Response: Is the Centrist Orthodoxy True?

Mark Silk calls it a “food fight”—the emergent debate between two groups of religious progressives. And of course, like a good political cartoon, this characterization of folks hurling eggs and tomatoes across a crowded room does have a kernel of truth in it.

But the debate between the class of DC political insiders he labels “priests” and the nascent and authentic religious left (or “prophets”) is much more than a food fight.

What Silk sets out to describe, but ends up trivializing, is the widening and deepening debate about the role of what some of us call the “Religion Industrial Complex” (RIC)—that self-perpetuating and mutually justifying class of political consultants, Democratic Party-related think tanks, and conveyor-belt journalists.

Part of what launched the debate is that this combination has, among other things, manufactured and brought to market a new product line, the Faux Religious Left, whose purpose is, as Silk reports, to serve as a “counterpoise” to the Religious Right. Like Genuine Faux Leather, it is not without its merits. But can an authentic Religious Left really be manufactured by Democratic Party operatives, underwritten by the political donor class? Many of us don’t think so.

And, most importantly, has the RIC been able to deliver on the promise of electoral results sufficient to justify all this? Some of us think that the compelling evidence of reality suggests otherwise.

Ain’t necessarily so

Silk does describe the genesis and mostly-orthodox history of the RIC, although he pokes some fun by calling them “commongroundniks.” But for all the joking around, he finds their expensive and elaborate faith outreach schemes to be justified because: “That’s where the voters are.”

But this is where the matter of the substance of the debate comes in: What if that ain’t necessarily so? This and related questions have been asked by more than just us prophets. What if all of their eagerness to compromise on the human and civil rights of others (euphemized as “social issues”)—and their efforts to downplay the separation of church and state in deference to white conservative evangelicals who might be offended—did not in fact have the electoral impact they had hypothesized? And what if all those big Democratic donor dollars were sold more on faith than on fact? Would anyone own up to it?

Shortly after the 2008 election, my colleague Chip Berlet and I co-authored a detailed critique of the RIC’s 2008 performance, citing real numbers from reputable polls, and drawing on sources well beyond the nascent Religious Left (including the New York Times and former neoconservative intellectual Damon Linker, writing in The New Republic).

It is just too easy to cast this story as a predictable disagreement between experienced “priestly” political pragmatists and “prophetic” but impractical progressive purists. That is the story that the RIC leaders like to tell over and over and over again. But there is a considerable body of data and published critiques that belie the orthodox narrative.

When Berlet crunched the numbers from official 2008 exit polls, and other reputable polling data, he discovered that the story was different than that told by the RIC. Among other things he found that the results of the 2004 election with regard to evangelicals and Catholics were atypical.  

“Kerry was a very unpopular Democratic candidate for many centrist voters,” he explained, “in part because of vicious smear campaigns waged by conservatives. At the same time, Bush was very popular among White evangelicals, drawing 78 percent.”

“By comparing the Gore vote in the 2000 election with the Obama vote in the 2008 election,” he continued, “a different picture emerges. For example, among White Protestants, Obama did two points better than Kerry, but the same as Gore, as both Gore and Obama picked up 34 percent of the White Protestant vote. In 2000, however, Gore attracted 30 percent of the more specific White evangelical vote based on some estimates, while Obama only garnered 24 percent in 2008, a loss of 6 points for Obama.  

Where Obama in 2008 did especially well was with moderate Protestants, Roman Catholics, and evangelicals (the latter being mostly Protestant but including some Catholics). Comparing Obama’s numbers with Gore’s reveals a small but significantly higher number of High Attendance churchgoers voted for the Democrat Obama in 2008—39 percent for Gore compared to 43 percent for Obama—a 4 point gain for Obama; however, many of these voters are devout Roman Catholics who are Latina/o, a growing demographic.”  

There is much more in Berlet’s analysis for wonks to chew over, including some handy charts, but let’s just point out that the RIC response is silence, and reporters who have been invested in the RIC’s narrative have not, to my knowledge, taken the time to reconsider the actual electoral efficacy of the various faith outreach schemes.

Berlet and I concluded that in “the absence of countervailing pressure from an authentic Religious Left, this centrist strategy may push the politically ascendant Democratic Party to the right on social issues including reproductive justice and LGTB equity.”

“The path of the Obama administration,” we added, “will also depend on the same struggle.”

Which brings us back around to Silk’s food fight. The tomatoes and eggs start to fly whenever any of us questions or challenges RIC orthodoxy. I think hackles are up because all this is taking place in the context of a longer-term power struggle between progressives and centrists who want to pull the Democratic Party to the right, and the stakes, as always, are high. This has, as several national prochoice leaders recently wrote here at RD, led to the situation in which proponents of common ground on abortion have not spoken with them.

Funny kind of “common ground,” that.

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Correction: The second to last sentence, which originally read: “This has, as Frances Kissling recently wrote on RD, led to the extraordinary situation in which RIC leaders do not consult with voices on the left; only with pro-life evangelicals,” has been changed. The original wording indicated that voices on the left in general have not been consulted by the Religion Industrial Complex. In fact, they have.

Rather, the referenced essay argues that in the ongoing effort to find “common ground” on abortion, none of the leaders of major religious pro-choice organizations were consulted, including Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for a Free Choice, Carlton Veazey, President and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (and RD advisory council member), and Rabbi Steven Jacobs, a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.