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A blog post by Lisa Webster co-editor of Religion Dispatches raises an interesting question. She wonders if The New York Times is dumbing down religion reporting. Webster will be writing a series about the debate on the point between Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic and anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann an op-ed contributor to the Times. I look forward to it.  Meanwhile, I was reminded of a one of Luhrmann's Times op-eds from the run-up to the election last year. My response, slightly revised, is reprised below.

Why can't secular liberals be more like evangelicals? That 's the question posed by Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann in a 2012 op-ed in The New York Times.  She thinks that some evangelicals might find Democratic candidates more attractive if, well, they were more like evangelicals.  But her idea strikes me as the political equivalent of the immortal words of Professor Henry Higgins, in My Fair Lady, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?"  

Happily, Professor Higgins overcomes his perplexity before the show is over.  But bafflement over why another cannot be more like oneself, especially when it comes to politics and religion, continues to bedevil the American experiment in democracy and its most original feature - religious equality under the law and a culture of religious pluralism.  One tiresome trope that interferes with our national conversation on these matters is on vivid display in Professor Luhrmann's essay.

When a Pander Goes a Bridge too Far

Our story begins with Luhrmann's contrasting supposedly good evangelicals like the ones she has studied in two largely white middle class Vineyard Churches against unnamed, allegedly uncomprehending, non-religious liberals of the Democratic Party.  She asserts that more evangelicals might vote Democratic - if only Dems, especially secular liberals, would be more like evangelicals.  This gettable group is smarter, Luhrmann asserts, than those darn liberals give them credit for.  If only they understood that some of them are doctors and professors - and compassionate too!  Some even went to help out victims of Hurricane Katrina.  But liberals, you see, don't know about these things. What is wrong with them?  Why, as Henry Higgins sang, can't they be more like me?

Unlike the story in My Fair Lady, the obvious questions raised by Luhrmann's essay go unresolved.  Who exactly who is she writing about, and why are they a problem to be solved?  She claims that among Democrats "secular liberals" are the most "puzzled" about evangelicals - but she names not a single puzzled person, or anyone whose perspective or presentation could be improved.

Whoever these people may be, Luhrmann offers only one idea to help Dems reap a harvest of white evangelical voters in 2012. It is a telling example, but probably not in the way she had hoped.  She advises that "secular liberals" should be more like... Rick Santorum!  

She cites an excerpt from a speech by the former Republican Senator at the 2010 Values Voters Summit for which he had "won praise."  She does not mention, however, that the Values Voters Summit is the leading annual political conference of the Religious Right, attracting top conservative and Republican leaders and Fox News celebrities.

Nevertheless, she commends the following Santorum soundbite to Democrats:

"Go into the neighborhoods in America where there is a lack of virtue and what will you find?  Two things.  You will find no families, no mothers and fathers living together in marriage.  And you will find government everywhere:  police, social service agencies.  Why?  Because without faith, family and virtue, government takes over."

"This perspective" Luhrmann concludes, "emphasizes developing individual virtue from within -- not changing social conditions from without."

That is a very narrow interpretation. Santorum's meaning is broader and deeper and presumes that only unvirtuous, unmarried and unfaithful people need government services.  He further implies that government services themselves are part of the problem, not the solution.  It is probably fair to say that the communities that Santorum was referring to are poor, disproportionately comprise people of color and recent immigrants.  That Santorum was speaking in old fashioned race and religion-baiting code to this audience is unsurprising.  What is remarkable is that Luhrmann thinks that Democrats would find this a helpful model.

There is a narrative running in the background in Luhrmann's op-ed that frames and informs a wide range of evangelical thought from Christian Right leaders to Jim Wallis.  The narrative is essentially that creeping secularism is destroying America.  The labels for those allegedly responsible for this vary and include but are not limited to, "secular liberals," "the secular left," and "secular humanism."  The operative word here is "secular."  

Those of us who look to current events with an eye to history will note that the rightist ideological ancestors of the Values Voters crowd routinely smeared liberals as "Godless," and directly or indirectly sought to link them with Soviet Communism.  These terms are used in much the same way.  

That said, Luhrmann's is certainly a lite version of the narrative, and in fairness, she does not claim that creeping secularism is destroying America.  But she feels no more obligation than the others to present any basis for her claim that liberals, Democrats, and "secular liberals" insufficiently understand evangelicals or why her prescriptions would garner evangelical votes.

Let's consider a few facts to help us to transcend the bogus narrative.

First:  Let's acknowledge that evangelical Christians are not the only religious people in America and that they also do not have a corner on Christianity.  

