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November 09, 2005

Fishin' 4 Religion

There's something of a consensus forming, and very likely a correct one, that in addition to the legacy of Warner, what won the election for Tim Kaine was was his sincere and oft-mentioned faith.  Good to hear it.  But these discussions always worry me a bit.  It's not that I necessarily feel qualified to dispute their conclusions, but the premise, and the implications, are troubling.  It's bad enough that Democrats believe they've got to fake faith these days, transforming casual spiritual commitments into essential components of our beings.  Worse, however, is that these theological costume parties come off as obviously inauthentic, meaning Democrats who want to compete in certain races simply have to be longtime believers, sincere theists like Kaine or Clinton.  That's a worrisome precedent. 

Political office should not be restricted to anyone, not veterans, not believers, not men, and not Democrats.  Quite a few folks in this country have a casual relationship to religion and that shouldn't be a disqualifier for office nor a negative when the DCCC or DSCC goes out scouring the countryside for potential candidates.  Worse then losing some elections is celebrating the idea that we can win them by just nominating enough altar boys who never hung up their frocks.  And while that's not what folks are explicitly saying, it's bubbling just beneath the surface.  Democrats need to find a way to overcome the religion gap by delegitimizing a private issue as a relevant litmus test for success in the public sphere.  I don't know how to do that, and you certainly can't tell anyone that the beliefs they live by aren't important enough to  vote on, but it's something to think about. 

As it is, I can't help feeling Kaine's successful invocation of his missionary experience is much more troubling than heartening.  Celebrating that the a deeply religious Democrat was able to prove his faith strikes me moving the goalposts so far down field that we're scoring in the other team's end zone.  The fact is, he should never have had to do that.  An anti-death penalty position is no more moral if rooted in biblical verse than in a self-constructed or philosophically adopted ethical structure.  That Kaine had to deploy Jesus to deflect attacks is, in fact, a bad thing.   His positions should be able to stand without the son of god propping them up.  Tim Kaine without the church-going background should be as appealing as Tim Kaine with it.  That it's not so is a precedent we should be giving serious thought to.

November 9, 2005 | Permalink


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» A Matter of Faith from Running With Rocks and Paper
I agree with Ezra Klein on a lot of things. I really do. But when it comes to the role of religion in politics, he just gets it all wrong. Klein says: It's bad enough that Democrats believe they've got to fake faith these days, transforming cas... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 10, 2005 1:53:57 AM


Ezra, as always, interesting post.

Remember me? Your hypochondriac buddy from The New America Foundation Event at the National Press Club with Jim Langevin, Oct. 28? Just wanted to get in touch with you...have to ask you some questions but I had trouble subscribing to your blog and didn't know how else to contact you. Looking forward to hearing you.


Posted by: lauren glasser | Nov 9, 2005 2:13:30 PM

This is troubling. It seems like non-religious people (atheists, agnostics, however you want to label them) are the last group whom it is deemed socially acceptable to be prejudiced against.

Posted by: Matt F | Nov 9, 2005 2:16:53 PM

Agreed. Unfortunately, we are a religious country, and it is nearly impossible to be elected as an agnostic, let alone an aethist. New England-style religosity (e.g. Kerry) doesn't bode well for the majority of the country, unfortunately.

This is a deep-seated American trait that will take a very long time to "fix", if at all.

Perhaps if people can speak to the same morality that Jesus preaches and be able to effectively speak to the moral itself (rather than the skin of religion that it's often sheathed in) we'd be all set. It would require Christian people to understand that they're talking about the same thing, but coming at it from different viewpoints. That would have to be some speaker, though. Clinton+50, even. The appeal of Christianity is that it tells some damn good stories to make its point. Who has the power to tell a story as powerfully as the Bible?

Posted by: verplanck colvin | Nov 9, 2005 2:19:09 PM

Very good post, Ezra. while i agreed with some of what Sullivan said when I read the post earlier this morning, something about it didn't sit right—that is, beyond the knee-jerk reaction I have to her attempt to infuse everything with religion—and i coldn't quite articulate it. you did so beautifully. I think Kaine did a great job in his campaign, used his faith appropriately and to his advantage both offensively and defensively. But to draw a lesson for wider application from this is a classic Dem mistake, and sullivan is eager (as always) to lead that charge.

Encouraging Dems to run on a faith platform should only be for those otherwise excellent candidates who happen to be faithful. Frankly, I think faith and religion should have NO role in an election, and as a strategy it should be discouraged, but I'm willing to allow it where it might be benificial, though I'm not happy about it.

