I want to thank both Amy and Thurman for taking the time for their stimulating exchange of ideas last week on this blog. It modeled the freedom to discuss controversial topics and civility of tone that should characterize public debates. Faith in Public LIVE will bring similar extended debates to you on a regular basis in this space, so stay tuned in coming weeks.
I also want to take a moment to thank our summer interns who have done such great work with us and are beginning to depart. Lauren, Dave and Alex are sure to go on from here to do fantastic work for justice and the common good in the years ahead. We’ve been lucky to have them in our camp during this exciting summer, and look forward to the arrival of our interns for this fall.
Rev. Jennifer Butler
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Since both David and Amy are busy today, I’ll take on the task of trying to wrap things up. I believe I can summarize Amy’s position as this:
The Casey campaign in Pennsylvania provides an excellent example of how and why Democrats should broaden their appeal to include faith-based groups that can be hostile to some Party positions. By insisting on fair implementation of legal requirements, the Casey campaign turned what appeared to be a partisan-front organization into at least a neutral organization. This is being repeated at state and county levels throughout the country that Democratic chairs are finding that they are the first Democrat ever to talk to some religious leaders. While it won’t convert people overnight, it will at least establish a dialogue and create an atmosphere of mutual respect. This is a promising development and should be embraced by Democrats everywhere.
I agree that it is a promising development, but I caution against making too much of a single example. If the only way to make inroads is to change what we stand for, then we have effectively lost the battle anyway. What I believe we need to do, as Faithful Left activists, is to better organize and to better annunciate a theology upon which liberal ideology can rest. That’s difficult work to do, and it’s going to be messy and a lot of toes are going to be stepped on. But I believe it is vital work if there is to be any longterm “Faithful Left”.
David pointed out that at least some of this work has already been started. We don’t have to start from scratch and that there is still a good bit of work that can be done simply by reaching out to existing groups and letting them know that we exist. Both Amy and I agree with him on this issue and see greater organization (but not necessarily centralization) as a benefit.
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Dear Amy and David,
Don’t worry about the optimism, Amy. We all need plenty of it! Actually, I’m fairly optimistic as well, I guess I just look for boulders on the highway too much.
I realize that I need to clarify something. I don’t think that Casey was able to demand equal time because of his pro-life credentials. That is pure political strategy and simply using the law as it was intended. I still think, however, that his reception by the group has more to do with his pro-life stance than anything else. They may respect him for standing up to his party on abortion and to conservatives on gay marriage, but that’s because he manages to stand up to different people on the two issues. If he was also pro-choice, then he’d have left a much different feeling in their bellies when he walked away. He still could have demanded, and probably received, fair and equal time. The result would have been different, though. In fact, I doubt he’d have decided it was worth his time.
The most precious resource in any campaign is time. The PPN has maybe three or four issues about which they want to hear a candidate speak. If he’s against them on all four, there’s no chance he’ll convince a voter to vote for him. From a campaign perspective, that’s a waste of time. That’s why Democrats have, for so long, eschewed many religious groups. It isn’t going to help them and they might say something that really gets the religious people lathered up. It’s better to let a sleeping dog lie.
In Casey’s case, his pro-life position allows him to make the speech something besides a waste of time. There may be a few voters there that actually vote for him. Regardless, their attacks on him, as Amy points out, are going to be blunted. So while it isn’t his pro-life credentials that get him the time from a legal perspective, it is his pro-life credentials that make it worth his trouble.
The problem that this highlights is that there is no similar left-wing religious organization from which a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage candidate could get an equal political boost. That’s an organizational problem. Pretty much everyone on the left understands that we are decades behind the right organizationally. I believe that is also tied to the lack of an ideological basis (in political terms) and a strong theological basis (in religious terms) for collective action. Until we find an answer for the charge that we “stand for nothing and fall for everything” we aren’t going to change that. People don’t generally get out of bed early to vote or take time away from their family to attend meetings dedicated to “good government” – but if you make it about “liberty” or “doing what is right for your kids”, then suddenly they are interested.
That is currently where the Prevention First strategy is. It’s good policy. As Amy points out, it will do more for cutting abortions than overturning Roe. But, while there is an ideological core to that policy, it is not well articulated. Therefore Senator Reid’s speech has some rhetorical highlights, but no really binding ideas that will draw people out of their shells. Because it lacks a well-crafted ideological core, the only soundbites are policy-heavy and can be spun so hard it makes your head hurt. “Better access to birth control pills” suddenly becomes “Your daughter will be given birth control by her PE teacher and you’ll never know it.”
