The Elephant in the Room

Leslie Carlson

Rosaries When I was twelve, I went to visit my relatives in Colorado, rural farm owners who were deeply religious, conservative Baptists.

As part of my visit, my cousin Sonja—who eschewed pop music stations on her AM radio in favor of Christian music—took me to Sunday school. It was a morning I will never forget.

At one point, the youth pastor spoke to us about the importance of prayer. “Remember this: God only hears your prayers if you are Christian. If you are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or any other non-Christian religion, your prayers will go unheard.”

Even at twelve, I was deeply, mightily appalled. It may have been my first political moment.

I am again struggling with religion in the aftermath of this election. I am sorely troubled by the number of voters who are social conservatives because of their religious beliefs, who seem to vote on “moral values” like opposition to abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage but seem untroubled by grinding poverty, tax inequality, senseless war, a lack of health care and failing public schools.

There are already calls for Democrats to reach out across the divide to these “moral values” voters. Maybe they aren’t one- or two-issue voters, but from where we sit right now it sure seems like it. And I wonder: how we will ever be able to reach out to at least some of them without compromising our principles? Yet as their numbers grow, will we ever be able to win without them?

  • iggi (unverified)

    i was in Southern Oregon recently and i heard a preacher on one of the local FM stations say: "If I were Satan, I would steal from the rich and give to the poor..."

    basically he went on to say -- the rich are God's children and poor people are Satan's lazy, good-for-nothing minions.

  • jason (unverified)

    We should run this Satan fellow next time, but I guess if its in the interest of poor Americans they won't vote for him.

  • Jonathan (unverified)

    As someone who grew up Conservative Baptist (now I consider myself reformed), I think there is actually a wide spectrum of fundamentalists, from thinking intellectually-based believers to mindless and stupid believers. I hope the latter always vote GOP, and I don't walk to work for their vote. Instead, I would like to find a way to speak to the former group about what I think is a fundamentalist's obligation to recognize Christ's teachings (looking after widows and orphans, eschewing favoritism to the rich, etc.)

    Let's leave the stupid ones in the category of those who think that aliens are speaking to them through foil in their heads, and try to appeal to those who really would like to live as Christ would -- helping the poor, sick and disenfranchised.

  • the prof (unverified)


    Jonathan is right. I lived in the South for 10 years, and your characterization of Christians is not accurate.

    They do care deeply about grinding poverty, tax inequality, senseless war, etc. Many of my evangelical Christian friends, in fact, give far more of their income away to charity and work to alleviate poverty than many liberal folks I know.

    Many are troubled by the war but are also frightened of Islamic fundamentalism. Public schools are a complicated issue--many home school their children because they object to sex education, value neutrality, the lack of any sort of morals or ethics education, and sexual practices and drug use. I'm not going to argue that these positions are right or wrong, but I don't think they are with merit prima facie.

    I do not think they are one or two issue voters, but I do agree that gay marriage has tremendously energized this portion of the electorate. But I also believe that many are actually reasonable on these issues -- they'll support civil unions but not gay marriage. They wish abortion was banned but you can win over millions with abortion plus some limits (parental notification, 24 hour waiting periods, etc). And on stem cell, I think the Democrats actually have the winning position.

    What we cannot be is dismissive or arrogant towards those who have open and honest expressions of faith.

    I think there are ways to repackage Democratic values so as to appeal to moderate religious types. As for the more conservative christians, they are probably lost. It's the moderates that we cannot lose.

  • Jeff Alworth (unverified)

    I don't see how Leslie has mischaractarized Christian fundamentalists. It's probably true that the shorthand of calling them callous toward "grinding poverty, tax inequality, senseless war, a lack of health care and failing public schools" doesn't capture their exact view. But if you unpack the meaning here, it is accurate. For fundamentalists Christians like George Bush, only the war is a matter for the government. All else is the purview of ... well, whomever. With luck the churches and homeschoolers will pick up the slack.

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    What I find ironic is that they're all so hellbent (pun completely intended) on protecting the unborn yet they want to bring them into this country where our schools are falling apart, our jobs are going overseas, the air is getting harder to breathe, and there are so many of us living in poverty. It makes no sense!

    You would think that people would focus on the problems at hand rather than attempting to create more problems by forcing unwanted children into this world. Or by preventing people who are actually alive from possibly life-altering, life-saving research that can affect them or their parents or their children. Over fifty percent of us who live to be over the age of 80 will get Alzheimers - you can't tell me it's just the pro-choice, pro-stem cell research folks who will be affected by this. Last I heard it doesn't discriminate.