Posted by: Mr Furious | Nov 9, 2005 2:23:31 PM

I didn't realize you were an Arrested Development fan, Ezra. The band's almost as good as the show.

Posted by: Minipundit | Nov 9, 2005 2:23:36 PM

Two things:

It wasn't really Tim Kaine who invoked God - it was Jerry Kilgore and the GOP who suggested that Kaine was a bad Catholic whose position on the Death Penalty was worrisome. Kaine showed, I think, that there's a way to respond to those attacks, still be a Democrat, and not offend people of faith. That's some pretty good needle-threading, if you ask me.

I just don't think you're going to see a casual atheist get to major office selling non-religiosity as a plus point. Americans think governing is a hard job (that most people in it do badly) and knowing that they pray to God on things like, you know, war and stuff, is reassuring in a vague feel-good way. Add to that the faintly irresistible temptation for politicians to invoke God-fearingness as a sign of good moral values, and you've got a potent mix. I generally don't think people are religious as they say they are, particularly politicians - I think there's a societal expectation in America that many people feel necessitates saying they are regardless. I think the measure of a good person is whether or not they actually do good. And I think the most decently religious people are the people who don't wear their faith loudly on their sleeve (prostelytizing born-agains inclusive). But that's me.

Posted by: weboy | Nov 9, 2005 3:00:52 PM

Who has the power to tell a story as powerfully as the Bible?

Aesop, Dr. Seuss, the Norse myths, the Celtic myths, the Greek myths, the Hindu myths, etc., etc., etc., Shel Silverstein, thousands of novelists and essayists....

quite frankly, those who rely on the bible alone to inform their spiritual worldview are seriously limiting themselves.

Posted by: maurinsky | Nov 9, 2005 3:10:07 PM

Ezra man, i sure agree with this, but with some caveat footnotes.

Democrats need to find a way to overcome the religion gap by delegitimizing a private issue as a relevant litmus test for success in the public sphere.

I think the real lesson from Kaine is that an honest statement, repeated often, about how religion or other values influences the candidate - while at the same time making clear that the public interest (not a religious position) will inform and determine the candidate's actions. Keane was honest, but he didn't say he'd follow the church's position as an elected official. In fact he said he wouldn not follow the church.

Voters want to know that some moral/religious fabric is behind the candidates political positions. But there seems some evidence that candidates who make clear that they have morality in mind but won't follow a religious dogma really have the upper hand. Think Jack Kennedy in his speech to southern religious figures.

Second footnote: It does little hurt, and potentially great good to have some democrats, like Kaine and Casey expouse a religious impulse that influences their lives. We need to correct the imbalance between Dems and Repubs on religious/moral advocacy, while maintaining that in the end, we are pluralistic and committed to the overall public interest and faithfulness to the Constitution - including separation of church and state. The best defense is a good offense.

Posted by: JimPortandOR | Nov 9, 2005 3:10:21 PM

Minipundit: Love them, particularly this song. Probably one of my favorite songs of all time:

"The reason I'm fishin' 4 a new religion
is my church makes me fall asleep
They're praising a God that watches you weep
and doesn't want you to do a damn thing about it
When they want change the preacher says "shout it"
Does shouting bring about change ? I doubt it
All shouting does is make...you...lose...your...voice"

Posted by: Ezra | Nov 9, 2005 3:23:11 PM

There's something of a consensus forming, and very likely a correct one, that in addition to the legacy of Warner, what won the election for Tim Kaine was was his sincere and oft-mentioned faith. Good to hear it.

No, it's not good, because it's very likely wrong.

When Democrats nominate members of socially conservative religions, that ticket is completely denied the opportunity to say things like, "Hey! They want to ban abortion everywhere! That's crazy!" "They want the government messing with your personal business! Leave our bedrooms alone!"

Instead of those very intuitive and appealing points, what you get is an extended circle-squaring wank about how the candidate reconciles his personal beliefs with his public stances. Maybe that ameliorates the harm done, maybe it doesn't.

(Consider if you will what would have happened if the 2004 Democratic presidental candidate had been able to say, in a nationally televised debate, "The President wants to make abortion a crime everywhere, under any circumstances. Isn't that your position, sir?" Tough choice for Bush, eh? Look like a wack-job, or alienate your base? Fortunately for him, that could never happen, because Kerry could never, ever, ever ask him that.)