I want to stress again that it isn’t solely the job of our politicians to make create this ideological core. In fact, due in large part to their need to appeal to a larger group, they can’t. It’s our job as liberal activists to create a rhetorical base that our leaders can tie into in order to make those sound bites. “That isn’t conservative,” was a ludicrous statement twenty years ago. Today, everyone knows what it means – or at least they think they do. Either way, the core is there and it can be used to spin off sound bites in every direction. Since it’s my idea to bell the cat, I’ll take a short stab at it – with the understanding that it is likely to make a lot of people uncomfortable. But I think I’ll do it at my site rather than further sidetracking the conversation here.
Instead, I’ll end today by encouraging the party chairs who are reaching out to groups that may have been less than friendly in the past. You can’t steer a parked car, and it’s better to try and steer some of the politically active in our direction than it is to build an entirely new field of politically active persons. I don’t think that all of these groups are as conservative as the PPN. Rather, they are more “Republican leaning” groups that head in that direction because Democrats simply haven’t tried to engage them. Rectifying that oversight should put a number of races into play that wouldn’t be otherwise. If nothing else, it should help us engage a wider electorate and that should help us be more respectful of differences and perhaps – dare we hope? – bring a more civil discourse to our politics.
All the Best,
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Dear Thurman and David,
I’ll harp on this just one more time before moving onto the question David posed, which also addresses a challenge Thurman raised as well.
I continue to disagree that the reason Casey was able to demand equal time with a group that had only been engaging with Republicans was because of his pro-life credentials. For one thing, he was simply making them abide by IRS regulations for tax-exempt groups–you don’t have to be pro-life, pro-choice, or pro-wrestling to do that. And, of course, he could have forced them to play by the rules by filing a complaint against them. This, however, allows him to avoid the charge of being anti-religion and actually promote the fact that he’s interested in hearing what they have to say. That’s very different from agreeing with them, which I think most people have forgotten does not have to be the prequisite to having a conversation.
But more importantly, Casey doesn’t agree with the PPN on everything. They have the same approach to abortion, yes, but this group has made the Federal Marriage Amendment a big priority this year, and Casey walked in on Monday and told them in no uncertain terms that he disagrees with their position. I’m told by someone who was there that the crowd seemed to respect him for the fact that he was willing to stand up to his own party on abortion and to even stand up to them on the marriage amendment. Again, I think the key is honest and respectful dialogue. They can still go off and try to smear him as godless, but the charge won’t ring true to many voters. And that is repeatable by other Democrats, even pro-choice Democrats.
That said, it does worry me that the two recent Democratic candidates who have seemed to understand religion the best have been pro-life. I don’t think for a minute that the only Democrats who can successfully communicate their religious faith and thereby neutralize the charge of godless Democrats are those who are pro-life. But it concerns me that many Democrats and progressives might make that assumption (and perhaps honestly so, given the two most visible examples), and therefore give up on the project of reaching out to religious communities because they will assume that means moving in the pro-life direction.
That’s where the Prevention First strategy that David mentioned comes in. Despite the fact that Reid’s speech on Monday could not have been more lackluster, and that the Senate Democrats have inexplicably waited eighteen months after introducing this legislation to finally start promoting it, I believe Prevention First could be the key to completely rehauling the abortion debate the way that “Partial-Birth” did ten years ago.
Reid had one line in the speech that I hope Democrats repeat over and over as they introduce this new way of thinking about abortion (I’m paraphrasing here without the transcript): “It’s strange that the people who say they’re most opposed to abortion are the ones standing in the way of preventing abortion.” If Democrats can pull this off, pro-life voters will have to seriously reconsider which party is more pro-life. Here’s what I mean: If you believe on principle that Roe v. Wade should be overturned and abortion outlawed completely in the United States, and you won’t settle for anything less, well, the Democratic Party is not the party for you (although I’d argue that the GOP doesn’t intend in a million years to let any of that happen….) But if what you want is to see abortion rates reduced, let’s look at how successful each party’s strategy might be.
The GOP wants to overturn Roe. Okay, well, we know that at least 40 of the states would still allow abortion, and in the ten or so that would outlaw it, abortion isn’t too available right now. So at most, we’re looking at a 10 percent reduction in abortions. Parental notification laws haven’t reduced abortion rates, nor have partial-birth bans. So those add a big fat zero to the overall number. Democrats, however, want to make contraceptives more affordable and available, reform adoption laws, restore real sex education, and increase funds for programs that help pregnant women and new mothers. The combination of higher contraception use but lower rates of sex among teenagers resulted in a thirty precent drop in teen pregnancies over the past 15 years. If the same could be accomplished with teens and adults, you’re looking at an enormous drop in the rate of unwanted pregnancies, which automatically means a drop in abortion rates.
