“Brothers! Oh, brothers! We have all gathered here, to preserve our hallowed culture and heritage! We aim to pull evil up by the root, before it chokes out the flower of our culture and heritage! … All those smart-ass folks say we come descended from monkeys! That’s not my culture and heritage. Is it yours?”
– Homer Stokes, from O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Religious conservatives are the one piece of the remaining patchwork of the conservative coalition that has remained generally supportive of President Bush. This past week President Bush expressed doubts about the literal nature of the creation account (to be more accurate we should say creation accounts) in Genesis. Bush went on to note that not every event reported in the bible literally happened. At some level I am pleased by these declarations by Bush as my day job is that of a theologian. I am not impressed with literal interpretations of scripture as they seem to ignore context, history, culture and any other mitigating factor that can impact the communication of meaning or intent. I am not sure how well thought out Bush’s reflections are, but they seem to be more nuanced than what he presented on the campaign trail in 2000 and 2004.
Bush’s speechwriters would litter his stump speeches with verses from popular Evangelical hymns. This was a Trojan horse approach to the religion question. Bush did not have to get red faced and start thumping a Bible to let conservative Christian voters know he was their candidate. Voters of other religious persuasions were not off put because not having heard the hymns they simply thought of these lines as flowery rhetoric. With no more elections to worry about, Bush has let down his guard and let some of his true beliefs be known. This leaves Christian conservatives betrayed by the candidate who did the most to mobilize and unify their votes. After all W. was in charge of mobilizing Christian conservatives for his father’s 1988 campaign before cashing in those long cultivated alliances in 2000 and 2004.
The after effect of Bush’s subterfuge of appearing to be a literalist is as of now unknown. It could lead a lot of religious conservatives to distance themselves from politics. The rationale might be that political solutions are temporary and always incomplete due to the need to compromise and that the solutions such believers seek are of a more complete and eternal nature. It could lead to a splintering of the Evangelical vote. This has happened before as Catholics used to be a fairly reliable portion of the New Deal coalition. Abortion politics and the rising incomes of Catholics further and further removed from immigrant beginnings has rendered the notion of a Catholic bloc in U.S. politics to be obsolete. Maybe some Evangelicals will find that the marriage between their beliefs and laissez-faire economics to be a bad match.
Some combination of splintering of Evangelical votes and a loss of interest in politics seems to me to be a plausible long term outcome for a voting group that had just learned to fully flex its muscles in the 1990’s. In the near term, I think the memory of power and the desire for reclaiming that influence will be too strong to see serious splintering or rising political apathy. Barack Obama may even be a figure that galvanizes their cause by being objectionable to their brand of Christianity. After all Obama is known to attend Church, Reverend Wright’s brand of Christianity seems to reject the easy alliance of Christianity and patriotism that many Evangelicals take for granted.
Obama saw to it that people of faith were not frozen out of the proceedings at the Democratic convention, but he did so by promoting religious pluralism. Anything but exclusivist Christianity is anathema to most religious conservatives. Therefore, Obama may promote a counter narrative to their narrative of faith and opponents with rival conceptions of the role of faith in the public square are likely to raise more ire than a mere secularist opponents who propose differences be addressed by a thin layer of tolerance.
Assuming Obama’s competing notions regarding faith and civic life galvanizes at least one more serious stand by religious conservatives, a champion or two will need to be raised up to carry the message to the people. Someone will need to speak for the Homer Stokes’ wing of the GOP. Former Governor Mike Huckabee would seem to be a good choice as he has been governor, has a nice personal story, is a good communicator, was a Baptists minister, has creationist credentials, and is working on reuniting economic and religious conservatives. Aww sHuckabee has one problem. He lacks star power.
As much as the Republican Party has done to attack Hollywood and the idea of celebrity, it is obvious that they tend to go for larger than life types in politics. The party of Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Fred Thompson can hardly be said to be celebrity averse. This holds unless the Terminator movies, Sonny and Cher, True Lies, Bedtime for Bonzo., In the Line of Fire, Knute Rockne All American, and Law and Order are exempt from the influence of Hollywood. GOP candidates often need a larger than life celebrity persona to be successful. This leaves Governor Sarah Palin as a second possible standard bearer for the Homer Stokes’ wing of the party. She has religious conservative credentials. Can anyone honestly not imagine her echoing Stokes’ role in O Brother, Where Art Thou? by asking “Is you is or is you ain’t my constituency?” during a stump speech?
Palin faces her own set of obstacles in trying to lay claim to this wing of the party even if Senator Saxby Chambliss praised her impact above all in his Georgia senate run-off victory. Joe the Plumber’s recent ringing endorsement will not erase the Evangelical-Pentecostal divide. Many Evangelicals are uncomfortable with the tongue speaking style of worship associated with Pentecostal Christians. Palin has roots in the Pentecostal movement. Lipstick and expensive clothes are supposed to run against the grain of the Christian counter-culture. Some conservative Christians believe women should not be in leadership roles. These three factors could undermine any attempt for Sarah Palin to take the reigns of voters jilted by W.’s public proclamation against the biological literalism of the first 3 chapters of Genesis.
Undoubtedly at least a few more politicians will throw their hat in the ring. The problem is that unless a broad coalition promoting conservative ideals is formed, the GOP and religious conservatives are in trouble. Demographically the nation is changing and if people from various subcultures feel alienated by the GOP they will not vote in their favor. If wealthy people always vote Republican then California and New England would be in play in national elections. The fact is state’s with high per capita incomes are predictably democratic precisely because the cultures on each coast are too pluralistic to make Christian conservatism a viable option even if it might entail a tax break or two. If the GOP wants to make more than cosmetic inroads in the House and Senate and recapture the White House any time soon, it has to find a way to keep Evangelicals on board while jettisoning as much exclusivist and sectarian rhetoric that alienates suburban and urban citizens. This is no easy task.