Tuesday, January 11, 2005

What Amy Sullivan Gets Wrong

I've been reading Amy Sullivan's writings ever since I first ran across her old blog, Political Aims. There, and in her occasional essays since at The Gadflyer and The Washington Monthly, she's consistently urged the Democratic party to talk more about religion and take more concern for people of faith, in particular those socially moderate Christians that, as she sees it, would be voting Democrat if the party wasn't so often tone-death on religious matters, and so often gave the impression of being absolutely uncompromising on abortion rights and other controversial issues. She's been knocked a lot for her crusade (both by secular liberals who don't understand her concern, and by right-wing Christians who assume she must be a hypocrite or a fake), but I've always admired it. I've made it clear how much I hope for some kind of rapprochement between the Democratic party's egalitarianism and the populist concern of many religious conservatives, but Amy's one of the few activists who have really been involved in trying to make it happen. She's a hell of a writer, and her aims are right on. But I think her basic approach to her chosen problem has always been, unfortunately, rather limited, and her latest piece in The New Republic shows why.

I don't write much about my Mormonism on this blog (I save most of that for Times and Seasons), but you'd think I'd be all over Amy's argument in this case: all things being equal, don't I want my own faith community to start supporting Democratic candidates? Of course I do! More importantly, I'd like to see them start supporting social democratic and economically progressive causes. (Heck, I'd like them to become full-fledged Christian socialists.) But what kind of grounds for thinking such a shift is possible (much less can plausibly be pursued by the Democratic party as it presently exists) does Amy give us? Well, a couple of Mormon senators have disagreed with the Bush administration over stem cell research. And there's evidence that a certain number of libertarian-inclined Mormons are bothered by the Patriot Act. I'll grant her those. But what else? She notes that President Gordon B. Hinckley, the current leader of the Mormon church, declined to support the Bush administration's faith-based initiative. But all that ultimately stands behind that is a statement from President Hinckley during an interview with Larry King on how proud the church was of its independence and how determined it was to avoid government regulation; not exactly a thorough, much less official, political rebuke of Bush's Republican agenda. Amy also talks about Elder Russell M. Nelson (one of the apostolic leaders beneath Hinckley) urging Mormons during a conference just before the Iraq war to "renounce war and proclaim peace"; she somehow missed President Hinckley's subsequent sermon (which I wrote about at the time) in which he essentially (though not enthusiastically) defended the war in terms of an "overriding responsibility" we have, as a "freedom-loving people," to "fight for family, for liberty, and against tyranny, threat, and oppression." Doesn't sound like "fissure" between the Mormon church and the Republican party to me--certainly not enough for the rise of Harry Reid (who is both neither shunned by the Mormon hierarchy, whatever Matt Yglesias may think, nor universally beloved among Mormons, as this thread fully attests) to the position of senate minority leader to signal an opportunity to begin picking off even a small slice of the Mormon Republican base (which, as she notes, consists almost 9 out of every 10 Mormon voters in the U.S.). It's a pretty huge leap from the fact that a lot of evangelical Bush-supporters have theological disagreements with Mormons to the idea that any number of Mormons might therefore stop being Bush supporters.

