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Religion and “The Divide”

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Last week Hugh interviewed Tevi Troy in the wake of a piece Troy published in Politico under the provocative title “How GOP Intellectuals’ Feud With the Base Is Remaking U.S. Politics.”  Hugh continued the discussion on the matter this week with Jonah Goldberg.  In both interviews Hugh was searching for the source of the divide and concentrating on the “D.C. bubble theory.”  But I think there is a factor in this mix that people are ignoring at the moment – religion.

The divide is real and it indeed threatens the effectiveness of right-leaning political action in the country.  It is vitally important to know where it comes from.  Let’s start with the fact that it was almost universally acknowledged in 2008 that “Evangelicals” played a spoiler role in Mitt Romney’s primary efforts.  They did so by giving Iowa to Mike Huckabee, robbing Romney of the momentum he had counted on moving forward.  Huckabee went on to flounder through the rest of the campaign, but he and his Evangelical constituency had spoiled things for Romney.  The lesson learned is that Evangelicals are of insufficient numbers to get what they want, but they are of sufficient numbers to have a tremendous impact.

Now, an aside on my use of the term “Evangelical.” The term has become so overused as to virtually lack definition save for the one an author assigns it in any given writing.  The only definition that comes close to capturing everything it has been applied to is “politically conservative Protestant,” but even that fails to acknowledge Catholics of an evangelical outlook or the breadth of theological differences inside it.  Evangelicals were once distinct from the mainline Protestant denominations, or a movement embedded in them, and distinct from Pentecostalism.  But the mainlines are now effectively dead, certainly so as conservative institutions, and the line between Evangelical and Pentecostal has pretty much vanished.  There will be any number of exceptions to my use of the term in this piece, but it is the most convenient handle to grab.

From the viewpoint of Evangelicals, driven largely by social issues, the country has gone to hell – almost literally.  Same-sex marriage was a huge slap in the face, far more so than abortion, and now the transgender movement is not merely a moral anathema but a very real physical threat to their daughters and wives.  From an Evangelical standpoint these things are beyond reason, they make no sense whatsoever.  Same-sex marriage defies the obvious created order and allowing men into ladies rooms, regardless of circumstances, is simply a threat.  From such a viewpoint, the conservative intellectual trying to reasonably discuss something that is inherently unreasonable, even if “siding” with the Evangelical, is to grant the opponent a point they have not earned.

It should also be remembered that when Reagan put together the coalition social issues, at that time limited pretty much to abortion, were relegated to second tier status.  Reagan was a wink-and-a-nudge pro-lifer.  Intellectuals have continued to view social issues with that “you’re right, but what are we going to do” attitude while Evangelicals have watched themselves lose ground on social issues at an ever increasing pace.  That’s going to build some resentment.

Another important point is that with the merger of Evangelicals and Pentecostals comes a deep streak of anti-intellectualism. What Pentecostals bring to the table is a penchant for what is loosely termed “experiential” faith – a faith that is more felt and experienced than believed and practiced.  In the view of many too much thought can stand in the way of the Holy Spirit’s action and block the deepest faith experience.  Listen to the average Pentecostal leaning TV preacher and you will see what I mean.

Many Evangelicals are former mainline denomination types who have seen their denominations, at the hands of the denomination’s self-proclaimed intellectuals, move hard left and out from under them.  Right leaning intellectuals in the denominations were, and are, reasoning with the lefties when the lefties could care less about reason.  The lefties are at war and determined to win; the time for reason has past.  Such Evangelicals do not want to see the same thing happen to their nation.  So, many Evangelicals come pre-wired not to get along with intellectuals.

This bias grows even deeper when one considers that the bulk of conservative intellectuals are Catholic or Jewish.  Both of the interviews Hugh has conducted on this have been with Jews.  The most cited source in the discussions is the not purely, but heavily Roman Catholic National Review.  Given the failure to produce on social issues that Evangelicals perceive, prejudices in the process of dying may be reviving.

The 2012 Romney campaign may be the straw that broke the camels back.  There is much debate about whether Evangelicals “stayed home” on Romney in 2012.  That debate is, in my opinion, more a reflection of the breadth of the term and the self-identifiying nature of it than a reflection of what actually happened.  Regardless of where one comes down in that debate it is fair to say that many an Evangelical voted for Romney in spite of his Mormonism, not in acceptance of it.  In 2008 Mormon talk was the thing; in 2012 is was de rigueur NOT to talk about it.  Romney tried to make friends with Evangelicals in 2008, in 2012 those that had not accepted the offer were, by necessity, shunted aside.  Such shunting was aided by the pro-Romney conservative intellectuals, and thus some of the anti-Mormon bias would rub off into other bias.

Why does this matter?  If the divide between the base and conservative intellectuals is rooted in religion to some significant level, which is the case that I am making here, then the deep, and seemingly beyond reason, passions of this debate are explained.  It also means that the resolution to the problem is not in policy proposals or changes in how policies are pitched, religion is too visceral for such things.

And that points to a solution.  In a sense Hugh’s “D.C bubble” point is a good one, but I would challenge the D.C. intellectuals to start simple.  Rather than book a visit to some Midwestern enclave, find an average Evangelical church in the Virginia or Maryland suburbs and visit.  You do not have to attend worship, you can still go to mass or synagogue, but most Evangelical churches have “fellowship time” where everybody drinks coffee, eats donuts and chats – work the room.  Then maybe think about doing it in Omaha or Columbus.  Flesh must be pressed and relational bridges built.

Yes, Evangelicals have to learn that social issues are a bottom-up thing.  The government can never really set moral standards, it can only reflect the prevailing moral standard.  That means that the real work on social issues belongs to them and not the intellectuals of D.C. or anywhere else.  Evangelism, not votes are the answer on those issues.  But in order for Evangelicals to learn, they have to be taught.  Real teaching, teaching on such a visceral level is a relationship thing.

Once relationship is established, policy and related pitches will take care of themselves.


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