I don’t see glee oozing from between every comma in David Kirkpatrick’s New York Times magazine article this past weekend on the "evangelical crackup." He’s a good reporter, whose coverage of conservatives I regard as generally well balanced. On the other hand, it isn’t hard to visualize street dancing and fireworks displays outside Clinton headquarters. Kirkpatrick’s focus is on the glug-glug sound as evangelical enthusiasm for conservatives and Republicans drains from the tub.
No one can predict, for certain, the speed or volume of the drainage. It suffices momentarily to note the potential effects of this once-unlooked-for phenomenon. Didn’t Republicans used to own the religious right? They sure did.
As Kirkpatrick tells the story, "The extraordinary evangelical love affair with [George W.] Bush has ended, for many, in heartbreak over the Iraq war and what they see as his meager domestic accomplishments." Meanwhile, growing numbers of evangelicals, tiring of the never-ending debate over morality and school prayer, seemingly want the government to focus more on, as Kirkpatrick summarizes it, "problems of peace, health, and poverty — problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers."
If, in 2008, substantial numbers of evangelical votes flow to Democrats, independent candidates (if any) or the Hey, Boys, Let’s Go Fishing On Election Day Party, then the Republicans have certainly had it.
It may be worthwhile to raise the eyes a little higher than the ballot-box lid to take in the full implications of such a crossroads as Kirkpatrick suggests may loom ahead.
The subject matter — how will religious concerns cut this time — is scarcely unfamiliar. There has always been a lot of politics in religion and a lot of religion in politics. I find it odd when commentators blabber about some nonexistent wall that in blither times kept religion and politics apart. There was never such a wall, nor could there be. The ultimate nature of religious concerns — heaven, hell, death, judgment — makes them easily eclipse managerial questions like budgetary "earmarks" and deficits in health insurance coverage.
A thoroughgoing secularist is, in politics, a bird of considerable rarity.
Politicians — many of them wearing judicial robes — should have known better than to start tampering in the 1960s with the civic consensus of the day, which found religion not only a good but close to indispensable element of life. First the Supreme Court — at best imprudently, at worst clumsily and wantonly — clamped down on school prayer. Then it licensed abortion.
Critics of the religious right never have acknowledged that Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, etc., didn’t just decide one day to capture America for Christ. What they decided was to engage in the right of collective self-defense against unprovoked aggression. (I’m still waiting to hear it explained how a prayer at commencement exercises corrodes our civic purposes.)
You have to hand it to the evangelicals: They got the country’s attention. At the same time, they created for themselves expectations too high to meet — namely, that the elevation to office of people who seemed to believe all the right things would cleanse America of pornography, false understandings of marriage, etc. Any Bible-reading evangelical ought to know something about a human encumbrance called sin, which chains human nature to modes of performance redeemable only by — surprise! — religion.
The evangelical miscalculation, in my judgment, wasn’t getting into politics. It was expecting that the practitioners of politics — yea, from George W. Bush on down — had the power to scourge the devil from his fortification in the human heart. For the harder task of cultural transformation and the spreading of Truth many evangelicals have shown scant appetite. They’d rather sign petitions and pass out campaign literature.
Sorry. The Good Book contradicts that notion. Hearken, brethren, to Psalm 146: "O put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man; for there is no help in them. … Blessed is the God of Jacob for his help; and whose hope is in the Lord his God."