Culture Wars? How 2004.

By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Sunday, March 9, 2008

If you were looking for a presidential election that revolved around religion and "moral values," you wouldn't start with President Bush's victory in 2004 -- nor, indeed, with any recent election. You'd go back to 1928. Now there was a culture war.

At that moment of great prosperity, the two big issues were whether the United States should continue its experiment with Prohibition and whether it should elect Al Smith, New York's Democratic governor, as the first Roman Catholic president. It wasn't even close. The "drys," who favored the ban on booze, overwhelmed the "wets," who wanted to be rid of it. And the Catholic Smith was clobbered by Republican Herbert Hoover, who carried several Southern, predominantly Protestant states that had been voting Democratic since the aftermath of the Civil War. "We shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation," Hoover declared, and most Americans believed him.

Then, a little more than a year after Hoover's buoyant prediction, came Oct. 29, 1929. After the great stock market crash, the question of whether Americans could legally consume alcohol seemed rather less pressing. The controversies over Smith's Catholicism abated. By 1936, the year of Franklin D. Roosevelt's landslide election, the culture war was forgotten, replaced by a nonviolent class war against those whom FDR called "economic royalists."

Ancient history? Hardly. The lessons of that earlier age are eerily relevant to the current moment in American politics. When major crises intrude, culture wars can fade awfully quickly. They did so in 1936. There are many signs that they're fading again in 2008.

We are at the beginning of a new era in which large, secular problems related to war and peace, economics and the United States' standing in the world will displace culture and religion as the electorate's central concerns. Divisions on "values" questions will not disappear, but they will be far less important to voters and campaigns.

Just four years ago, we were arguing over whether Bush was reelected primarily because of his strong support from voters who told the exit pollsters that "moral values" had guided their decisions. We parsed the political preferences of those who attend religious services frequently and those who never go -- and found the former group rather staunchly Republican, the latter strongly Democratic. It was 1928 all over again. Culture and religion ruled.

In truth, Bush's victory rested both on 9/11 and on enthusiasm from religious voters. But what's most important is that 2004, like 1928, is destined to be the last in a long line of contests in which culture and religion proved central to the outcome.

This shift is already obvious from the results of the 2008 primaries. Focusing relentlessly on national security, Sen. John McCain has clinched the Republican nomination despite robust opposition from the party's cultural and religious conservatives.

On the Democratic side, cultural and religious questions have played almost no role in the battle between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. They have spoken instead about economics, health care and the war in Iraq. Strikingly, both have been intent on putting an end to religious divisions in the electorate and have sought to welcome the devout to the Democratic Party.

Obama has been explicit about the need to broker political peace between Democrats and believers. "If we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, then the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Alan Keyeses will continue to hold sway," he said in an important speech at a 2006 meeting organized by the progressive evangelical Jim Wallis. "More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms." Clinton has also spoken movingly of the role of faith in public life. "I'm living by the Scripture that says we are all members of God's household," she told a Baptist convention in Atlanta in January.

In their efforts to push cultural issues aside, Obama and Clinton resemble no one so much as Roosevelt. He knew that maintaining a Democratic majority required overcoming the cultural divisions of the 1920s. And just as large events -- the Depression, the threats of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan -- helped him in his effort, so will the large questions of economic dislocation, the aftermath of the Iraq war, the continuing struggle in Afghanistan and concerns about long-term U.S. global influence allow Democrats to transcend the cultural battles of the recent past.

It is a human habit to assume that whatever defined the era we have just lived through will necessarily define the next. The rise of the religious right in the late 1970s and early 1980s came as a surprise because most Americans had come to assume that the long, relatively secular political period that followed FDR's electoral revolution was inevitably the way things would be. We had forgotten how often religion proved decisive in the creation of new electoral alignments.

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