Democrats should be wary of jumping to conclusions in the wake of Democrat Timothy Kaine's Virginia gubernatorial victory. Kaine didn't shy away from discussing his religious beliefs during his campaign, and this seems to be leading party strategists to conclude that Democrats can win in culturally conservative states if they talk about deeply held religious beliefs.
But imagining that red-state voters will turn blue if only Democrats talk more about faith misunderstands the role of conservative evangelical Christianity in American politics. Conservative evangelical churches played a big role in delivering voters for George W. Bush in 2004 — but neither that nor Kaine's victory prove that red-state voters are simply hungry for "religion" and will reward whichever candidate speaks most convincingly about his or her personal faith.
Conservative evangelical churches were able to deliver voters for Bush in much the same way, and for much the same reasons, that labor unions and political machines like New York's Tammany Hall were once able to deliver votes for the Democrats: They offer material benefits to people with nowhere else to turn, and that is easily parlayed into votes at election time.
No, I'm not saying that these churches bribed voters in 2004. But people are inclined to trust the political judgments made by those who help them in times of need, and in this era of slashed government social programs — replaced in part by grants to "faith-based" providers — it's conservative evangelical churches that now play that role for many struggling Americans.
Look at the offerings of some of the conservative evangelical "mega-churches." At the Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., for instance, members of the 16,000-plus congregation can find child care, help with job searches, classes on debt management for single mothers, and food and housing assistance.
Sure, the church's "independent" newspaper urges people to vote "yes" on a Kentucky measure to ban same-sex marriages, and the church enthusiastically directs women to a health clinic that describes abortion as an "unnatural, forced termination of your pregnancy" that "sucks out your baby, piece by piece." But why be picky? It's not like a free lunch is easy to come by these days — much less free child care, job counseling and temporary housing.
This church is far from unique. Many conservative mega-churches now offer everything from Internet chat rooms for singles to free dental care, language classes, legal assistance and aerobics. Management guru Peter Drucker, who died Friday, has argued that "the most significant sociological phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century has been the development
of the mega-church," and he may be right as far as the American political and cultural landscape is concerned.
BECAUSE mega-churches today are disproportionately conservative, Democrats ignore the phenomenon at their peril. Compare the modern American evangelical mega-church to Tammany Hall, which controlled New York politics for decades. Although it was at times notoriously corrupt, Tammany succeeded mainly by delivering the goods to New York's immigrant communities. If you needed assistance learning English or finding a job or getting a loan, Tammany could help. And when the same trusted friends who provided free Christmas turkeys suggested voting Democratic
. Well, why not?
I'm all for churches that try to help their communities. Anyone who claims to take the teachings of Jesus seriously has a duty to help those in need. But Democrats need to recognize how readily the loyalty generated by effective church programs can be turned to partisan ends.
In an information-saturated world, most of us allow others to guide our political views, at least to some extent. Who has time to unravel the intricacies of Social Security policy, or do research into the long-term security outlook in Iraq, or figure out if same-sex marriage really threatens the American family? Most of us are far too busy just trying to get by. So we all take shortcuts. We decide who to trust, and we look to them for guidance when we evaluate a candidate or issue. And who should we trust more than the community or church leaders who offered us tangible assistance when we needed it most?
That's why simple "faith talk" won't necessarily help Democratic candidates. If faith talk is contrived, voters will see right through it. Even when it's genuine, it won't necessarily be sufficient to counter the influence of conservative evangelical churches.
To be sure, progressive and moderate Christians need to speak out against right-wing attempts to hijack Christianity. But if Democrats — religious or not — hope to win back the large slice of middle America that today takes its cues from conservative evangelical Christian churches, they need to get back into the business of creating institutions that provide tangible help to ordinary, struggling Americans.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times