I'm not saying that the Democrats should never nominate members of socially conservative religions. Sometimes they are great candidates, and every candidate is going to have challenges to overcome. But the idea that the Democrats are always automagically benefited by nominating such people is just not correct.

Posted by: alkali | Nov 9, 2005 3:36:49 PM

Heh..."theological costume parties"...

Good one.

Posted by: collin | Nov 9, 2005 3:57:39 PM

I agree with you, Ezra, and I think you've put your finger on what I find most annoying about Amy Sullivan's stuff: nowhere does she say that the de facto religious test she says we need to pass is simply wrong.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Nov 9, 2005 4:14:08 PM

I'd be interested to see how non-Christian and non-Jewish religious politicians can do in American politics, and how they'd do it. Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, Hindus... they have beliefs and values that apply to most if not all aspects of life, they all have large worldwide populations of worshippers (for a given definition of "large"), and they all have moderate, mainstream majorities (or at least pluralities).

Okay, Muslims kind of have the deck stacked against them these days, but the other three. Do they have any presence in elected offices in America? (Not that I know of, but I could be wrong.) If so, how did they appeal to voters? Did they rely on non-denominational religious appeals, or did they take Kaine's "it won't affect how I govern" schtick even farther, or what? And if not, why not?

Posted by: Cyrus | Nov 9, 2005 4:37:54 PM

Sure, on the one hand we have Arrested Development's classic take on religion, but what to make of that of Outkast?

But what about repentance?
What about the tension?
What about you eating dinner in the devil's kitchen?
But what about repentance?
What about committing the same sin
over and over again and again and ah..

Sometimes life can keep you down, with your face all in the dirt
Now if you feel that left behind, need to get up and go to church

Same flashy fashion sense, different take on church-going, it seems.

Posted by: scola | Nov 9, 2005 4:49:44 PM

It's all well and good to say that public office shouldn't be restricted to anyone, but I think we all occassionally approve of the fact that repugnance for certain views makes some people basically unelectable. For example, open, out-and-proud racists are unelectable (crypto-racists, of course, are quite electable), and I like it that way, thank you very much.

To many people here, including myself, this seems like a bad analogy, because racism morally repugnant, whereas atheism and agnosticism is as morally acceptable as any other view on religious matters (and perhaps more morally acceptable than some, such as Wahhabi Islam).

Yet many people don't see it that way. They think that atheism is a morally repugnant position in the same way that, say, almost all contemporary Americans think that racism is repugnant.

I'm not quite sure how to fight the perception that a non-theistic worldview is morally repugnant, because I'm not sure why so many people believe it to be so: only that they do. I think it would be unwise, though, for atheists and agnostics in the Democratic party (which probably includes the majority of non-theists, but they are themselves a minority within the Democratic party) to attempt to use the Democrats as a platform to de-stigmatize their views. First, because even among Democrats, we are a minority, and second, it'll likely have a high-cost in lost elections compared to the benefits of respect for non-theists. Maybe non-theist types need to create more umbrella advocacy groups, or something, that would fight for more atheist heroes on TV or something, or maybe finance pamphleteers on street sides arguing that there is no God, or that Its existence is uncertain and pointless to talk about, as vigorously as the Jesus pamphleteers advocate their views, or maybe buy slots on early morning television arguing against God. I don't really know how this should be done, and I do think de-stigmatizing the faithless is important, but the political parties aren't a good instrument for that. Any ideas on how we can attack the root problem of American cultural stigmatization of atheism?

Posted by: Julian Elson | Nov 9, 2005 4:52:34 PM

Julian: all good points. Which is why I've no solution, just a generalized concern.

Posted by: Ezra | Nov 9, 2005 4:59:30 PM

I agree that the Amy Sullivan meme of using religious language to express political ideas is bad advice. I think Ken Baer at TPMCafe has the better take on the lessons to be drawn from the Kaine religion issue. It worked for him because it was authentic and wasn't just telling people what they wanted to hear. In fact, the religion issue came up as an explanation for why he took UNpopular positions.

What Kaine showed voters, above all, was that he had core convictions. He knew that being against the death penalty was unpopular with the right, but he stuck to it. Similarly, Kaine stuck to his pro-life beliefs even though that was unpopular with the left. As Amy Sullivan points out, Kaine was consistent -- and that's what counts.