    Alzheimers is not only a horrible thing to live with as an individual or as a family, but it's a huge strain on personal and government resources because they can continue to live perfectly physically healthy lives for a very, very long time. It makes no sense to me how someone would ever want to force families to go through this if there's a way around it - some of those families will be their own. If it's a matter of God's will, then perhaps God wouldn't give us the ability to find the cure in the first place. Unless finding a cure for Alzheimers, Parkinsons, etc., is somehow the work of the Devil. But I just can't see how anyone could find logic in that argument.

    Anyway, enough of that rant. I was talking to someone today about the election and about the overwhelmly popular opinion that a D can't win unless he (or she) is a Southerner. And he said "And it has to be someone who isn't afraid to talk about faith."

    Whether pro-choice or anti-choice, there are more people of faith in this country than not. This is important to them. Someone who doesn't talk openly about their own faith (even if it differs from everyone in the constituency) is not going to get the support of a faith-based voter. Kerry simply didn't address those core values like Bush did. I'm not talking about jumping on some moralistic high-horse a la W, but it has to be there. And even if it's subtle, it has to be obvious (if that makes any sense). Those who subscribe to no religion will not be put off by a religious person as long as the religion and the policy don't overlap. Clinton did an excellent job of addressing faith without mixing the two. Even with all of his sins... apparently he was forgiven? ;-)

    So there we have it... 2008, we need a Southern Christian on the ticket. I guess then maybe Edwards should have gotten the nomination in the first place. Heh, who knew.

  • Becky (unverified)

    As a former fundamentalist Christian, I am really saddened by the inaccurate view of their beliefs that I see expressed by some here. The Prof is absolutely correct in saying the issues of poverty, etc. are very important to these people, and rather than addressing those issues by voting to give more money to the government to take care of these people (after all it takes $7 into government to get $1 of services back out), they give very generously to those in need around them and elsewhere. More than any other group of people I have come in contact with, these people support groups like the Red Cross, who help with natural disaster relief, or the Salvation Army, or World Visions, which teaches aids prevention in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. Their churches usually have constant food drives going to feed the local hungry population. When people show up at the church asking for help, they are helped. Collections for the poor are taken up regularly. Just because they have a different approach to caring for the needy than you do (via government) does not mean they don't do their part and don't care. These people generally are meticulously honest people (unfortunately it's far more exciting to report on the few rotten Christians out there) who take good care of their families and teach their children to be honest. That is not to say they aren't human, but they do try very hard to make the world a better place.

    That said, some of their morality, such as their opposition to gay marriage, is based on a religion that springs from ancient mysticism and centuries-old traditions. They accept the Bible as fact. They hold to a view that God is far greater than all of us, and if God says something is so, then it is so.

    I was awakened out of Christianity by curiosity and study of ancient religions, the history of the Old Testament, and the true history of the origins of the Christian church. Once I realized it was a man-made religion I was free to re-examine my position on moral issues and come to new conclusions. This has been a difficult and painful process, and I'm not at all sure many would be willing to do it. In my opinion, children's history books need to be rewritten to include more of this solid historical and archological information so that young people can learn to differentiate the good principles for living that are contained in Christianity from the fundamentalist craziness that leads people to turn their backs on their fellow citizens and put their faith in politicians who hide behind a phony Christian label.

  • Jonathan (unverified)

    Fundamentalist Christians are, admittedly, sometimes generous to local issues. But I find are very likely to be judgmental ("well, she was stupid enough to have a second child," or "what is he doing on drugs"). That kind of generosity is also inherently local. Alabaman Christians are not giving to people in Los Angeles or South Dakota. My problem is not that Fundamentalist Christians are always tight, as much as that generosity can't be through government. There is no religious reason for that bias against government assistance with poverty!!!
    Finally, the 7 to 1 number is dead wrong in implication. The government only spends $1 in $7 on direct services (if that # is right), because it spends a ton on other things like, oh, war.

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    Prof, Becky: I certainly don't mean to be divisive and arrogant of others' religious beliefs, nor was I trying to be callous. I am trying to understand how & why conservative religious voters became such a solid bloc this election.

    Why vote en masse for W on the basis of "moral values," when John Kerry is a devout Roman Catholic, a regular attender of mass, and a proponent of federal tax and health care policies that would aid the poor and sick? Why vote en masse for W when it's clear that his tax cuts have and will hurt the needy?

