Democrats Need to ‘Get Religion.’ It’s Not Scary

Posted November 5, 2004 at 4:10pm

My post-election advice to Democrats is: Go to church. Don’t go to “get religion,” although it might be good for your soul. Just go, in the first instance, to “get” religion, i.e. understand what goes on in the heads and hearts of those who devoutly believe in God and how it affects their views of the world. It will help you politically. [IMGCAP(1)]

I have the distinct impression that many secular Democrats believe that hidden away in most Evangelical Protestant churches is a secret room filled with white Klan sheets or maybe even Swastika armbands.

One very smart Jewish friend of mine, reflecting on President Bush’s open expression of religious faith, said, “I feel for the first time that I’m a stranger in my own country. I’m scared.”

Similarly, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, next to Charles Krauthammer the owner of the highest I.Q. on the nation’s op-ed pages, wrote last week that “my problem with the Christian fundamentalists supporting Mr. Bush is not their spiritual energy or the fact that I am of a different faith. It is the way in which he and they have used that religious energy to promote division and intolerance at home and abroad.”

It’s not just Jews who are convinced that Evangelicals represent bigotry, repression of women and gays, the triumph of faith over science and the abolition of the separation of church and state. I know lots of mainline Protestants, secular humanists and casual Catholics who think the same thing.

Now, it’s true, most Evangelicals probably would reverse Roe v. Wade and maybe outlaw abortion. They certainly favor a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Many — but certainly not all — oppose embryonic stem-cell research. Some kooks want to ban evolution from schoolbooks.

I’m not for a minute suggesting that Democrats adopt these views. Nor should they stop being appalled at the likes of Sen.-elect Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who advocated the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions, or Sen.-elect Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who said gays and women who are pregnant out of wedlock should be barred from teaching school.

What I am saying is that Democrats need to understand where Evangelicals are coming from, what George Bush’s faith is all about and stop being either terrified by or (often) bigoted against what they imagine conservative Christians are all about.

A prime example of condescending bigotry was the widely read Oct. 17 New York Times Magazine hatchet-job against Bush, “Without a Doubt,” by Ron Suskind, which likened Bush’s “faith-based presidency” to the Islamic extremist movement.

If fair-minded secular Democrats went to church — they are open to the public, by the way — here’s some of what they’d learn:

Lesson No. 1: Far more than abortion, evolution or homosexuality, Evangelical Christianity is about love, redemption, forgiveness, charity, humility, hope and self-sacrifice.

The best Evangelicals I know truly change lives — they turn around people who are addicted to drugs and pornography. They give the despairing and the guilt-ridden reason to persevere. They restore marriages. They transform criminals in prison.

They try to follow Jesus, who, if they studied him a little, no Democrat could possibly be scared of. I think this is what Bush’s faith is all about — not arrogance or mindless certitude, but humility and a sense of duty.

Lesson No. 2: Evangelicals are scared, too. They are scared of the fruits of secularism and the deterioration of the culture in which they’re trying to raise their children. Of hip-hop lyrics that encourage rape and murder. Of PG-13 movies and “family hour” sitcoms that tell children that if they’re not having sex at 16, they’re out of it. Of the scuzzy showbiz people who often surround Democrats.

I’d guess that most Evangelicals are “homophobic.” Some are so in the bigoted sense, but many more in the sense that what they know of the “gay lifestyle” scares them. And they also are scared (I think, wrongly) that the already-battered institution of marriage will be demolished if committed gay couples are permitted to share in it.

But, let’s face it, the issue of gay marriage would not have been on the national agenda this year to help Republicans if Margaret Marshall, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and three of her colleagues had not tried to overturn centuries of custom and law by judicial fiat.

Americans gradually were becoming more tolerant of gays. In a few years, civil unions would have been no big deal. And in a few decades, I think, “civil marriage” might have become available to gays.

But four arrogant judges in Sen. John Kerry’s home state decided to leapfrog the democratic process, and they created a mighty backlash. Along with Kerry’s incoherence on the war in Iraq, that killed him.

Lesson No. 3 for Democrats: Respect religion by nominating a presidential candidate who “gets it.” Kerry gave the impression of faking it, visiting African-American churches only late in the campaign and, seemingly, for political purposes. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), an Orthodox Jew, clearly did “get” it.

And a final lesson: Don’t worry. Bush is not going to turn this country into a theocracy. He just wants God’s help. And we should pray he gets it.