I'm not saying anything that hasn't been said already by Matt, BTD Greg, Ross Douthat and several others. The problem with Amy's article isn't that Amy hadn't done all the research she might--she did enough to support her thesis, however minimally, and besides it was just a short "Daily Express" article anyway. And certainly no one can fault her creativity. No, the problem is with the thesis itself--that there are, out there amongst the believers, people who would readily vote Democratic if only they could be led to personally emphasize, and if only the Democratic party itself could recognize, those rather disparate positions and policies which they both have in common. Stem cells, government interference, maybe few other cherry-picked issues here and there; upon such a foundation, an alliance can be built (or at least a few swing voters can be swung). That sounds like smart political strategy: identify interest groups, speak to them on the basis of various shared interests, and enlist their support. But it's conceptually short-sighted; it refuses to acknowledge what Amy, as a committed believer herself, ought to see is obvious: that religious people for the most part believe what they do not because those beliefs consist of a bunch of discreet perspectives and principles which they happen to agree with (and hence which can be targeted by those who wish for political reasons to advertise their agreement with said believers), but because they embrace--as part of their culture, their family history, their personal philosophy, their whole gestalt--a worldview which makes certain perspectives and principles inherent to their thinking about political matters. (Of course, just as your average citizen doesn't think much about politics, your average believer doesn't necessarily think through the political implications of that which they believe. But if Amy's point is to act politically to reach out to Christians and Mormons and other believers, then she's already focusing on those who do work out the politics of their worldview.) See the difference? I'm afraid Amy consistently puts the cart before the horse, thinking that if Democratic candidates and leading figures in the party could show, in their talk and behavior, a certain level of sympathy for key elements in the moderate Christian political grab-bag (in this case by, perhaps, getting Reid and some other bigwig Democrats to meet with Mormon leaders and talk worriedly about how they're concerned about protecting stem-cell research from the Republican evangelical machine, too...) then certain voters could be brought around. But in fact, the sort of Mormons--the sort of people, period--who pay attention to the religious talk and behavior (or lack thereof) of candidates for the most part don't so much carry around a political grab-bag as dwell within one, and the shared interests which Amy hopes to emphasize have to be drawn out of that place where the believer's faith is. As I put it back in the days immediately after the election: "What is necessary is not translating liberal political imperatives into an evangelical or culturally conservative idiom, but rather taking such faith seriously as a legitimate basis for thinking about politics, and drawing progressive concerns out from it. It probably won't be a liberalism which gives you abortion rights, but maybe it'll give you health care. Isn't that worth something?"

Certainly, a lot of what I and many others said the first week or so after the election was overwrought; there was a lot more to the 2004 election than just "moral values." But the revisionist story--that religion didn't matter that much after all--is false too, and Amy deserves credit for never having gone overboard either way. As even Ruy Teixeira admits, the white, working-class, socially conservative vote in this country isn't getting smaller. And the Republicans have built themselves into this country's existing religious base, by painting their opponents (which much help from progressives themselves!) as culturally insensitive civil libertarians who have no interest in the concerns of communities of faith. As a friend of mine wrote in an e-mail: "Which party is the bigger defender of foeticide, pornography, vulgarity in film and music, drug use, the welfare of criminals, sexual misconduct and (from an orthodox Mormon perspective) deviance? Most Mormons would say the Democrats. What most Democrats call freedom, most Mormons call destructive license. Why Mormons shy away from the Democratic Party is no more a mystery than why social conservatives in general do so." This is not an electoral reality which can be broken apart by trying to polish up neglected facets of the Democratic diamond; it requires being willing to substitute one progressive gem for another, one that makes different, more populist arguments. Either that, or continue to hope that either American desecularization reverses course (again?), or that--after being smothered by Democratic candidates trained in religious sensitivity--the occasional rural or working-class Christian will suddenly realize on their own that they ought to oppose the economic libertarianism of the Republican party on the basis of their deep concern for social welfare, even though they're still not allowed to pray in schools. Good luck.

Of course, one can reject all this, sign up with Howard Dean's vision for the Democratic party, and condemn both Amy's approach and my critique as characterized by an unwillingness to defend liberalism as it is. And you'd be correct, in my case. But in Amy's, I don't think that'd be correct, and that's where you see limits in her article on Mormons, and her whole crusade. In the weeks after the election, those of us who argued that progressives in America needed to make at least partial common cause with the widespread communitarian religious sensibility which the religious right itself mostly ignores were often dismissed out of hand; our project, it was said, would involve lashing the Democratic party to a population which is "vanishingly small." But that's simply not the case. For better or worse, the population which is "vanishingly small" is, I suspect, Amy's hypothesized Christian voter: a liberal believer who, for some comparatively minor reason, doesn't vote Democrat. The election of progressives in America will not be helped by trying to make more comfortable a handful of liberal Christian cranks who nonetheless don't vote for liberals. It will be helped by making progressive politics populist and religious enough (and honestly, even a little bit could go a long way) so that a few--not all, not half, but a perhaps just enough--red-state Christians who don't consider themselves liberals might nonetheless see in the Democrats a progressive connection to what they already believe, and start voting accordingly. Amy's agenda is, I think, a good one--but it barely scratches the surface of where religious progressives (like me, and her) actually need to be digging deep.


Anonymous said...

Nice post Russell. I too was impressed by Amy's research and sincerity in trying to reach out to Mormons. As a member of the LDS church since a child and as a card-carrying Democrat, I would love to see more members of my faith move a little more to the left.