    I understand that conservative Christians are suspicious of government, but I find it hard to understand how anyone could think food and clothing drives run by local churches would retrain someone for a job or give him or her the means to see the doctor when sick. Who do conservative Christians think is going to do this stuff if government doesn't?

    This leaves me with the belief (which may be wrong--convince me!) that most are well-intentioned regular folk who happen to get motivated to vote on one or two social issues like gay marriage. But I want to believe that they have a coherent world view on these other issues--then we as progressives might understand how to reach out to them across the values divide.

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    Thank the Mass. supreme court, thank our great local heroes Lisa Naito and her myopic fellow travellers on the Multnomah County connission.

    If these people had had a brain in their heads, they would have waited until November 3rd to assist the oppressed gay community in its struggle for legal rights.

    Karl Rove is receiving undue credit for solidifying the Christian Base. All he needed to do was point his army of pastors at this target of opportunity.

  • Becky (unverified)

    Pat has, I believe, hit the nail on the head. The gay marriage thing did a lot to bring born-agains and fundamentalists to the polls. It's the only thing I can think of, other than the fact (?) that G.W. is also a born-again, which means he is the God-annointed leader of the free world. End of debate.

    Yes, Jonathan, Christians are judgmental, as are all people. It's instinctive in humans to judge others and treat badly those that don't fit our view of how people should be. Kids exercise this out in the open in schools with extreme cruelty before they learn to be more clever about it. It's a tragedy of the human condition, and hopefully someday we'll evolve out of it. Anyway, I disagree with you on the giving locally thing. Like all people, they give to groups they trust, and usually these are Christian charities, many of which operate nation-wide or even world-wide. As for the $7 and $1 thing, I'm not talking about all government - I'm talking out of $7 budgeted for social services, $6 pays for the overhead and only $1 goes to those who need it.

    Leslie, it is an unfortunate truth that many Christians do not view Catholics as Christian. Interesting, isn't it? It's a remnant of the Reformation and Martin Luther and all that. And if you think about it, Catholicism includes basic Christianity and a whole lot of ancient mysticism that has nothing to do with Christianity. Anyhow, in a born-again v. Catholic contest, the born-again will get the Christian vote every time. As to the people-driven charity v. government charity, there is quite a case to be made for both sides. Libertarians and free-market think tanks have published excellent analyses of this issue which I could never properly express here. That said, I personally prefer a mix of the two. Some things are better done by individuals, while others are better done by government.

    We have in this country a very odd mixture of all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs. It's a fascinating social experiment. We can't expect it to go off without a hitch, because we're defying instinct to try to live peacefully with each other. We have to stop trying to agree on everything and respect each other's boundaries, instead focusing on keeping our wonderful country safe for everyone. Easier said than done.

  • Jeff Alworth (unverified)

    A bit of a tangent.

    Christian fundamentalists have gotten off a bit easy, and if I relate to Leslie's post on an instinctive level, it's that she's calling them to account.

    On the one hand, Christian fundamentalists hold an absolutist view: this is definitionally what distinguishes them from so-called "mainline" Christians. Fundamentalism requires an unflinching doctrinal judgment. In private, this point is very clear. Yet it's not particularly politic to broadcast this judgment in America (though it's becoming more so). So the PR side of things tends to emphasize one's own feelings, which are characterized as profound, spiritual, and emotional. The consequences of the view are not mentioned.

    Fundamentalists want it both ways because they are depending on the post-modern culture in which they live to refrain from judging them in the absolute terms they hold. And mostly they get away with it, because Americans do honor one's beliefs about faith.

    But now we have a federal government run by people of one faith, who hold that faith in far, far higher regard than they hold notions of secular polity. It is possible that in their service as politicians they will set aside their views on faith and try to govern in an evenhanded manner (though there's little evidence of this effort).

    But that doesn't mean that Americans can't hold their feet to the fire and demand them to expose their own views for public scrutiny. This isn't a poor, abused minority. Christian fundamentalists run the country. It's time for progressives to get over our fear of impoliteness and demand that they bring their views into the public dialogue. It's not a private belief if it determines your actions, and consequently the actions of the country.