I realize it’s not communicable in a soundbyte. But that, again, is one of the reasons that state party chairs and others have been reaching out to more conservative constituencies to have meetings. Over the course of an hour-long meeting, it’s possible to explain this approach and actually get people to sit up and pay attention.
I’ve worked myself into a small optimistic fever here, so feel free to bring me back to reality. But I’m very interested in your thoughts.
all the best,
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Dear Amy and David,
Looks like it’s my turn again. You guys are going to make it hard for me to keep it short and sweet!
To turn first towards the Casey strategy, I think there is a consensus that it isn’t going to help Casey make inroads with the hard-core Republicans (I disagree that this group is conservative, but that’s another topic). I teach my students that there is generally a 30% core of voters who will back either a candidate or a party no matter what. The contest is for the other 40% of voters – the swing voters. What Casey did was neutralize an issue by demanding equal time with a special interest group. It works for him because the make up of the swing group fits nicely into his own constituency – the pro-life crowd. It wouldn’t work for me, one of those non-pro-life, non-pro-choice Christian Democrats. To the extent that is true, it is repeatable only by someone with Casey’s pro-life credentials.
But you are right to emphasize that this is not the only field upon which politics is played. By embracing his religion, Casey has insulated himself against the “Godless liberal” demogoguery that has been so prevalent in recent years. That is definitely repeatable – and it should be repeated by any candidate who wants a serious shot at winning in the Deep South or through the Great Plains states (the dark red states). An abortion-moderate (I’m afraid that’s the best term I have right now) could still insulate their campaign from that pre-packaged slander by speaking openly to people of faith about their faith. John Kerry made a step towards that (bungling it by linking his “faith without works is dead” speech to closely to campaign rhetoric) and I think Kaine improved upon it. Casey is one more step along that path.
But here’s the rub: For an abortion-moderate Christian Democrat to speak openly about faith in action, they are going to have to draw upon a theology that allows for abortion. If Kerry had done that, rather than use the pulpit to slap at the President, he might not have had to stumble through an answer of how he can oppose abortion personally but endorse it politically. Developing this theology has to be the job of those of us on the Faithful Left rather than individual candidates.
If one believes abortion is murder, then how can one justify allowing it to be legal without legalizing other forms of murder? If you don’t believe it is murder, then what is it in theological terms? What is our moral and legal responsibility to the unborn, the pregnant woman, and the father (who is too often forgotten about in this discussion)? Many of us operate from a sort of gut-level theology without exploring these questions and wrestling them to submission. Because we do, the public discussion is the poorer and there is no collective understanding for a candidate to call upon in a campaign.
I agree that Kaine also reaped the benefit of an authentic persona. I disagree, however, with the comparison to President Bush. President Bush uses his authenticity to push for a positive message – in the sense that he is positively doing something. Kaine used it as a negative message – he wasn’t going to change the law. In a sense, Kaine’s authenticity wasn’t challenged because no one expects the Virginia legislature to pass a bill outlawing capital punishment. If put in a position of choosing between following his theology and signing a bill to outlaw capital punishment and obeying the “law of the land” by vetoing it, we still have no indication which way Kaine would move. I think that’s a significant difference. If the issue had been more prevalent and subject to change, I think his authenticity would have hurt him as he would have had to struggle publicly with that question. So I understand the point both of you make on this, but I think a different campaign with a different candidate in a different state would have had very different results – in other words, it doesn’t represent a precedent so much as it does a deviation.
In the interest of time, I’ll try to summarize my point. Kaine in Virginia and Casey in Pennsylvania both represent deviations from what we are accustomed to seeing. Both of them have used this deviation to their benefit – and there is some lesson to be learned from their doing so. The point Amy makes of being the first Democrat to speak to an evangelical group is an excellent example. The lesson there, I’d say, is not to surrender any part of the electorate. Take your message to every group you can in a language they understand. If they don’t like you, they will at least respect that you took the effort to do so. That respect may or may not pay off in electoral terms, but the race is long and the more ears that are bent partially to your message, the more votes are potentially swinging for grabs.
It might be worth thinking about how we make these successful deviations into precedents.
All the best,
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