Second:  Democrats know that there are plenty of evangelicals in the Democratic Party already. Some are even former presidents of the United States.  Jimmy Carter was the first evangelical Christian president.  Bill Clinton was the second.  What's more, Clinton's vice president for two terms, Al Gore, was also an evangelical Christian and went on to became the party's nominee for president.  

Third:  Let's also stipulate that evangelicals do not have the corner on goodness and morality; non-religious liberals do not necessarily live in uncomprehending darkness; and neither group is necessarily in any greater need of deliverance from evil than anyone else.

Finally:  Let's also clear the air about another aspect of the trope.  Non-religious Americans are not exclusively liberal; nor are liberals exclusively non-religious.  There are plenty of non-religious conservatives to be found, for example, among the followers of Ayn Rand and of neoconservative philosopher Leo Strauss.  What's more, there are plenty of religious progressives, as epitomized by the authors of the essays in a book I edited, Dispatches from the Religious Left:  The Future of Faith and Politics in America, and more generally by such groups as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Is Government about the Development of "Moral Character"?

Now let's go to the core of Luhrmann's advice for Democrats:

"If Democrats want to reach more evangelical voters, they should use a political language that evangelicals can hear.  They should talk about the kind of people we are aiming to be and about the transformational journey that any choice will take us on.  They should talk about how we can grow in compassion and care.  They could talk about the way their policy interventions will allow those who receive them to become better people and how those of us who support them will better ourselves as we reach out in love."

This can sound good on a casual reading.  But there is a revealing presumption wrapped up in Luhrmann's warm and fuzzy language that is not only offensive and wrong, but echoes Rick Santorum.  Luhrmann wants Democrats to try to persuade some evangelicals that "their policy interventions will allow those who receive them to become better people...".  

It is more than presumptuous to suggest that people who need, say, food, medical help, or domestic violence counseling also need to learn how to be better people; that government programs in anyway prevent anyone from becoming a better person; and that government programs should focus on developing, as she also writes, our "moral character."

Suggesting that beneficiaries of government programs are morally defective may be the kind of thing attendees at the Values Voters Summit pay to hear from Republican candidates - but it is far-fetched to think that they would choose a Democrat who tries to do the dog whistles and mouth the platitudes - over a conservative Republican who actually believes them.

These things said, there is certainly no harm, as Luhrmann suggests, in emphasizing how the president's health care program helps to alleviate human suffering rather than focusing on economic aspects.  This is common sense, and all pols should be wise not to indulge in mind-clenching wonkery.  Addressing political and policy problems in moral language is one way of overcoming jaw dropping obscurantism in discussing governmental policies.  You don't have to be an evangelical to listen to some pols and wonder who it is that they think they are talking to, and what in the world they are talking about.  It is healthy for pols to know their audience and to find ways to better engage them.  But pols also do not need to resort to conservative evangelical tropes to communicate about how we can all go forward together as a democratic, religiously plural society.

If faith is to be a focus for Democrats running for office, how about appealing to all Americans based on shared principles of mutual respect for each others right to believe as we will?  Democrats have far better role models to look to than the coarse religious bigotry of Rick Santorum.  Dems could do worse than to look to President Barack Obama - whose eloquent statement on the occasion of Religious Freedom Day 2011 could serve as a model for how to express Democratic values towards faith:  

"The writ of the Founding Fathers has upheld the ability of Americans to worship and practice religion as they choose, including the right to believe in no religion at all. However, these liberties are not self-sustaining, and require a stalwart commitment by each generation to preserve and apply them. Throughout our Nation's history, our founding ideal of religious freedom has served as an example to the world.

Though our Nation has sometimes fallen short of the weighty task of ensuring freedom of religious expression and practice, we have remained a Nation in which people of different faiths coexist with mutual respect and equality under the law. America's unshakeable commitment to religious freedom binds us together as a people, and the strength of our values underpins a country that is tolerant, just, and strong."

If liberals and the Democratic Party are going to do political outreach to religious constituencies, then let's have it be based on our highest values as a nation and of the Democratic Party.  Anyone who does not know the depth and breadth of how these values frame and inform Democratic Party approaches to government and public policy need to hear from the party's most articulate spokespeople.  There are undoubtedly many reasonable and effective ways to do this.  But one thing is certain:  We do not need to hear from anyone who thinks that aping Rick Santorum will actually help any Democratic candidates anywhere.

Crossposted from Talk to Action

Originally posted to Frederick Clarkson on Fri Nov 15, 2013 at 08:04 PM PST.

Also republished by Street Prophets .

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