Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Decline of the Religious Right and the Role of Faith in the Public Square.

The 2012 election will be dissected every which way. Every circumstance this year said the incumbent should have been voted out, yet Obama won a second term to address a fragile economy, face increased inquiry over the September 11th embassy attacks among a myriad of problems carrying over from his first term. The GOP, meanwhile, faces the daunting task of addressing whether or not Romney's loss was based upon misinterpreting the data or if the party is approaching obsolescence.

It immediately comes to mind that the role of religion in the American political process may be forever altered. Some commentators, most notably at CNN, have asked if the election results indicate the Religious Right's influence is in decline. Poll numbers in Virginia indicated that the evangelical turnout was down this year. The decline in the number of participating evangelicals seems to indicate several things. 1) Evangelicals outside of the white-southern-protestant-male bracket are increasingly voicing the desire for Christianity to be represented by someone other than right-wing activists. Whereas the typical evangelical has an expected set of political interests, African American evangelicals focus on another set of political interests as being pressing for the Christian conscious. 2) The GOP may have to face that the religious right is not necessarily a good political partner. Among more religiously conservative evangelicals, Romney's Mormonism was an issue and the late redaction done by leading conservative religious interests to remove Mormonism from "cult" status only highlights this point. 3) Ballot initiatives for Gay marriage, medical or legal marijuana and the number of self identified Christians who voted for Obama seems to indicate the moral mood of the country and the dominant interpretation of Christianity has changed. The exact nature of this change and its contents remains to be seen. The self proclaimed Christian Left is just as religious and prone to bouts of irrationality and anti-intellectual impulses as the religious right. This does not necessarily mean a more progressive or intellectual Christianity is in the making so much as it may mean a more ideologically leftist Christianity is in the works.

In the final analysis of the 2012 campaign, it may well be written that the end of the Religious Right has begun. It would, I believe, foolish to then trumpet the end of religion's influence on American politics. One only need to examine the religious symbolism utilized in President Obama's two campaigns. In 2008, the President's campaign utilized Messianic undertones in its promise for hope and change and the anticipation of the dawn of a new day. In the President's 2012 convention speech, religious imagery was similarly utilized for the campaign's slogan "Forward." Obama crafted a narrative in his speech that subtly alluded to the journey toward the promise land, a journey that the nation (under his leadership) embarked upon in 2008. He charged the nation to keep the faith and remain upon the journey as the land was in sight. If you don't think the Democrats have found and now exploit religious rhetoric as much as the Republicans, you may well want to take a few classes in critical thinking and literary composition.

The influence of religion in American politics is not dead. It's transforming. The Democrats have found their new religious voice and the Republicans will eventually follow suite. How this will effect any given religious group is unknown; the shift in religiosity results from efforts of persons outside religious leadership.

For the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States, this election was sobering affair. The bishops manufactured a battle over religious liberty and many bishops maneuvered openly to the GOP. Philadelphia's Chaput openly stated that social justice issues (including how the government raises revenue to care for the poor) are not of the same weight as abortion and contraception. More recently, Bishop Daniel Jenky ordered all priests in his diocese to read a letter which in part stated that any Catholic who voted Democrat was guilty of participating in mortal sin. Such moves has led such groups as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to argue the IRS must investigate the US Bishops for campaigning for Romney. It's been a storied election year for the US Bishops and the end result is that they now have to face that at least half of voting Roman Catholics openly believe the Bishops are wrong on a host of socio-political issues.

Frankly, it should not have taken an election for the bishops to know all their dire warnings about participating with grave evil were going to fall flat. The abysmal response to their "Fortnight for Freedom" campaign should have been a prime indicator for things to come.  Obama  (narrowly) carried the Catholic vote once again. For the bishops, this is not merely an issue of Americanized white males and females dissenting from Catholic teaching. Obama also carried the Latino (and heavily Catholic) vote. The fastest growing segment of the Roman Church does not seem convinced that the Bishops offer the most persuasive voting advice.

As much as the Latino vote will have increasing impact upon the US electorate (an impact that is already felt), the impact upon the Catholic Church in the United States is gradually becoming more comprehensive - a fact both liberals and conservatives, cleric and lay, need to come to grips with. The old line models of predominately Irish and French Canadian Catholicism are decaying, so too are the old bastions of ecclesiastical influence. Although the Latino vote swings Democrat, Catholics should have no illusion of it being a portend for any ideological cause. You have an "ethnic ecclesiastical block" that can be left leaning on particular political and economic issues, but largely right leaning on social, theological and ecclesiastical issues. We are still in the process of watching how this dynamic is synthesized at a variety of levels. It might be reasonable to suspect that much of today's debate points among old line reserve Catholics will be obsolete within another generation.

Liberal or left leaning Catholics who think this election has provided them with some ecclesiastical leverage need to step back and objectively view their situation - a task that seldom comes easy to the left or the right. Much like global Catholicism in general, Catholicism in the United States is in a period of metamorphosis. New non-first world, non Euro-American power blocks are emerging and their perception of things is seldom seen in its totality by Western observers, Liberals and Conservatives cherry-picking the points that fit with their ideology. Obama narrowly won the Catholic vote and I suspect if the Republicans jettison the immigration issue, the Catholic vote will swing GOP - an event that would supply fastidious  Catholic Conservatives and Liberals with ideological indigestion.