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.
American history offers many examples. In his magisterial new history of the antebellum United States, "What Hath God Wrought," Daniel Walker Howe shows that religious divisions and the rise of evangelical Protestantism were defining characteristics of the party system built by the Whigs and the Jacksonian Democrats. But the republic has also had moments in which religion was less important to public life, and it is easy to be blinded when we find ourselves at a turning point.
The last long secular era endured from 1932 to 1980. Presidents throughout that period continued to use religious language in their speeches, declared their devotion to God and invoked faith on behalf of the great causes they pursued. FDR saw Nazism as a "new German pagan religion" and insisted in 1942 that "the world is too small to provide adequate 'living room' for both Hitler and God." Dwight D. Eisenhower assailed "godless communism" that "strikes at the jugular vein of freedom." John F. Kennedy proclaimed in his 1961 inaugural address: "Here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own."
But Kennedy's line also signaled the distance between politics and specifically religious questions. His emphasis was on the work to be done here on Earth. In his famous speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, designed to reassure Protestants that his Catholicism would play no substantive role in his presidency, Kennedy said, "I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair." Religion was private, not public or political.
But the secular period that Kennedy spoke for ended with Ronald Reagan's election, the rise of the Moral Majority and the emergence of the Christian Coalition. If my theory is right, we will come to see this era of religious polarization as having lasted from 1980 to 2008. The era that is beginning will likely be more religious than the long post-FDR secular period. It's hard to imagine Obama, Clinton or any other Democrat giving a speech quite as relentlessly secular as Kennedy's Houston address. But compared with the period that is just ending, the new period will be more secular, more pluralistic and more focused on issues outside the cultural realm.
The era of the religious right is over. Even absent the rise of urgent new problems, Americans had already reached a point of exhaustion with a religious style of politics that was dogmatic, partisan and ideological.
That style reflected a spirit far too certain of itself and far too insistent on the moral depravity of its political adversaries. It had the perverse effect of narrowing the range of issues on which religious traditions would speak out and thinning our moral discourse. Precisely because I believe in a strong public role for faith, I would insist that it is a great sellout of those traditions to assert that religion has much to say about abortion and same-sex marriage but little to teach us about war and peace, social justice and the environment.
With the United States turning its attention again to very large, post-9/11 issues -- as our forebears did during the Depression, World War II and the Cold War -- we will certainly be asking for God's blessing and help. But the questions that will most engage us will be about survival and prosperity, not religion and culture.
E.J. Dionne Jr., a Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of the recently published "Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right."