  • Jonathan (unverified)

    Can I give a meaningful example here? A fundamentalist really means one who looks to the Bible to teach fundamental truths. In my view, a fundamentalist has to acknowledge that the Bible doesn't really say anything about abortion. But most fundamentalist Christians just listen to their pastors and blindly believe that the Bible demands no abortion. If you find a fundamentalist who says "well, you're right, but I think that the Bible errs on the side of giving life," then I think you've found a fundamentalist who might vote for a candidate with genuinely progressive social policies, like looking out for the poor, etc. I know one fundamentalist theologin (my dad, sorry) who I still hold out hope for, for this reason. Surely there are others.

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    What I find most disturbing and downright creepy about all of this is that the Presidency of the United States appears to have hinged on a sort of shadow campaign. Certainly, the debate we experienced in the public square did not hinge on gay marriage, stem cell research, and abortion. While those issues were raised, they were not central.

    But, it appears that the political arm of the administration penetrated churches and homes with a message of fear and bigotry, without ever having to defend it publicly. I am with Jeff and Leslie here -- they need to account -- out in the open -- for these messages and the policies they may engender.

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    This will be our chance to put Thomas Frank's thesis to the test. In What's The Matter With Kansas, Frank argues that the Republican leadership galvanizes its base with neo-populism and moral scare tactics but then delivers results to the rich and elite.

    It is worth quoting from Frank at length so that we may consider his words as we see how a second Bush administration and a Republican-dominated Congress play out:

     "The leaders of the [conservative] backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate.  Values may 'matter most' to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won.  This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon, absolutely consistent across its decades-long history. Abortion is never halted.  Affirmative action is never abolished.  The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act.  Even the greatest culture warrior of them all was a notorious cop-out once it came time to deliver. 'Reagan made himself the champion of "traditional values," but there is no evidence he regarded their restoration as a high priority,' wrote Christopher Lasch, one of the most astute analysts of the backlash sensibility.  'What he really cared about was the revival of the unregulated capitalism of the twenties:  the repeal of the New Deal.'
     "This is vexing for observers, and one might expect it to vex the movement's true believers even more.  Their grandstanding leaders never deliver, their fury mounts and mounts, and nevertheless they turn out every two years to return their right-wing heroes to office for a second, a third, a twentieth try.  The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off.  Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes.  Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization.  Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation.  Vote to get the government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meat-packing.  Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization.  Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining."

    So, my friends, we shall see if the pattern holds. The conservatives may well be trying to unravel modernism, but in ways that we might not have yet imagined.

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    Wendy: If Frank is right, then this actually gives me hope in a weird way. Maybe it's an opportunity for the Democrats to show Christian conservatives what the administration is up to as they exploit them for their votes but never deliver. They talk the talk, but never walk the walk.

    Jeff: Thanks for expressing a lot of what I felt but wasn't able to put in words as eloquently as you did.

  • the prof (unverified)


    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. It's not time for a religion lesson, but many here are really quite uninformed about the tenets of evangelical Christianity. Before you jump all over me, I'm not defending these positions, just trying to help you understand them.

    I guess first you have to understand evangelicalism (meaning born again--so for instance if you believe that George Bush was born again, then his old sins were washed away; this is why his wild child days which matter to many of us do not matter to evangelicals; what matters is his displays of faith today) vs fundamentalism (biblical literalism).

    There are overlaps but they are not the same. Jimmy Carter was evangelical but not a biblical literalist. Clinton was probably raised a fundamentalist (Baptist) but is not evangelical.

    Someone said above that they listen blindly to their pastors. In fact, one of the distinguishing features of evangelicalism (especially compared to Catholocism) is a personal relationship with Christ, without the intermediary of the Priest.

    Nothing about abortion is mentioned in the bible, but neither is anything about nuclear weapons. That does not mean that a Christian has no blblical guidance as to the evils of both. Once you believe the fetus is a living person, this is an easy moral choice.

    Leslie, the reaction to Kerry is also quite simple, and is epitomized by his positions on abortion and gay marriage. In both cases, he says he is personally opposed but is willing to keep them legal. To a committed conservative, this is an empty moral stance.

    Finally, Pat is right. Everything I have read is that gay marriage has incredibly energized conservative christian groups. They (e.g. Moral Majority, Christian Coalition) were losing money, membership, and influence.

    I'm not in a position to tell gay activists what is the right time to pursue this issue; it is always difficult to tell someone to just wait for what they consider a civil right. However, I am in a position to evaluate the impact this had on voting in this election, and it was substantial. Make of that what you will.

  • randy (unverified)


    "As for the $7 and $1 thing, I'm not talking about all government - I'm talking out of $7 budgeted for social services, $6 pays for the overhead and only $1 goes to those who need it."