I'm not sure that I agree though with your response to Amy's paper. You're right, I think, that Mormons aren't going to flock to the Democratic party with a few simple strategic adjustments, but I also think that you're overestimating the political analysis skills of most members of the LDS church (or of most people in general). Although we as political observers are constantly reassessing our political convictions and trying to align them with our overall worldview, most religious people don't think much about it. Mormons generally vote Republican because they somehow got their political and religious identities linked and now they can't tell the difference between the two. For many Mormons, being Mormon equals being Democrat. The two identities are so intertwined that they couldn't even think about unraveling them.

And that I think is the fundamental problem with trying to convert Mormons over to the left. They simply can't be convinced. That's not to say that some aren't willing to change (heck, I did), but the large majority are incapable of reasoning their way out of the Republican party. I'm not saying Mormons or any other religious people are stupid or illogical. It's just that the sedimentation of personal identity is very strong and resists change. 

Posted by brayden

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I wish I could say it as well as you have.

Although I'm conservative, I think it would be best for the country if the Democrats took your advice. I know I would take them more seriously if they took me more seriously.  

Posted by David H. Sundwall

Anonymous said...

Well said-- it's well said in the TNR Online letter, too. 

Posted by Will Baude

Anonymous said...

Brayden - Mormons did switch from Democrat to Republican fairly quickly though. Admittedly that was in large part due to the change within the Democratic party. But I think it could happen. I just think it probably would require screwups by the Republican party as much as any modification of the Democratic party. 

Posted by Clark

Anonymous said...

The Social Gospel isn't going to go anywhere, because it demands too much from the average believer. Democrats aren't going to get the mainstream religious vote by using religious language to argue for programs that cost money and benefit the poor - because there is no evidence that the mainstream religious audience wants to spend its money that way in the scale of traditional non-discriminatory government programs, either directly through the government or through their own donations to poverty programs that do not require adherence to sectarian views.

In other words, when it comes to money, the faithful tend to vote their own economic interest, just like the rest of the voters. Yes, some minority of faithful and of non-believers will vote against their pocketbooks to fund poverty programs. But most don't.

The difference lies in the sex stuff. Being against legalized abortion or against legal racy movies or against legal homosexual consensual sex acts, or being for mandatory school prayer or for display of Ten Commandments in every public building doesn't cost serious money (doesn't raise taxes). It is an undemanding way to publicly affirm faith, to identify oneself to the community. 

Posted by NancyP

Anonymous said...

Hi Russell,
I appreciate the well-written post, and the small but real moral courage required to come out as progressive Mormon (someone likely to be disdained by both camps).

You might want to read Robert Fogel's *The Fourth Great Awakening*, and share your thoughts about that. 

Posted by Bill Gardner

Anonymous said...

There will never be a significant (or even minor) shift of believing Mormons to the Democratic Party without a radical change in the party (so that it becomes something essentially unrelated to what it is now), because the entire idea of Big Mother government is offensive to people who accept and understand the basic doctrine of the Church. There will always be the malcontent fringe types who for some reason want to be in the Church but not of it, of course, and those who haven't grown up yet and still have romantic ideas about being some type of revolutionary, but there are too many members of the Church who actually listen to the leaders of the Church, study the Book of Mormon, and support the principles of free agency and liberty, etc., to be pulled into something that is so incompatible with the Church at the most fundamental level.

You'd think that people would start to figure out why Democrats (and other leftist types) are shunned by most members of the Church. The fundamental belief systems of believing Mormons and Democrats are fundamentally incompatible. Essentially, you (liberals in the Church) don't believe what the rest of us believe. In fact, you believe in something that is in direct opposition to the things that are most sacred to us.

I have a feeling that believing Mormons who are aware of Satan's "plan" to force people to be good, and who understand that we rejected it once before, are going to see too many parallels with the Left's push to do that to us here, to ever accept anything close to the current Democratic party's push for control over people's lives. "It's for the children," and "It's for the poor people," and such, are clever lines to play on the emotions of the gullible and those "past feeling," but they don't work on people who actually, truly, and fully have a testimony of the Gospel and the Church. With the guidance of the Spirit, it's easy to see what's behind the pretty words.

And personally, I refuse to put my trust in the "arm of flesh" (the government). But hey, I'm just one of those wacky people who actually takes seriously all the words of the prophets, not just the ones that I can twist into some sad political agenda.

A secular government is never going to cure the ills of the world, especially a collectivist secular government, whether we call it France, or something as oxymoronic as "Christian Socialism." 

Posted by Peter Sohn