Dan and Nick have ably dissected the numbers in a new poll about the Tea Party movement from Public Religion Research Institute. I attended the release at the Brookings Institution earlier this week and was struck by comments from panelist Michael Gerson – a WaPo columnist, former speechwriter for George W. Bush and influential voice of moderate Christian evangelism.
I appreciate Gerson’s consistent lament that the extreme tail wagging the Republican dog these days has negative long-term consequences for a party unlikely to find lasting electoral success alienating Latinos, embracing Tea Party extremism and generally making it harder to create a big-tent conservatism. His elegant writing and often lonely call for Republicans to recognize the generational and ideological shifts shaping the broadening evangelical agenda make me one of those annoying liberals who stand up for him at parties with progressive friends.
But at Tuesday’s panel, Gerson set aside his nuanced pen and put on his partisan hat. He continued an argument from his WaPo column that morning, which criticized President Obama for abandoning his creative engagement with religious voters that characterized his faith-based outreach on the campaign trail and blamed his administration for sparking a new “culture war over the role of government.” Instead of Fox News misinformation, blatant examples of Tea Party racism and endless Republic obstructionism, he pointed to the Obama administration for the extreme ideological polarization dividing Americans. Here’s Gerson writing in his column:
But Obama has mainly employed his faith-based office to defend federal initiatives, particularly health-care reform. “Get out there and spread the word,” he recently told faith leaders.. “I think all of you can be really important validators and trusted resources for friends and neighbors, to help explain what’s now available to them.” Such obvious political manipulation only feeds skepticism. Instead of creatively reaching out to religious conservatives, Obama has driven them toward an ideological decision. America is accustomed to culture war arguments on abortion and family issues. The president has provoked a culture war debate on the size and role of government. If the choice is between bureaucratic centralization and Tea Party revolt, most evangelicals will choose the latter.
So let me get this straight. George W. Bush, Gerson’s old boss, promoted perhaps the most aggressive, politicized Christianity ever seen in the White House –including a Christian triumphalism that undergirded his quasi-messianic view of interventionist foreign policy — but it’s this president who is engaging in “political manipulation” by encouraging faith leaders to spread the word about health care reform many of them worked tirelessly to achieve as an urgent moral priority for decades?
This is an empty argument from an intellectual heavyweight who usually gives us more to chew on.