David French writes as part of an On Faith roundtable on how social issues will resonate in 2012. French answers, “What do the religious controversies surrounding the leading Republican candidates tell us about the state of the social conservative movement? What do social conservatives want in 2012?”
With all due apologies to Charles Dickens, when it comes to faith, politics, and the presidential race, it is the best of times, and it is the worst of times.
First, the good times. For Christian voters there is a lot to like about the leading Republican contenders. Unlike in 2008, when the Republican nominee was famously indifferent or even hostile to religious conservatives (previously calling some of them “agents of intolerance”), Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, and Rick Perry not only embrace religious voters, they’re faithful members of their own churches.
Michele Bachmann has a personal story that would land her a Hollywood film deal if she were liberal. A mother of five and foster mother of 23, she jumped into politics when she saw the appalling deficiencies of her foster children’s public education. From the moment she stepped into public life, she’s been a fierce advocate of life, traditional marriage, and our nation’s founding principles. In many ways she’s a poster child of the evangelical engagement advocated by Francis Shaeffer and others in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade.
While Mitt Romney’s LDS faith is controversial with many evangelical voters, even that controversy demonstrates the seriousness and vitality of faith in America. His record in public office demonstrates a commitment to life, marriage, and religious liberty. In 2007, Massachusetts Citizens for Life gave him a leadership award, and in 2008, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty awarded Romney and his wife, Ann, its Canterbury Medal for “courage in the defense of religious liberty.” Put simply, while there are theological differences between Mormons, Catholics and evangelicals, there’s no daylight between them on core moral issues.
Like Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry is an outspoken evangelical, and he’s not afraid to confront legal challenges as he demonstrates his own faith in public life. Perry goes so far as to declare that he hopes the “willingness to stand in the public square to acknowledge the God who made us” will draw others to faith. Likewise, his commitment to life, marriage, and religious liberty can’t be questioned.
In fact, every single major Republican candidate for president is pro-life. All of them are strong advocates of religious liberty, and none of them has adopted the ahistorical “separation of church and state” view of the Establishment Clause which has done so much damage to religious expression. While they have different theological views, they have a strong commitment to moral orthodoxy -- to the values inherent in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
But that brings us to the bad times. It’s no secret that American politics are polarized, and as one political party is increasingly identified by faith, the other is increasingly secular. In the last several election cycles, church attendance has been a leading indicator of voting preference. The more often a person goes to church, the more likely they are to vote Republican. The less often they attend, the more likely they are to vote Democratic.
This is a terrible development for faith in America. Even worse, it is unlikely to change. The combination of faith identification and party identification has created a profound barrier not just to dialogue but also to basic civility. The famous “Jesusland” meme created after the 2004 election is just one manifestation of the contempt generated by the political and religious polarization.
And as the polarization increases, the two sides often no longer speak the same language. When David Gregory grilled Michele Bachmann on Meet the Press, it was clear he could hardly comprehend her world view. You can watch the exchange for yourself below, which starts around 17:40:
That contempt is mirrored on ideologically monolithic campuses where overwhelmingly leftist college professors admit they dislike their evangelical students and sometimes place intense pressure on those students to change their world view.
Why will this religious/political polarization persist? One word: abortion. While there is no single theologically orthodox position across a wide range of public policy questions -- from taxation, to war, to entitlements, to welfare -- it is profoundly difficult for theologically orthodox Catholics, evangelicals, and Mormons to support the legal killing of unborn children. So long as one political party uncompromisingly supports that “right,” faithful Americans will flee its ranks. Not all, to be sure. But most. And the more they flee the Democratic Party, the more the Democrats harden their position.
Ever since the Democratic Party banned then-Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey from delivering a pro-life message at the 1992 Democratic convention, the message has been clear: Pro-life Democrats are well outside the party’s mainstream.
Yes, that is “single issue” politics, but sometimes single issues are not only profoundly important on their own terms (what’s more important than life and death?) but also reveal deep underlying values, such as reverence for Scripture.
Roe v. Wade sent a message to Christian voters: Your voice is so far outside the pale of democratic discourse that a “right” would be created to bar your influence. Such a stinging judicial declaration can only be undone by massive, persistent, multi-generational bloc voting, and such bloc voting is inherently and necessarily polarizing.
We can rejoice that now -- almost 39 years after Roe -- the Christian faith has never been more vital and relevant in presidential politics. But the price of that engagement is high, and until the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are available to all Americans, that price will be paid.