It came out of the blue.
During a rare presidential press conference dominated by Katrina and Harriet, (some reporter) asked an ever-so-peculiar question:
"Mr. President, the Bible speaks of goodwill towards the least of these. With that, how are you going to bridge the divide of poverty and race in this country beyond economics and home ownership, that after Hurricane Katrina and also the Bill Bennett statements? And also, how can the Republican Party gain the black vote -- more of the black vote in 2008, after these public relations fiascos?"
Flash to my in-laws' dinner table. (Some AmSpec readers will recall my in-laws are dyed-in-the-wool Democrats and members of MoveOn.org.) Amidst a conversation about the merits of a welfare state versus America's traditional rugged individualism, my father-in-law scratched the phonograph needle across the vinyl record grooves: "The one thing Jesus talked about more than anything was helping the poor."
Now flash to my in-laws' countertop where sits a Democrat Party bumper sticker that reads: "Jesus cared abut the poor / So do we." (Note, curiously, that it does not reside on their car bumper.)
It's not hard to discern what's going on here. After years of getting their hats handed to them by the so-called Religious Right and after losing the "moral values" voters by a margin of 82% to 18% in the 2004 elections, Democrats and the political Left have resolved they can't beat 'em, so they'll join 'em. Their policies are now inspired and endorsed by the Big Fella Himself.
They have a tough row to hoe. Fewer Americans (29%) today view the Democrat Party as "friendly to religion" than did last year (when that figure was 40%), according to a Pew Research Center poll from late August. Indeed, after three consecutive years of decline in the "friendly to religion" department we can detect an inversely proportional relationship between the Democrats' use of religious rhetoric and their public image on religious amiability.
First, merely slapping the Jesus label on stale social welfare programs won't make them popular, particularly when the vast majority of Democrat leaders in Washington oppose efforts to invite churches of all denominations to take part in the welfare game through President Bush's stagnant Faith Based Initiative. According to Pew, allowing churches to apply for public funding to help fight poverty is viewed favorably by 66% of the American people.
Second, Democrats have been breathing their own exhaust regarding Republican greed. Yes, the GOP is viewed as disproportionately favorable to business, particularly big business. And yes, many Americans are skeptical of any claims of altruism by big business. But the resultant fallacy that most Americans are searching for their inner Karl Marx and all they need is the Democrats to tell them raising taxes is What Jesus Would Do is an absurd leap, which, frankly, leaves many Americans shaking their heads.
Third, most Americans of faith know full well Jesus cares deeply for the "least of these" (by the way, try to imagine the Bill Bennett-style firestorm of controversy if a Republican politician referred to African-Americans as "the least of these" as the above referenced reporter did). But they also know that nowhere did Christ prescribe compulsory charity as a remedy for poverty. The liberals' attempt to buy their way into Heaven by extirpating indulgences from others is not what Jesus has in mind.
Fourth, the political Left assumes that poverty programs in the United States which have transferred trillions of dollars from rich to poor in the last 40 years (to say nothing of our individual charitable efforts) amount to nothing. Our policies still "favor the rich at the expense of the poor," as the talking point goes. And they're right. The poor sadly are still with us. Which ought to explain something to the political Left that we on the Right have accepted as a given for decades now: government-run social welfare programs don't benefit the poor; they suspend them in penury.
Fifth and finally, the political Left is deeply conflicted internally on the matter of religion in public life. To begin with, there exists within the Left a powerful secularist element that would love to exclude any mention of Christianity from the public square. These are the folks who run those obnoxious anti-Christmas campaigns every December and shriek about church-state separation whenever anyone breathes a word about Intelligent Design. There is an actual organization called the Godless Americans Political Action Committee. And of course we've all heard of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. How are these folks going to react if the Religious Left ever gains any momentum within the Democratic Party?
To further complicate matters, there are two camps within the Religious Left itself. There are the real Religious Leftists, or rather the sincere ones, such as Jim Wallis, who adhere firmly to the proposition that Christ's charge for us is to keep the peace and fight poverty. But then there are the hangers-on and the charlatans such as Howard Dean, who only started quoting (or rather, misquoting) the Bible recently after years of railing against politicians who "only want to talk about God, guns, and gays." Wallis himself has labeled Dean's Biblical rhetoric "inauthentic."
But why does it all matter anyway? Well, because for lack of anything else to discuss about her, Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers's Christianity has become the topic of the day. It is likely her alleged literalist Biblical worldview will be a subject of great speculation as to how she might view the U.S. Constitution and vote on key issues of morality, abortion being the most high-profile. And now that it's okay for reporters and liberal activists and politicians to quote liberally from the Bible and invoke the name of Jesus to promote their political agenda, it will be interesting to observe how they behave during the coming Miers battle.
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