Telling people what they don't want to hear isn't about one's religion, it's about leadership. And while various consultants will tell you that you have to say X or do Y to get elected, more often than not, you just have to show beliefs and stick to your guns.
Call it what you want -- independence, straight talk, or honesty. I call it backbone. For Tim Kaine, his core beliefs were rooted in his Catholicism. But it doesn't have to be religion. So before Democrats start breaking out their Bibles or begin to natter on and on about "faith" and "values," remember that people just want leaders who are leaders, and that takes sticking up for what you believe in.

Similarly, Ed Kilgore (NewDonkey) concludes:

But it does mean a candidate can get away with an unpopular position if he or she is clear about it; bases the position on faith or other respected values; and exhibits a willingness to defer to majoritarian opinions. Kaine did all those things very effectively.

There are lots of ways in addition to the Bible to express underlying principles that resonate in red state country, including notions of right and wrong. And Dems are never going to attract the folks that just can't pull the lever for someone who's not born again.

Posted by: nadehzda | Nov 9, 2005 6:07:03 PM

I think authenticity is probably more important than actually having to profess to believe in God or Christianity. The question is whether you are genuinely moral rather than just mouthing religious-sounding phrases.

I believe that my liberal beliefs are the moral position. If I can convey that, I reckon the job is likely to get done even if I never claim this morality to be rooted in a belief in God.

Posted by: Avedon | Nov 9, 2005 7:24:09 PM

Anyone who takes on Amy Sullivan (or Jim Wallis), can't be all bad, but if you guys had ever tried to encounter seriously religious people you might have learned that the Catholics who have done what Kaine apparently did in Central America, and what very few of our "all Abortion all the time" bishops would ever have the balls to do, tend to be braver, more committed, and more caring than most of the rest of us -- and certainly more aware of the diversity of people in this world than recent contemporary college graduates tend to be, TAP fellows or not.

Posted by: Gene O'Grady | Nov 9, 2005 7:55:35 PM

I don't know why it should be so, but it usually seems that the first casualty to religious conversion is the ability to accept others as they are (or one could say, as God made them). The genuine exultation experienced by those who experience belief as a life-changing process makes for very partisan people. And I have had enough of an insider's viewpoint to know that the rank and file do not understand the ecumenical concept of common brotherhood as an absolutely critical point of true Christianity. On the other hand, much of this is due to no less generous an impulse than the desire to share the perceived cause of personal revelation and change, regardless of the preconceptions of others. Now, that's in a Perfect World. What actually happens defies rational explanation.

Posted by: opit | Nov 9, 2005 11:40:49 PM

As a progressive Christian, I always cringe when people on the left talk about religion. It often involves insulting people who are religious, particularly Christians, and it usually showcases a general ignorance of religion. This thread is very respectful, though, and I appreciate that.

I agree with many of the other commenters here. I think Julian Elson is right that we need to work on destigmatizing atheism and agnosticism, and nadehzda and Avedon are on target that authenticity and the ability to articulate genuine moral beliefs are what really matters.

Another piece of the puzzle, however, is that Americans tend to vote for people to whom they can relate. Most Americans aren't as well educated or as financially well off as most politicians, and religion can be a way to bridge that cultural divide. It's a shared language, which is why stories from the Bible resonate with people.

Posted by: screendoors | Nov 10, 2005 1:11:52 AM

[[It's bad enough that Democrats believe they've got to fake faith these days, transforming casual spiritual commitments into essential components of our beings.]]

I question your underlying premise, which is that Democrats have no authentic faith of their own.

Otherwise, I think screendoors in the comment just above makes all the points I was planning to make.

Posted by: Lex | Nov 10, 2005 11:52:11 AM

Analogy: in schools, rather than having gay clubs, they have gay-straight alliances. Fewer atheist organizations, more atheist-theist alliances. Oh wait! We already have those! That's why the head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is a preacher. There's a good reason for that. The Democratic Party is the party for religious people that share values with atheists, as well as the party for atheists. Rather than ducking the subject, both the theists and atheists in the party need to make the affirmative case for unity in those values in the public square. Tim Kaine can make that case from the theist perspective. I wish atheists and agnostics in the party would spend more energy making the same case from their perspective; more optimism, less fear.

Posted by: andrew | Nov 10, 2005 12:35:52 PM

What andrew said, perfectly!

Posted by: CParis | Nov 10, 2005 1:02:18 PM

kaine won, get over it already!!

Posted by: typical_conservative | Nov 10, 2005 2:35:38 PM

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