    Care to source that? I know Lars, Rush and other gasbags throw out kernals like that, but do you have any research-based basis for that claim?

    Rs have long wailed about the inefficiency of government-provided social services. Yet, aren't there ultimately some services government should provide that can only be provided by the public sector? Education? Health care? Public tranpostation and roads? I cannot imagine any private corporation able to struggle on the way our public school teachers do on the budgets they are given -- let alone having to produce that 5 - 15% net profit shareholders would demand.

    Now, the statement that $6 of every $7 given goes to "overhead" would probably apply to many charities and non-profits out there (anyone remember Bill Sizemore?). But without sometime to back up your claim, I'm not buying it.

  • Becky (unverified)

    Randy - Back when I worked for Bill Sizemore, I knew the source of the $7/$1 thing, but unfortunately I don't remember what it was. However, I felt comfortable with its accuracy at the time. So it would take some research to turn it up. Nevertheless, you certainly don't need to point out to me the wastefullness of his operation. We did, however, operate on a shoestring budget and probably got a lot more done with less than most, but that was after the skimming off the top ... In any case, I don't consider non-profit groups such as OTU to be charities, and frankly don't believe they ought to be allowed to exist tax-free because despite their talk about being "in the public interest" they are almost always, whether liberal or conservative, politically motivated.

    Prof - As I said early, I was a fundamentalist Christian, and perhaps I didn't clarify that I was a born-again Christian. So I do understand what you are saying and agree with your take.

    I am most distressed here by the reluctance on both sides of the gay marriage issue to allow others to hold their own views. There is this feeling that people should be held accountable for their views. Well, both sides feel that the others' views are damaging society, and both sides feel they are on the moral high ground. So at some point you simply have to recognize first that this is a democracy, so if you're in the minority you're just not going to have it your way all the time, and second, that because this is a democracy that abhors abusing minorities, we each MUST respect the rights of our neighbors to believe whatever they want to believe, no matter how crazy it might seem to us. We have laws that all must obey to protect us, and we all have a right to work to persuade our neighbors to our point of view. But to demand something of people when that demand violates something very basic in their religion, something that is contrary to tradition and accepted morality by most cultures for centuries, is unacceptable, rash, and destructive. Pushing the issue of gay marriage isn't going to make your situation better - it will only serve to solidify your opposition - I say that as one who knows your opposition. If you would prefer to feel righteous and lose rather than to be patient and tolerant and win, then go right ahead and get militant about gay marriage. But you'll only divide the country further. Our culture is simply not ready for that yet. I'm not saying it's right that gays can't have the rights associated with marriage, but you're trying to pick a piece of fruit that is still green.

  • Jonathan (unverified)

    The prof's distinctions between evangelicals and fundamentalists are not really helpful, because GW is neither, really. The NYT reported that when GW was asked about whether he believed in the inerrancy of the Bible (the touchstone for fundamentalism), he dodged, but essentially said that he did not believe that everything was literally true. (Frankly, I think that's just because he hasn't actually spent enough time studying the Bible to be able to defend certain portions of the Bible that are viewed as antiquated). GW also is not really evangelical. Jimmy Carter was free to talk about his faith, and I am sure that while he is not particularly pushy, he would gladly "convert" others. GW seems to have less of a mantra about being "born again." As I understand it, GW has attended mainline Protestant churches, Presbyterian and Methodist, which are neither fundamentalist nor evangelical.

    With that, it is a mystery to me that fundamentalist christians (using my parents here) would love GW, but would not look fondly on Jimmy Carter. Not sure what was in that Koolaid ...

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    There's a flipside to all of this religious perspective. I was on an appointment for work today out in Gresham with a woman I'd met with before so I knew that she and I have similar political views. We spent about half an hour ranting about last week and talking about her fears as a widowed senior. Anyway, she told me that the day after the election there were people going from door to door handing out Bibles. At first I was confused as to why - but she said that the woman told her that if she flipped to the page that was bookmarked and read the passages that she would know that in spite of all that has transpired, there's hope. With tears in her eyes, she said "Isn't that just the nicest thing?"

    I don't know which passage was bookmarked so I don't know what the message was from these folks. But it was obvious that there are a lot of deeply religious people who are just as upset and frightened as the rest of us.

    <h2>Or, y'know, they could have been planning to go out door-to-door on Wednesday regardless of who won just to increase membership to their church. But I'll choose to believe that their message and their intent was sincere. Gives me a little hope, too.</h2>

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