interests diverged. The Christian right claimed a mandate for its views, and insisted, for example, on denying abortion-rights softy Arlen Specter the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. It also wants action on a constitutional amendment on gay marriage, and a reversal of Roe v. Wade. ("There’s going to be more pressure for prayer in school — and it’s not going to be the Sh’ma," says Jewish congressman Barney Frank.) Bush, on the other hand, claimed a mandate for Social Security privatization and tax reform, and the Senate Republicans ultimately gave Specter the judiciary chair. "I think every four years [Bush] panders to conservative Christians," bemoans Glover, who, like many fundamentalists, is disappointed with both parties.

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Issue Date: December 24 - 30, 2004
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