Liberals have forgotten how to make the religious case for liberal causes

Liberals should fight back against conservative dogma by fighting fire with fire, but seem to have forgotten how.

The contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act has sparked controversy among conservatives [GALLO/GETTY]
The contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act has sparked controversy among conservatives [GALLO/GETTY]

New Haven, CT – Every four years, the United States spasms with all sorts of manufactured outrage in the run-up to the election. 2012 is no exception. The latest in fake politics is being called “Rosengate“, named after a Democratic strategist who said Mitt Romney’s wife has never worked a day in her life.

She was right. Ann Romney, a mother of five married to a quarter-billionaire, is indeed unqualified to speak to the economic concerns of the average working American woman. But Romney had been polling badly with women and this was a chance to turn the tables. Now it was President Barack Obama who was being anti-mother! Mothers work, too, you know! Yes, but that’s not the point. No matter. The right-wing media echo chamber has been ringing since.

Republicans aren’t entirely to blame. The Democrats are partly responsible for this spun-from-thin-air controversy, because of a decision they made during a genuine controversy over the so-called contraception mandate.

Inside Story US 2012 –
What is at stake in the US healthcare debate?

First, a refresher: The contraception mandate is part of the historic health care reform law called the Affordable Care Act. It requires that all employers cover birth control in their insurance plans. This applies even to employers affiliated with churches. That’s where the heart of the dispute lies. Forcing church-affiliated employers like colleges and hospitals who believe in birth control is a sin to pay for birth control could be a violation of their constitutional rights. Prominent Catholics, not just conservative ones, rejected the rule. In response, Obama modified the rule so insurance companies bear the burden, not the church-affiliated employers.

Republicans, taking a cue from Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the United States Conference of Catholics Bishops, saw an opening. They started to hammer Obama for his appearing to attack the freedom of religion. They did this even after Obama modified the rule. Democrats never bothered to take up the fight on religious grounds. Instead, they chose, with good reason, to denounce the GOP’s “war on women”.

This was a rare instance in which being right yielded political dividends. The GOP and its conservative media allies, ie, talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, revealed themselves to be unreconstructed champions of bald-faced chauvinism. Romney has suffered from an enormous gender gap. Women still prefer Obama.

But now, with this fake outrage over the fake slander of working mothers, Republicans now enjoy the appearance of a balanced counterweight to the liberal charge of being anti-woman. Not only that, Republicans have, because Democrats gave it to them, the moral high ground. The Democrats are anti-mother as well as anti-religion.

A liberal killed the Christian liberal star

It didn’t have to be this way. Democrats could have argued in the name of the Sermon on the Mount, an unimpeachable source of biblical authority in keeping with the egalitarian spirit of Obama’s health care legislation that may have gained wide appeal among women voters who already express more concern about health care than they do balanced budgets.

But they didn’t. Why?

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Part of the reason is obvious. Conservatives are so much better at using religion as a rhetorical weapon. But that isn’t a natural outcome of party affiliation or innate ideology. Liberal Democrats gave up on religion a long time ago.

The Republican Party used to be widely viewed as the party most willing to drive the humanity out of working-class Americans by using the bloodless forces of laissez-faire capitalism. William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic presidential candidate, fought against that. He was the champion of the common man, a populist philosopher and the chief spokesman of a nearly extinct strain of ideology: Christian liberalism. Bryan’s worldview went on to become central to the building of the New Deal.

1925 might be the year in which Christian liberalism died, and, as is typical in the history of American liberalism, American liberalism is a prime suspect in the crime.

That was the year in which Darwin’s theory of evolution stood trial in Dayton, a small town in rural Tennessee. Bryan in effect defended revealed religion while arguing against the teaching of evolution in public schools while famed civil libertarian Clarence Darrow argued for evolution.

In what will forever be remembered in the annals of bad legal manoeuvers, Bryan allowed himself to be cross-examined. The whole wild affair was famously preserved by HL Mencken, who wrote in a July 21 dispatch for the New York Times:

“Darrow drew from Bryan that he knew little of comparative religion, very little of geology, nothing of physiology, and hardly anything that would interest a man seeking light on the vast questions of evolution and religion on which he had written for years. He took refuge again and again in his faith in the written word of the Bible. If what science he had learned did not agree with that, he did not believe it and did not want to know.”

So a liberal killed the Christian liberal star, and since 1925, it has been unfashionable, to say the least, for liberal commentators to sound preachy. To the contrary, liberals are supposed to be the voice of reason, pragmatism and enlightenment; they oppose ignorance, prejudice and the madness of the masses. Liberalism, as the late Daniel Bell suggested, is the ideology of no ideology. It is the practical application of technical knowledge to situations in need of repair. Which is damn hard to get excited about.

Obama’s new health care law, especially, one could argue, in providing equitable access to birth control to the poorest among us, keeps watch over the sick, the meek and the mild. It’s the kind of law most beloved of the God of the New Testament, the God of mercy, compassion and peace. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal time to make the religious case for liberal causes, but I worry that liberal Democrats have forgotten how to do that.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a frequent contributor to the American Prospect, the New Statesman, Reuters Opinion and the New York Daily News.

Follow him on Twitter: @johnastoehr

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