Monday, December 20, 2010

Evangelicals and Progressivism

This post is part 3 in a four-part series on Peter Berkowitz's extremely helpful and informative article, "Obama and the Rhetoric of Progressivism," which you can read here. In this post I look at how this article can help us understand the nature, defects and future of the Evangelical Left.

In the 2008 election, Obama's team learned from the mistakes made by John Kerry's campaign in 2004 when "values voters" (aka Catholic and Evangelical Christians) flocked to George W. Bush. When I say "flocked" I mean something like "ran screaming from the horror that was Kerry's blatant secularism." Obama's team determined that they would not cede the white evangelical vote to McCain and that they would reach out to religious voters. They got Obama to talk about religion, which he proved relatively effective in doing. They used Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis to reach out to younger Evangelicals and to those interested in the peace and justice agenda.

Tiffany Stanley in an article in The New Republic, entitled "Things Fall Apart: How Democrats Gave Up on Religious Voters," writes:
Between 2004 and 2007, when Obama announced his candidacy for president, he became possibly the most prominent Democratic politician who was comfortable speaking about religion—a liberal who gave the impression that his religiosity was heartfelt, genuine, and important to his politics. He spoke with ease about his conversion; of the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and, in a key speech before the Call to Renewal conference in 2006, of the importance of “religion in the public square.” In the 2008 presidential election, Obama’s message seemed to resonate with religious people who had not, in recent years, gravitated toward the Democratic Party. He won more churchgoers than any Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton.
But, she notes, the wheels have come off the Democratic outreach to "values voters."
But, in just two short years, the left has become sluggish in its courtship of religious voters, significantly scaling back its faith-outreach programs. . . . In the recent midterm elections, House Democrats lost white evangelical voters in greater numbers than they did in 2004, when “values voters” flocked to George W. Bush. Reversing their Democratic allegiance from the past two elections, Catholics—nearly a quarter of all voters—favored the GOP 54 to 44 percent. Compared to 2008, the drop-offs were steep: a 20-point decline with Catholics, a 14-point decline with white evangelicals, and a 10-point decline with white Protestants. How and why did this happen?
Jennifer Rubin in her blog at the Washington Post, "Right Turn," comments on Stanley's article and says that, while the article explains that the Democrats have scaled back their political programs designed to win over religious voters, Stanley never explains why they have done so. Rubin offers her own explanation:

You have to imagine that value voters lack core convictions -- an obvious bit of cognative dissonance -- to miss why it is that religious voters disapprove of the Democrats these days. It's the agenda. Religious conservatives are staunchly pro-Israel. They don't like Obama's approach to Israel. They are pro-life; Obama has reversed the Mexico City accord, appointed two pro-choice Supreme Court justices and reversed Bush administration policies on stem cell research. Value voters have a commitment to "traditional family values;" the Democrats successfully championed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Value voters bristle at efforts to restrict religious expression in the public square and at government interference with the free exercise of religion (e.g. they favor a conscience clause for health-care providers with regard to abortion and birth control). The administration has generally ignored such concerns. And finally, religious voters generally care deeply about religious freedom around the world; Obama's record is woefully deficient in this regard.

Moreover, religious voters have traditionally been suspicious of the power of the state. It comes as a shock to many on the left, but it is entirely understandable, that while the agenda is focused on fiscal matters, many in the Tea Party identify themselves as religious conservatives. Once again, the Obama administration and religious voters are at odds on fundamental policy issues.

So the real question is not why value voters have fallen away from Democrats, but why a significant number were lured into the Obama camp in the first place.
In Rubin's estimation, the Democrats were never serious about serving the religious voters as a constituency; they just wanted to hoodwink enough of them to vote Democrat in a close election but had no intention of budging on policy.

Mark Tooley at The Weekly Standard asks: "Is the Religious Left Fizzling?"
Over the last several years the old religious right reputedly has been melting down, with younger, more liberal evangelicals in the ascendency. But exit polling from the 2010 midterm election indicate no major political shift among evangelical or Protestant voters.

