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Thursday, February 24, 2005

When the Left Follows the Right

It was my moment of epiphany. I looked around the room at my colleagues and realized that they didn’t want the rational debate they so often claimed. They didn’t really care about maintaining dignity, either in themselves or in their opposition. They wanted to hate. They wanted to single out a group of people that were so different and so stubborn that they could heap every bad thing that mankind does to itself at their feet.
What was amazing was that this was a group of people that would have at least one person stand up and denounce the use of any racial epithet or the slightest hint of sexism in any way. Yet they were perfectly willing to sit and openly sneer and question, not just the intelligence, but the ability to have intelligence, of this group. And the whole reason for this hatred was that the group held legitimate opposing political views.
It was back in November, as the votes were still being tallied in Ohio, when I blew up at my fellow political scientists. How could this group – this self-described bastion of liberal thought – be so narrow-minded, short-sighted, and intolerant? How could they sit and speak of Christians as if they were somehow less worthy of respect and dignity for their beliefs than even an aborigine deep in the jungle? How could they make me feel so unwanted when I had fought so dearly for what had always been described as a common ideology?
Some were taken aback and lapsed into silence. Most looked around and blinked as they collected their thoughts. A few launched a counter-attack. How can anyone who claims to be an heir of the Enlightenment also claim to believe in creationism or the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection? Why should liberals learn to speak to Christians when Christians so obviously want to turn back the clock to the Dark Ages? What had Christians ever done that a liberal would want to associate him or her self with?
I felt not unlike I had through my earlier years when I attended church regularly. When I dared raise questions that threatened the rather small world-view held by the vocal few, suddenly my very existence was called into question. As I ran through the scene in my mind over the next few days, I began to understand a couple of currents in the modern political landscape. I began to understand how, and why, Democrats have consistently lost voters over the last thirty years.
In the early 1970s, the Silent Majority decided it wasn’t really silent and became the Moral Majority. The outright purpose of this group, and many knock-offs, was to simply build the political power of the religious right. The movement religious-ized the electorate and politicized the church. They began with the seemingly natural discussion of school prayer. When they moved on to abortion, it had already become commonplace to hear preachers giving what amounted to political action speeches.
The effect was to pull the faithful to the right. This was done simply by shouting down any and all opposition. Ask Jim Wallis if you don’t believe me – he was called many unchristian things for simply advocating the church keep its eyes on the church. Anyone who opposed the outspoken prophets of the right were either misled, or, increasingly, were not really Christian at all. They were separating the sheep from the goats, from their perspective. What they have really done is kill both the church and the electorate.
Over the last twenty years, the number of Americans attending Church weekly has fallen from around forty-nine percent to about half that number. If the body of the Church mirrors the conservative/liberal cleavage in society at large, then there’s a good chance that the missing half are the liberal Christians who got tired of being told they didn’t exist. If this is true, and I don’t see why it couldn’t be, then the polls that show so many people stay at home on election-day while those who attend church weekly overwhelmingly vote Republican are telling us something else, too. Those missing liberal Christians fell out of the electorate as well.
It isn’t difficult to understand why a liberal who felt so uneasy at Church that they dropped out of that body would also be a Christian who felt so uneasy around liberals that they simply dropped out of that body. Making a rough estimate of demographics, this gives us about ten of the electorate that should be liberal Christians – if only someone would make them feel welcomed.
Think that isn’t much? A ten percent swing in votes towards liberal candidates puts almost every Republican House seat in play. It puts the Senate solidly in Democratic hands. It reverses the Presidency of George W. Bush.
Sometimes not much can still be enough.

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