Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sunday Reading

It’s Not All About Jesus: The Christian conservative voters — the so-called “values voters” — are finding out that the nation and even some of their own care about more things than just abortion, gay rights, and prayer in schools. Issues such as poverty, war, and the environment are also important. David F. Kirkpatrick looks at the changes coming to the bloc.

Just three years ago, the leaders of the conservative Christian political movement could almost see the Promised Land. White evangelical Protestants looked like perhaps the most potent voting bloc in America. They turned out for President George W. Bush in record numbers, supporting him for re-election by a ratio of four to one. Republican strategists predicted that religious traditionalists would help bring about an era of dominance for their party. Spokesmen for the Christian conservative movement warned of the wrath of “values voters.” James C. Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, was poised to play kingmaker in 2008, at least in the Republican primary. And thanks to President Bush, the Supreme Court appeared just one vote away from answering the prayers of evangelical activists by overturning Roe v. Wade.

Today the movement shows signs of coming apart beneath its leaders. It is not merely that none of the 2008 Republican front-runners come close to measuring up to President Bush in the eyes of the evangelical faithful, although it would be hard to find a cast of characters more ill fit for those shoes: a lapsed-Catholic big-city mayor; a Massachusetts Mormon; a church-skipping Hollywood character actor; and a political renegade known for crossing swords with the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Nor is the problem simply that the Democratic presidential front-runners — Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards — sound like a bunch of tent-revival Bible thumpers compared with the Republicans.

The 2008 election is just the latest stress on a system of fault lines that go much deeper. The phenomenon of theologically conservative Christians plunging into political activism on the right is, historically speaking, something of an anomaly. Most evangelicals shrugged off abortion as a Catholic issue until after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. But in the wake of the ban on public-school prayer, the sexual revolution and the exodus to the suburbs that filled the new megachurches, protecting the unborn became the rallying cry of a new movement to uphold the traditional family. Now another confluence of factors is threatening to tear the movement apart. The extraordinary evangelical love affair with Bush has ended, for many, in heartbreak over the Iraq war and what they see as his meager domestic accomplishments. That disappointment, in turn, has sharpened latent divisions within the evangelical world — over the evangelical alliance with the Republican Party, among approaches to ministry and theology, and between the generations.

The founding generation of leaders like Falwell and Dobson, who first guided evangelicals into Republican politics 30 years ago, is passing from the scene. Falwell died in the spring. Paul Weyrich, 65, the indefatigable organizer who helped build Falwell’s Moral Majority and much of the rest of the movement, is confined to a wheelchair after losing his legs because of complications from a fall. Dobson, who is 71 and still vigorous, is already planning for a succession at Focus on the Family; it is expected to tack toward the less political family advice that is its bread and butter.

The engineers of the momentous 1980s takeover that expunged political and theological moderates from the Southern Baptist Convention are retiring or dying off, too. And in September, when I called a spokesman for the ailing Presbyterian televangelist D. James Kennedy, another pillar of the Christian conservative movement, I learned that Kennedy had “gone home to the Lord” at 2 a.m. that morning.

Meanwhile, a younger generation of evangelical pastors — including the widely emulated preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels — are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions. There are many related ways to characterize the split: a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus’ teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty — problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers.

Frank Rich notes that the evangelicals are willing to compromise their values to back a GOP candidate that could be a winner regardless of his perceived liberal views. Why? Because it’s the only way to stay in the game.

If they really believed uncompromisingly in their issues and principles, they would have long since endorsed either Sam Brownback, the zealous Kansas senator fond of using fetus photos as political props, or Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who spent 15 years as a Baptist preacher, calls abortion a “holocaust” and believes in intelligent design rather than evolution.

But they gave Senator Brownback so little moral and financial support that he folded his candidacy a week ago. And they continue to stop well short of embracing Mr. Huckabee, no matter how many rave reviews his affable personality receives on the campaign trail. They shun him because they know he’ll lose, and they would rather compromise principle than back a loser.

Backing a loser, they know, would even further diminish their waning Washington status in a post-Rove, post-Bush G.O.P. The more they shed their illusion of power, the more they imperil their ability to rake in big bucks from their apocalyptic direct-mail campaigns. They must choose mammon over God if they are to maintain the many values rackets that make up their various business empires.

Hilariously enough, some other big names on the right, typified by Sean Hannity of Fox News, are capitulating to the Giuliani candidacy by pretending that he, like the incessantly flip-flopping Mitt Romney, is reversing his previously liberal record on social issues. The straw they cling to is Rudy’s promise to appoint “strict constructionist” judges to the Supreme Court.

Even leaving aside the Giuliani record in New York (where his judicial appointees were mostly Democrats), the more Democratic Senate likely to emerge after 2008 is a poor bet to confirm a Scalia or Alito even should a Republican president nominate one. No matter how you slice it, the Giuliani positions on abortion, gay rights and gun control remain indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton’s.

“You have absolutely nothing to fear from me,” Rudy disingenuously told the assembled at the Values Voter Summit last weekend. Actually, there’s plenty for everyone to fear from a Giuliani presidency, starting with the mad neocon bombers shaping his apocalyptic policy toward Iran. But that’s another story. Whichever candidate or party lands in the White House, this much is certain: Inauguration Day 2009 is at the very least Armageddon for the reigning ayatollahs of the American right.

Josh Marshall: All this talk that Rudy Giuliani is too moderate or liberal for the GOP is “malarkey.”

Rudy’s reputation for liberalism is based on three factors — abortion rights, gay rights and serial adultery. In which order, I’m not certain. But those basically cover it. On most other key issues Rudy is fundamentally an authoritarian, and thus a right-winger on the key issues of the day. And that’s a product Republicans are buying.

I’ve discussed at some length the group of fanatics and warmongers that Rudy has surrounded himself with as advisors on foreign policy. But there’s a point that’s important to take note of here. In their book American Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy, Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay make an important point about President Bush’s foreign policy and the influence of his advisors — the so-called ‘vulcans’. They argued that it is a mistake to believe that because President Bush had no experience or deep knowledge of foreign affairs that his policies were just the work of his advisors, as though he were a blank slate or an empty vessel into which they could simply pour their agenda.

The advisors were key. But Bush didn’t end up with these advisors by accident. And as we’ve gotten to know President Bush over the last eight years it has become clear that the key aspects of his policies — petulant unilateralism, a reliance on force, inflexibility and more — are rooted in the president’s personality. They cohere with a world view that he clearly brings to the table.

I think the same is the case with Rudy. Yes, Podhoretz and Pipes and Rubin and the rest of them are nuts. But it’s no accident he’s gravitating toward them and vice versa. He has a deeply authoritarian personality. And his approach to governing is heavy on bullying and what in domestic affairs amount to appeals to force. Soften the words a bit and I think even his fans would agree to that description as the root of his success.

The thing is that whatever his views on abortion, which he’s trimming daily, Rudy offers to the Bush 30% what they love about Bush which is authoritarian government and aggression abroad. The absence of conspicuous religiosity in Rudy’s World is a significant difference. But I think these other qualities, especially with where core Republicans are on Iraq, trump even that.

At least on foreign policy and presidential power — two pretty big issues at the moment — and Rudy is Bush without the soft edges.

Doonesbury: Wounded warrior.

Opus: Dogs rule.