The modern Democratic Party traces its roots back to the Washington administration-era machinations of Thomas Jefferson and his protege James Madison. These two were almost unique among the Founding Fathers in their hostility to the cozy relationship religion and politics shared throughout America history beginning in its early days as a British outpost. The Republican Party, on the other hand, formed in part out of the revivalist spirit of the Second Great Awakening.
America’s two dominant political parties have undoubtedly morphed over the years, but Democrat and Republican dichotomous attitudes of religion in public life have remained remarkably close to those of their respective beginnings. Whereas 19th century Republican evangelicals would often preach against the evils of slavery, 21st century Republican evangelicals preach against the evils of abortion. Only the names have changed (in this case, literally: the Democratic Party of Jefferson’s age was known as the Republican Party).
So when former U.S. Senator John Danforth claimed “that the Republican Party fairly recently has been taken over by the Christian conservatives, by the Christian right,” as he did on Wednesday during a speech before sixteen students enrolled in the Bill Clinton School of Public Service, he is demonstrably wrong. Christians have not “taken over” the Republican Party and neither is there anything “recent” about it. Christians were present at the founding.
“I think the question arises when a political party becomes identified with one particular sectarian position and when religious people believe that they have the one answer, that they understand God’s truth and they embody it politically,” Danforth continued, according to the Associated Press.
Strange words from an Episcopal priest (hold the jokes) who benefited mightily from the political activism of Christian conservatives when he was running for Senate, no?
Since there would be little point in professing a religion if one didn’t believe it had the “one answer,” Danforth’s all-religions-are-equal utopia is a bit far-fetched. And while Danforth also encouraged religious liberals — or “moderates” as the Associated Press calls them — to get involved in politics, the fact is, they already are and they already vote Democrat. The problem for these folks is that liberal religiosity is dying. So-called moderate denominations are bleeding members.
Moreover, the Republican Party isn’t identified with one particular sectarian position. It’s just that the Republican Party is a conservative party and the conservative strains of most Christian sects (which also happen to be the growing strains) have abandoned minor sectarian differences and coalesced around shared positions on key cultural issues. The GOP benefited from a majority of Catholic and Protestant votes in 2004, for example.
Danforth believes its relationship with the Religious Right will be bad for the Republican Party in the long run. It’s hard to imagine how that can be. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a Republican Party at all without the Religious Right.
Almost 28 million Evangelical Christians voted in 2004. These folks split their votes in favor of President George W. Bush over Sen. John Kerry by a margin of 78% to 22%. That amounts to over 21 million voters. Throw in 6.9 million observant Catholics and nearly 1 million conservative and orthodox Jews and we end up with over 29 million religiously motivated voters that support the Republican Party.
Compare that number to MoveOn.org’s 2.5 million Democrats. Or Big Labor’s 16.7 million. Or the 11.8 million blacks who routinely vote straight Democrat.
Let’s look at it another way. If the United States had a European-style parliamentary government, the Religious Right would be the “natural party of government,” perennially winning a plurality of seats and serving as a mainstay in successive coalition governments. The Religious Right is the largest single voting block in American politics and whether John Danforth likes it or not, it is a predominantly Republican voting block. Consider: Being born-again is a greater predictor of a Republican vote than owning a gun, being white, being a man, or being a millionaire.
What self-respecting Religious Right-basher would finish off a screed without comparing America’s conservative Christians to radical Islamists? This rhetorical device has become a staple of Christian baiters and Danforth is no exception. “Nothing is more dangerous than religion in politics and government when it becomes divisive,” he said. “I’ll give you examples: Iraq. Northern Ireland. Palestine.”
Note to John Danforth: The Religious Right is here. It’s part of who we Americans are. Get used to it.