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The Last Big Issue 

by Robert Herold

Publishing schedules being what they are in the weekly news business, I'm writing this column the day before the votes are cast. Win, lose or draw, the political fortunes of the president have, and will continue to, rest entirely on what he refers to as "my base." Actually, he has two bases. Corporate America brings money, access and more than a small amount of supportive media coverage. The other base, the so-called "religious right," will determine, all the money in the world aside, whether Bush will remain as president for four more years.

If, as you read this, he has been reelected, chalk it up to this constituency. Even in defeat, however, he will have left his religious conservatives in a position of great influence within the GOP. His father, proper Episcopalian that he was, neither inspired nor motivated the religious right. He lost. His son "won," and now, following almost four years of pandering with his faith-based initiatives, his party's gay baiting and circuitous attacks on science, Bush' strategy -- Rove's strategy -- has reached perfection.

Since Richard Nixon framed his opportunistic so-called "Southern Strategy" in 1968, Republicans have sought out the religious right. Bush, however, is the first and only Republican candidate to be wholly dependent on this constituency. (If he loses, one will have to wonder whether he was too dependent on them.) But without this group, he could not win. While Ronald Reagan offered symbolic support, Bush has offered much more. And they have responded.

Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina, in his book Culture Wars?, argues that while the electorate is evenly divided along party lines and on issues that are deeply divisive, in fact, public opinion on most controversial issues is closing. Religion, however, has emerged as the single most divisive political factor. As organized religion has become more overtly politicized, the Democratic Party has lost ground.

In 1952, Democrats who were regular church attendees voted about the same way as did Democrats who seldom attended church. Today, a significant gap has opened between these two groups of Democrats. Those who attend church regularly are far more likely to vote Republican. The Democratic Party has benefited to a lesser extent from the reverse phenomena -- secular Republicans, some anyway, have gone looking for a home in the Democratic Party. The fault line runs to pietistic claims on the one side and secularism on the other.

The last presidential candidate to so openly court the religious conservatives, the Pentecostals and fundamentalists, those Christians who can be loosely grouped under the heading "Pietistic," was William Jennings Bryan. H. L. Menken, in his 1924 essay, "The Husbandman," wrote, "The mountebank, Bryan, after years of preying upon the rustics on the promise that he would show them how to loot the cities ... now reverses his collar and proposes to lead them in a jehad [sic] against what remains of American intelligence, already beleaguered in a few walled towns."

To be fair to Bryan, while he certainly supported the moralistic reforms most (but not all) historians associate with religious conservatives of the day (Prohibition, the Volstead Act, the Mann Act), he was also very supportive of a range of reforms we typically associate with both the populist and progressive movements -- reforms such as women's suffrage, child labor laws, progressive taxation. He went on to serve as Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State (but then, another fundamentalist and pietist, John Ashcroft, serves as G.W. Bush's Attorney General). Bryan believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible and saw no reason why government should not adopt policies that reflect such a belief.

America is an odd country when it comes to religion. Church attendance here continues to rise, whereas in the rest of the industrialized world, attendance has dropped. Studies report that immigrants who may have abandoned the church come here and become, once again, churchgoers. Hispanic immigrants, in particular, form this pattern.

James Morone, in his recent book The Politics of Sin in American History, suggests that we have perpetuated "Puritan moralism" as a reaction to the "open and fluid society" created by wave after wave of immigrants. "Without a stable cultural archetype to determine who belongs, Americans measure one another by a vaguely delineated, highly moralistic code of conduct, applied invidiously to each new set of 'different Americans.'"

In his important review of Morone's book, U.C. Berkeley historian David Hollinger takes a somewhat different view. He paints a more mundane if no less compelling picture of churches as popular forms of affiliation in a sea of alienation. They provide "social solidarity in units of manageable size whose authority derives from traditions that are easily accessible to masses of people with varying amounts of education." An antidote to the "Bowling Alone" dynamic, so to speak.

Bush has mobilized these people, and by doing this he has moved American national politics a long way from those 18th- and 19th-century thinkers and activists who urged the "concept of the public good based on human reason and human rights rather than divine authority." These people took on the "religiously correct" and insisted on maintaining the "distinction between private faith and the conduct of public affairs."

Bush has succeeded in blurring that distinction, and he has become whom he courts, people of simple faith who have no doubts and who have no truck with ambiguity. A very dangerous combination.

Publication date: 11/04/04

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