According to CNN's exit poll, 77 percent of self-described white evangelicals or born again Christians voted Republican. This number is actually higher than the 74 percent who supported George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, which was considered a high water mark for conservative evangelical activism. Seventy percent of white evangelicals and born-agains voted Republican in 2008 and 2006.
But I want to call attention to Tooley's conclusion (and we are getting to Berkowitz soon!):
Exit polls of actual voting by evangelicals indicate that the evangelical left remains primarily a phenomenon among evangelical elites on seminary and college campuses and among some parachurch and activist groups. The prolonged wars, culture clashes, and ultimate financial collapse during the George W. Bush years undoubtedly moved some evangelical elites and young people to the left. But the ongoing recession, explosion of government spending, and liberal stances on abortion and homosexuality by the Obama administration (the NAE quietly opposes revoking “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”), along with the president's discomfort with American exceptionalism, have likely solidified grassroots evangelicals overall within their traditional conservative politics. Like left-leaning mainline Protestant elites starting decades ago, evangelical elites increasingly will probably denounce their own constituency for its lack of political enlightenment.
The Evangelical Left is following a predictable path just as the progressive Protestants of the mid to late 19th century in embracing progressivism right down to the idea that the ordinary people are too stupid to understand how progressive, enlightened and good the left-leaning progressive elites are. The Evangelical Left is attempting to gain control of all Evangelical institutions and has already made serious inroads into seminaries and publishers and has taken almost complete control of most Evangelical liberal arts colleges. It suffered a real setback in the 1980s when it was expelled from the leadership of America's largest Evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. But the battle continues and those ignorant of history will be impotent to prevent its repetition.

Peter Berkowitz, in discussing the "Old Progressivism" notes in passing that the Protestant churches and the Social Gospel were integral elements of the original progressivist movement.

The original progressivism arose in the 1880s and 1890s and flourished during the first two decades of the 20th century. It is associated with, among others, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, scholars Fredrick Jackson Turner and Charles Beard, reformer Jane Addams, theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, philosopher and educator John Dewey, and journalist and New Republic founder Herbert Croly.

At their best, the original progressives responded to dramatic social and economic upheavals generated by the industrial revolution, opposed real Gilded Age abuses, and promoted salutary social and political reforms. They took the side of the exploited, the weak, and the wronged. They fought political corruption and sought to make political institutions more responsive to the will of the people. And they advanced programs and policies that, in a changing world, brought liberal democracy in America more in line with the Declaration of Independence's and the Constitution's original promise of freedom and equality for all.

But progressivism went astray owing to a defect in its basic orientation. It rejected the sound principles of government embodied in the Constitution, because of a critical difference of opinion about human nature. Progressives believed that great improvements in the moral character of humanity and in the scientific understanding of society had rendered the Constitution's scheme of checks and balances - or better its separation, balancing, and blending of power - unnecessary to prevent majority tyranny and the abuse of power by officeholders. Whereas the makers of the American Constitution believed that the imperfections of human nature and the tendency of people to develop competing interests and aims were permanent features of moral and political life, progressives insisted that progress allowed human beings, or at least the most talented and best educated human beings, to rise above these limitations and converge in their understanding of what was true and right. Indeed, according to the progressives the Constitution's obsolete and cumbersome institutional design was a primary hindrance to democratic reforms to which all reasonable people could agree and which upright and impartial administrators would implement. It is a short step from the original progressives' belief that developments in morals and science had obviated reasonable disagreements about law and public policy and dissolved concerns about the impartiality of administrators to the new progressives' belief that in domestic affairs disagreement is indefensible and intolerable.

Liberal Protestantism went wrong by embracing the heretical progressivist view of man as perfectible by education and by rejecting a biblical Augustinian view of human nature. This was the key doctrinal mistake and it led to a rejection of the penal substitutionary atonement as the heart of the Gospel and to the exaltation of social service to the center of the Church's mission and message instead. All this followed logically from the embrace of Rousseauian perfectionism. And it is happening all over again, which explains why progressives like Brian McLaren are so adamantly opposed to Reformed theology and its atonement-centered Gospel. The problem with the Evangelical Left is its embrace of progressivism.

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