Martin E. Marty: Base Rebuilding

Roundup: Historians' Take

If you trust the blunt instrument of exit polls, you will have followed up after the presidential election by reading somewhat contradictory observations by experienced columnists. To put an old cliché to work, Naomi Schaefer Riley in the November 7th Wall Street Journal sees the glass half full for those who notice "Evangelical" and "Catholic" cohorts "staying the course" and not deserting the Republican ranks. Looking at the same statistics but parsing them differently, Laurie Goldstein in that same day's New York Times sees their glass half empty, since Mr. Obama had "succeeded in chiseling off small but significant chunks of white evangelical voters who have been the foundation of the Republican Party for decades, especially among the young."

The exit polls left a mix of data that will keep analysts busy for a long time to come, especially since the Republican campaign for November 2012 began November 6. What else did Sightings observe? Catholic voters this time around switched, and their majority voted Democratic, as they did in olden days. It is hard to be sure about trends, however, since this time a large component in what a long time ago had been the Catholic bloc is made up of Hispanics, whose agenda is not the same as that of non-Hispanic Catholics. Anti-abortion rights and anti-same-sex-marriage rites are the two enduring warm-button issues for many Catholics, but only one-fourth of them say that the abortion issue is highly important for them, however their bishops instruct them to vote.

Mainline Protestants are always the hardest group to analyze; evidently a slight majority of them voted Democratic, but they do not line up so predictably on the two issues that keep Catholics and older Evangelicals "loyal." While mainliners tend to be very politically involved, in the main they do not choose their congregational or denominational affiliation on the basis of partisan directives on any issues, including the two which are up front on the right flank among the culture warriors. African-Americans went hugely for the Democrats, even though they are usually typed as "social conservatives." Their divided mind confuses the scene, creatively, I might add.

The Christian Right has been pronounced dead or dying after the elections of 1964, 1976, and 1988. Now their setbacks, intra-partisan divisions, and the re-settings of agenda priorities among "Evangelicals" and "the Born Again" may tempt some commentators to write first drafts of obituaries again. While their base is too small and their themes too narrow for them to attract coalition partners and thus win electoral majorities in any near future, it is firm enough to demand notice. Some of us who look for good signs in these bad economic times might hope that the desperate economic (and health-care and educational and foreign-policy) crises would push the warriors to the edges of the stage. Those who are wearied by the attack ads of the recent campaign and deafened by media distortions on the religious front all around might hope that political combat would replace culture wars.

Could we be so fortunate? While nobody asked me to formulate Laws, I offer my long-held observation and thesis, Marty's Law: No one ever wins culture wars. The political public may move on and return to other focuses. Those who think they have "won" religiously-based culture wars never really vanquish the opposition, and those who have "lost" come back to fight another day. When the dust of battle settles, nothing but that dust has been settled, and national life continues on bloodied ground.

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